Friday, December 28, 2012

Dead Wrong,by J.A. Jance, AKA Desert Popcorn

Imagine you are the sheriff of a large county in southern Arizona that is routinely understaffed and over-extended.  Now imagine that you are also almost nine months pregnant.  That is exactly Joanna Brady's life at he beginning of Dead Wrong.  When she and her team of detectives gets a call to a murder scene in the desert, she is surprised to find a man brutally beaten to death, missing is fingers.  The victim is an ex-con, who was paroled recently after serving over 20 years for allegedly killing his wife in a drunken black-out. Convicted, despite the fact that her body was never found.  In addition, one of her animal control officers is beaten and left for dead while investigating a couple of local thugs for running a dog fighting ring.  With her manpower shortage, Joanna has no choice but to keep working-but this turns out to be a relief, when her overbearing mother-in-law shows up unexpectedly to wait out the birth of her grandchild.  Joanna and her deputies will soon be facing the consequences of a decades old secret, one that puts Joanna and her unborn son at risk.  But being a sheriff is part of her now, and finding a way to balance her career and her family is a challenge.

It took me a little while to get into this book, but once I did it was hard to put it down.  The Joanna Brady series is one I have dipped in and out of over the years.  I haven't read all of them, but when I do pick one up I am never disappointed with the story.  Her character combines the traits of all great female crime fighters-inner strength plus common sense plus compassion and a deep sense of justice.  Not to mention she's kind of bad-ass when it comes to taking down the bad guys.  The plot is fairly intricate but pretty believable  which enough wiggle room in how it could play out to keep a person guessing until the end.  I figured out the broad strokes of the secret fairly early, but I still wasn't sure about the details prior to the big reveal.  As popcorn books go, I'd say Jance's books are pretty much a safe bet.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Lost Wife, In Which We Learn Once Again the Evils of the Holocaust

If there is one era of human history that has been well documented and analyzed and memorialized in books and film, it is the Holocaust.  And rightfully so.  The tragic events of that time, perpetrated with such callous disregard for all that is good and right about the world, deserves to be kept alive in our memories, if only to remind us never to let the evils of racism and xenophobia on that scale happen again.  Of course, it has happened again-in Rwanda, and Darfur, and Srebrenica-but most of the Western world at least has heeded the lessons of the Holocaust and has responded fairly quickly and decisively to any hint of the rise of neo-nazism or ethnic hatred.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I belong to a denomination that believes in radical inclusion.  One of our central beliefs is the right of all people to determine their own path to the divine, to search for their own truth and meaning through a variety of theological or ethical beliefs.  And as a youth advisor, I spend a great deal of my time discussing our faith tradition with my youth.  Whenever we talk about inclusion and acceptance, we inevitably get around to "the Hitler Question", as one of my youth put it.  Would we as accepting, radically inclusive Unitarian Universalists accept Adolf Hitler?  The answer, of course, is that we would never be put into that position, as Hitler would not have been likely to associate with a progressive church that loves Jews and gays, but also because everything he stood for was antithetical to the Untiarian Universalist principles.  But Hitler, for all of his evil, was also perhaps one of the most successful manipulators of public opinion in history.  In The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman, we are offered as proof of this manipulation in the form of the Terezin, a prison work camp for Czechoslovakian Jews that also served as a way station for Jews headed to Aushwitz.

The Lost Wife begins with a recognition-Josef, in his 80s, meets an elderly woman at his grandson's wedding who seems very familiar.  It is not until he sees the numbers tattooed on her arm that he begins to suspect that she could be his long-lost wife, Lenka-a woman he thought died in Auschwitz over 60 years before.  The rest of the novel details their lives in Czechoslovakia, from growing up privileged pre-occupation to the terrible run up to the war, to the camp and to America.  Josef, a doctor, escapes to American, promising to send for Lenka and her family.  Lenka is sent with her sister and parents to Terezin, a work camp that was used as a cover for the Nazi's real agenda-the extermination of the Jewish people.  Because of the chaos that ensued, both Josef and Lenka believed that the other had perished, until that fateful night when Josef's grandson was to marry Lenka's granddaughter.

For me the book was an education in the way the Nazi's attempted to keep the world in the dark about what was happening in the concentration camps.  Built specifically as a ghetto, meant to hold 5,000 people, was home to up to 55,000 at a time.  A film was made about the town, proclaiming to the world that the Nazi's had built a "city for the Jews".  The one time that the Red Cross was allowed to visit, the ghetto was dressed up along the route the officials would take, with prisoners given extra food to make them look healthier, allowed to bathe and given new clothes.  The shop windows were filled with goods, which were immediately taken away when the Red Cross left.

One of the things that made the camp unusual was the incredible number of artists of various kinds that were housed there.  Richman said that part of her motivation behind writing the book was to tell the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of an artist.  Lenka was a painter, and she was given work with other artists making art that the Nazi's sold to help fund their war effort.  But that was not the only art that made it out of the camp.  Many artists stole painting supplies and smuggled out pictures of what was really going on in Terezin.  There were also many musicians in the camp, and there were operas and plays and concerts performed whenever a group could find a secret place to hold them.  The Lost Wife, while being a testament to the enduring power of true love, also shows the triumph of the human spirit and artistic endeavor over pain, fear, powerlessness, and violence.

Monday, December 10, 2012

I'd Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman

One of my favorite popcorn authors is Laura Lippman.  Her thrillers are smart and action-packed and always have an interesting psychological component.  But I'd Know You Anywhere falls short of the emotional impact that I have grown to expect from her books.

Eliza Bennet is a happily married mother of two.  After living in London for about a decade, her family has moved back to the US, to a quiet suburb of Baltimore.  But her idyllic family life in the present has a horrific past at its core.  Twenty years ago, when she was only 15 and called herself Elizabeth, Eliza was kidnapped and held for six weeks by a serial killer named Walter Bowman.  Known by some as the "one who survived", and by others as a possible accomplice to Bowman's killing spree, Eliza has worked hard to put her past behind her, changing her name, moving away from her family, and keeping herself out of the public eye.  Only her parents, sister, and husband know her story.  At least until Bowman, on death row and scheduled for execution in a few short weeks, reaches out to her, asking for contact.  Eliza, seeing a chance to get him to confess to the other murders he committed and give some families long-awaited comfort and justice, agrees to talk with him.  What she doesn't know is that he plans to try and use her to get his sentence commuted.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between the past and present, with certain sections of the book being told from the point of view of Walter Bowman.  The chapters that detail Eliza's imprisonment were surprisingly non-threatening.  Bowman made her travel with him, and even kidnapped another girl while she was with him, but I never got that feeling in my gut that I get when I read a really good thriller.  The chapters that detail the present day are even less emotionally satisfying.  I understood her feelings of guilt, and how she could question her own perceptions of something that happened to her when she was young and traumatized, but at times it felt like so much navel-gazing.  And the ending was way anti-climactic.  Let's just say that all the angst boils down to a rear-view mirror.  There was no real sense of menace, and given that one of the most violent character is locked up on death row for the entire novel, there is no real action either.  I'll not give up on Lippman, but this was not her best.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Whispers of the Dead, In Which David Hunt Can't Catch a Break

Simon Beckett is one of the better mystery/thriller writer's I've discovered in a while.  His main character, David Hunt, is a forensic anthropologist from the UK, complete with tragic past and an obsessive nature focused on finding justice for the dead.  Beckett's books are formulaic thrillers on the surface, but with a sense of malevolence and creepiness that does not always come across in other works in this genre.

Whispers of the Dead finds David taking a sabbatical from his work in the UK.  He is studying in the US, at a body farm in Tennessee just known as "the facility".  There, bodies are exposed to the elements in various ways so that pathologists and forensic anthropologists can study the effects of varying environments in the decomposition process.  And that is not even the grossest thing in this book!  David is mostly recovered physically from being attacked by a serial killer, but the fact that she escaped and is possibly hunting him down to finish the job makes it harder to heal emotionally.  He is hoping that getting away from England and his failed relationship with his girlfriend will give him some perspective, and help him figure out how to move forward.  He has barely arrived when he is drawn into a series of bizarre murders at the request of his old friend and mentor.  There is a killer at work in the Smoky Mountains, leaving bodies or parts of bodies in elaborate tableaux designed to draw the forensic people deeper and deeper into his crimes.  Soon David and his friend become targets themselves.  Can this really be happening to him AGAIN? (that would be the "David Hunt can't catch a break" part)

Despite the fact that it seems completely unlikely in real life that the same forensic anthropologist could be targeted by not one but two serial killers in succession, the fact is that the story is so good that I didn't even care that it wasn't that feasible.  The story is mostly told in the first-person from David's point of view, but at the end of each chapter is a vignette written in a slightly awkward second-person that reveals the mind of the killer.  There are plenty of hints dropped along the way, but even so I was still surprised by the twist at the end.  And Beckett is not afraid to kill off important major or minor characters, which adds a sense of unpredictability to the whole things that is refreshing in a formula genre book.  Whispers of the Dead is an excellent popcorn book-as long as you aren't too squeamish when you eat...er...read!

Sunday, November 04, 2012

A Wicked Snow

America is fairly obsessed with the serial killer, both in the true crime sense and the fictional sense.  There are many infamous killers out there who have captured our imagination, but they are mostly men.  Female serial killers are a rare breed.  Of the ten most prolific female serial killers, only three were active in the 20th century.  Compare that to just the number of male serial killers that you can probably name off the top of your head and you can understand why female serial killers get the kind of attention they do.

Even though the group is small, Gregg Olsen knows a lot about them.  The best selling author of non-fiction books on female killers turned his attention to creating a fictional one in his first novel, A Wicked Snow.   Hannah Griffin-wife, mother, and CSI- has spent most of her life trying to forget her past, and the terrible night when it was discovered that her mother killed at least 17 men and buried them on her Christmas tree farm.  After that night, Claire Logan became synonymous with evil and greed and filicide (killing one's own children-you're welcome!).  Her mother disappeared that night, and many people believed she was dead.  But Hannah felt sure that her mother was alive, and when a package turns up at her office containing evidence from her mother's case, she begins a search that leads her to some surprising discoveries.

This is a masterful thriller.  Olsen does a really good job pacing the novel so that you are totally drawn into the mystery without being frustrated by the things you still don't know.  Hannah herself is a character that is easy to relate to, as are the other major characters.  Her motives and actions seem perfectly reasonable given the circumstances, and there is an emotional impact from the fact that she was directly related to the events behind the current story.  As popcorn books go, this one is very satisfying!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Broken Teaglass

I'm a mystery lover.  Have been ever since my mother started passing her Sara Paretsky and Patricia Cornwell novels to me as a teenager.  And I'm a lover of words.  It feels childish, but whenever someone compliments my writing or remarks on an unusual word I use when speaking, I get a little thrill of pride.  So The Broken Teaglass seemed like a can't miss for me-a combination of mystery and word worship.

The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault,  is set in the offices of the Samuelson Dictionary Company.  The main character, Billy Webb, is just out of college.  He accepts a job as a junior editor at the company, and soon finds himself working in a silent, slightly depressing cubicle.  One day, while working on updating definitions for a new edition, he comes across something interesting in the citations file.  It starts out like any other citation, except that it is longer than most, and appears to be from a book about the very company he works for.  He takes it to a co-worker, who gets sucked into the mystery when she searches for the book the citation is from, only to find that no such book was ever published.  Their curiosity sends them on a quest to find other citations from the same book.  With each one they find, they are drawn deeper into a murder mystery that involves the very people they work with each and every day.

As mysteries go, this one can't exactly be called a thriller.  But it is definitely a quirky little novel, that gains momentum almost imperceptibly until I found I couldn't put it down.  Part of it was the fascination of seeing how a dictionary is compiled.  Yes, I said fascination.  I love words, and anything to do with words.  There is something beautiful about the idea that even a dictionary, the very thing that we use to define our language, is as fluid and changing as the language itself.  The overall mood of the book is pretty dark-everything I pictured in my mind was in gray-scale.  The silent offices, the cold streets, the empty apartment that Billy went home to every night, provided a blank slate for the emotions provoked by the mystery itself.

I suppose that every whodunnit type of mystery is a puzzle to be pieced together, but this one is like one of those puzzles that is printed on both sides.  Because before Billy and Margot (or you as the reader) can put together the puzzle, they must first find and interpret all of the pieces, which are scattered among thousands of citations according to a system that they themselves must decode.  I felt such relief when all of the clues were finally revealed, and frankly the actual resolution was almost a let-down by comparison.  But it was worth it.

Monday, October 08, 2012

George R.R. Martin and I Are in a Fight

Of course, since he has no idea who I am, that probably doesn't mean very much, but still.  I recently finished the audiobook for A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I was willing to forgive the length of the books because of the amazing amount of detail that he puts into the fictional world he  has created, even if it meant that I have to listen to them on audiobook instead of reading them in my all too precious free time.  And I know that part of my issue is the fact that this book and the fifth, A Dance with Dragons were originally supposed to be one book, until it grew to such behemoth size that it had to be divided.  But I'm miffed.  Thirty-plus hours and no mention of some of my favorite characters.  Plenty of mention of some of my least favorite, which is fine, I suppose.  And then lots and lots of new characters and new history and new families and new settings and new politics to learn.  And NOW, I've started A Dance with Dragons, hoping to find the answers to the cliffhangers set up in A Feast for Crows, only to discover that the two books are CONCURRENT?  So yeah, George R.R. Martin are in a fight.

That said, I'm completely sucked into the whole Game of Thrones universe.  I can't stop reading them any more than I can stop watching the show.  As far as the book itself goes, A Feast for Crows was an awful lot of exposition and not a ton of action, but it is worth it in the end when one of the most evil characters in the series appears to get what is coming to her.  Of course, I'll have to wait to find out, because instead of writing a continuation of the story in A Dance with Dragons, I have gone back in time to catch up with the characters that were excluded from A Feast for Crows.  But at least now I know where Tyrion ended up, and what was happening on the Wall after Sam leaves.  But I'm going to be really ready for book six.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

There is no shortage of historical fiction that examines the relationship between slaveowners and their slaves in the 18th century.  The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom, takes that theme and gives it a twist.  The novel is told by two narrators-Lavinia, an Irish indentured servant brought to the plantation as a small child, and Belle, the mulatto daughter of the owner, the Cap'n, who lives and works in the kitchen house.  Lavinia is raised with the slave children, but because she is white the Cap'n always had other plans for her.  Having lived in Ireland prior to coming to the plantation, Lavinia does not understand the complexities of the racial boundaries in 18th century America, and in her naivete she often unintentionally creates problems for her "family"-the black slaves that she lived with for most of her childhood.

When Lavinia becomes a teen, she is sent to live with the family of the captain's wife.  There, she is brought into the household as a young woman being groomed for a respectable marriage and the life of a white woman in plantation society.  Despite the kindness shown to her during this time, she longs to return home to her "family", never realizing how different their lives have become.  Through family tragedies, brutal abuse, and failed marriages, the characters of The Kitchen House demonstrate the corrosive nature of oppression and slavery on the men and women affected by it.

I read this novel with a sick sense of inevitability.  Having read many such stories in the past, I had more than enough background knowledge to know that things were not likely to turn out happily for the residents of Tall Oaks plantation.  But the unusual main characters and the seeming reasonableness of some of the white characters gave me a small hope that perhaps this time history would be different.  The fact is that in the end there was tragedy, but there was also hope and at least some peace for Lavinia, Belle, and the other slaves.  Grissom's treatment of the captain's wife, Miss Martha, and Lavinia herself, highlighted the similarities between the oppression of women and blacks in the antebellum south.  Miss Martha may have lived in the big house and been waited on by house slaves, but she had little more freedom than they when it came to making decisions about her life.  I think that Grissom did a good job in showing how the rigid social norms of the slave/slave-owner society negatively affected everyone in some way.  Sympathetic whites were forced to support and promote treatment of slaves that went against what reason and compassion would say was right; the oppressed minorities scrambled daily to forestall the anger and violence simmering just below the surface of the plantation; and other whites-especially white men tasked with "working" the slaves-became brutal and mean as a result of the culture of oppression that led to their unchecked power over others.

The book, while chock full of meaning, was also a page-turner. I had to keep reading to see if my sense of unease really did lead to the inevitable tragedy I imagined was coming..  I described it to some friends as soap opera in a historical context.  The misunderstandings and missed opportunities led to romantic entanglements right out of a Gothic romance.  But unlike historical romance books, which are basically love stories lightly dipped in history, the historical context of the relationships in this book are an integral part of the story.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Love, by Toni Morrison

Faithful readers, you may have noticed it's been a month since my last post.  Must be the start of a new school year!  And this year, I have a new job, though at the same school.  What new job could it be, you ask?   I am a (wait for it...) READING COACH!  That's right, I get to spend my days helping teachers plan the best reading instruction to inspire new generations of readers-and I get to read children's and young adult books and get paid for it!  So, after a short blogging hiatus I am ready to get back to writing.

For some reason, I though that the beginning of a new school year would be a great time to start a Toni Morrison book.  Don't get me wrong I love everything about her and her work.  She is on the list of people whose warm, brilliant glow I would like to bask in as they share all of their wisdom about life.  My greatest dream would be to sit at the feet of Ms. Morrison and Maya Angelou and listen to them discuss the human experience as they understand it.  However, I'm not entirely sure I had enough cognitive power left over from learning a new job and working my tail off to fully appreciate the lyrical power that is Toni Morrison's story-telling when I started reading Love.

Love is the story of two women, bonded first by friendship and then by hatred, tied together by one man.  Heed Johnson and Christine Cosey are childhood friends.  Christine, the granddaughter of a wealthy black hotel owner, and Heed, the daughter of a poor, disreputable family, become fast friends, despite Christine's mother's disapproval at her daughter's fondness for the impoverished Heed.  All is well until Bill Cosey, Christine's grandfather, decides to take an 11-year-old Heed as his new wife.  While Heed celebrates her "good" fortune, Christine and her mother begin to see her as a threat.  Thus begins a feud that outlasts Bill Cosey, the hotel he owned, and most of the late 20th century.  In the end, the two women are left with nothing but a decaying house and their hatred towards each other.

Of course, I say in the end, but in actuality Morrison begins the novel when the women are old.  The narrative flows back and forth through time effortlessly.  This non-linear storytelling is a hallmark of most of Morrison's writing.  She also returns to one of her strongest themes for this novel, that of the relationships between women and how they are affected by race and class and sexism.  Heed and Christine are surrounded by a cast of characters each with a specific purpose.  Bill Cosey represents the "new" class of coloreds that rose up in the 1940s, when his upscale hotel drew black performers and celebrities alike.  He also represents the oppression that still existed for black women within their communities, even as some of their men began to gain wealth and power.  Of course, Bill Cosey also represents the idea of "separate but equal", as his goal was never to create an integrated resort, and indeed the white town leaders with whom he became so chummy would not have stood for it if he had.  Christine's mother May represented the fear and anxiety that struck the black community in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  Convinced that the sweeping social changes taking place in the country were going to make the whites come and run them out, she took to hiding important papers, food, and supplies all over the small Florida community where they lived.  Celestial, Bill Cosey's mistress, represented both the myth of the oversexed woman, as well as the idea of freedom and licence.  The fact was that the other women in the community judged her harshly for her sexual freedom, and she just didn't care.  And there was Junior, a recently released ex-con from a juvenile detention center, convicted of killing her warden when she was 11 when he tried to sexually assault her.  Junior comes into the tense standoff between Heed and Christine and immediately tries to find ways to take advantage of their long-standing feud, picking both sides in the battle to inherit Bill Cosey's home so whatever happens, she'll be on the winning side.

This is a short novel, but it is rich in beauty and meaning.  Anyone familiar with Toni Morrison's work will immediately recognize everything that makes her writing so superlative-excellent characters, lyrical prose, and the ability to call attention to the subtle ways in which people are affected by repression and oppression. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened, AKA Stream of Consciousness I Actually Liked

Ok, I suppose that technically this book is not actually written in purposeful, literary stream of consciousness, but Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir is so full of the rambling thoughts of the author, Jenny Lawson, that it may as well be.  That sentence actually makes that sound like a bad thing, but in fact Lawson's book is a hilarious look at the inner workings of a very intense, interesting mind, and the outer ramifications of those thoughts entering the world through word or deed.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened details Lawson's rather, shall we say, unconventional upbringing in west Texas, her journey to adulthood, and her relationship with her husband over 15 years of their marriage. There's taxidermy, animal attacks (real and perceived), disastrous dinner parties, awkward conversations, vultures, homemade colon cleanses, and a five foot tall metal rooster.  Luckily there are photos to prove some of the more fantastic stories-since frankly no one would probably believe them otherwise.

If you are a fan of Jen Lancaster's books (Bitter is the New Black, My Fair Lazy, etc...), then you will probably love this book.  Lawson had that same brand of snarky, sarcastic humor, which is only not obnoxious because most of the time she turns it against herself.  Her relationship with her husband, Victor, reminded me so much of Jen Lancaster's husband Fletch that I am almost convinced that there is a secret group of men out there who are tasked with marrying women who will need to be talked down off the metaphorical ledge on a daily basis.  Unlike Lancaster, however, Lawson has the most bizarre life history of any real person I can think of.  And she the most hilarious parts of the book come from the fact that she is basically a social cripple-if her stories are to be believed, she is pretty much incapable of having a normal conversation with someone she's just met, or her husband's co-workers, or pretty much anyone in real life.  There are many examples in the book, and most of them seem to involved using the word vagina...a lot!  IN the end, Lawson concludes that it is not the triumphs in life that define us, but those moments we'd just like to pretend never happened.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Blackberry Winter, by Sarah Jio

Sarah Jio's new book, Blackberry Winter (release date Sept. 25, 2012), follows The Violets of March and The Bungalow.  Jio has quickly made a name for herself writing high quality women's fiction-fiction that focuses on relationships familial and romantic, and the common experiences that bond women into strong friendships.  Blackberry Winter is a satisfying  blend of mystery and love story.

In Blackberry Winter, a title taken from a cold weather phenomenon that happens in mid to late spring, we have two main characters separated by several decades.  First, we have Vera Ray, a poor single mother during the first years of the Depression.  One night, she tucks her three-year old son Daniel into bed and leaves to go to work at a nearby hotel.  When she returns, Daniel is missing.  The only clue she can find is his teddy bear lying in the snow that fell in a freakish late spring storm, erasing the tracks of the kidnapper.  Despite the obvious fact that three-year olds don't run away, the police refuse to help her.  Fast forward to the present, and you find Claire Aldridge, a reporter at a daily in Seattle.  When an unexpected late spring snow storm blankets the area, Claire is tasked with writing a feature on the event.  She discovers the story of Vera and Daniel, and becomes determines to find out what happened to the boy.  Little did she know how closely she and Vera Ray would be connected.

This book has the benefit of being more than one thing.  On one level, it is a mystery, and a pretty decent one. It kept me guessing, which is fairly hard to do given the number of mysteries and thrillers I read.  Even when I thought I had something figured out it ended up being slightly different than I thought.  On another level, it is the story of one woman and her journey from grief to healing, from betrayal and guilt to acceptance.  While Vera's experiences are the driver for most of the action in the story, the emotional impact comes not just from her grief and anxiety at the loss of Daniel, but from Claire's painful journey through her own tragedy.  The way her relationship with her husband changes from the beginning to the end of the story mirrors what I know happens to many couples who experience the loss of a child, even a miscarriage.

My only (tiny) criticism was the character of Charles, Vera's love and father of Daniel.  He was fairly one-dimensional to me, and frankly a little too good to be true.  Maybe it's just the cynic in me, but I had trouble believing his transformation from son of wealth and privilege to crusader for the poor, and I didn't find it very likely that he would honestly believe that he could introduce his poor servant girlfriend to his family and expect them to embrace her.  But, as I said, that is a teeny, tiny criticism.  Overall, I think that this is another solid performance for Ms. Jio!

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Old Broads Network

A couple of weeks ago  took part in the blog tour for the AudioGo audiobook for Karin Slaughter's new novel, Criminal.  At the time of the tour, I was only about a third of the way through the book, and loving it. Now that I am finished, I can honestly say that Slaughter has done something that is well-nigh impossible.  She took a formula serial-killer thriller and turned it into an emotionally powerful, incredibly moving story.

Criminal is the latest installment in the Will Trent series.  I've enjoyed all of Slaughter's recurring characters, but Will is my favorite.  He is an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but with a past that was more likely to produce a criminal than a cop.  Will grew up in a children's home-too old and awkward for anyone to want to adopt him, he was eventually kicked out of care at 18, with nothing but his brains and the clothes on his back.  But through hard work and a few lucky breaks, Will overcame his background and his learning disabilities to graduate from college and join the GBI.

In Criminal, Will and his partner Faith are investigating the murder of a university student.  Her case sets off some kind of alarm bells for his boss, Amanda Wagner.  Thirty years previous, she and Faith's mother Evelyn caught and sent to jail a man with the same M.O.  The story jumps back and forth from present day to 1975, and as the story plays out we see that there is more at stake than just the lives of the kidnapped women.

Sounds like your basic serial killer novel.  But this is a serial killer novel with heart, based entirely on the flashback story of Amanda Wagner and Evelyn Mitchell, and how they are connected to Will Trent.   The flashbacks don't just explain Will's past, but the early days of women in the Atlanta PD, and specifically the case that bonded Amanda and Evelyn and the rest of their old broads.  It made me love and respect the elder females so much more, and the image of all of these women spending their careers looking out for the baby they saved actually made me a little teary.  This story is so much more than just another crime procedural.  If you haven't been following the story, go back to the beginning of the Will Trent series and catch up.  It will be totally worth your time!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Black Out, by Lisa Unger

As I slowly make my way through my collection of un-read thrillers, I've read quite a few books about women being victimized by men.  In fact, I've started to think that I should write a series of books about females victimizing men just to balance the cosmic scales.  Usually, the victims in these books (if they survive) find a way to take back some power from their attackers, which I suppose should be some comfort to the female reader.  But the main character in Lisa Unger's Black Out does a little bit more than just show some spunk in the face of a horrifying past-or does she?

Black Out is the story of Annie Powers-or Ophelia March-who is manipulated by a serial killer into helping him commit murders (or was she?).  Annie Powers, formerly Ophelia March, lives with her husband Gray and daughter Victory in a safe, gated community in Florida.  She has everything she could want-money, a gorgeous house on the beach, a loving husband, a beautiful daughter.  But she is wracked with anxiety.  She is sure that her ex-boyfriend and sociopath, Marlowe Geary, has returned to snatch her from her new life and draw her back into his evil web.  Except, of course, that her husband killed him five years ago. So why is Annie sure that he is hunting her, trying to lure her back into his evil web?

Black Out is a psychological thriller that grabs you by the imagination and doesn't let you go.  Unger uses Annie herself as the narrator, making it impossible to tell what is real and what is imagined.  The reader is forced to live the confusion, fear, and anger just as Annie feels it, while trying to figure out exactly how to keep herself and her family safe.  It is one of those books that makes you question your own perception of events, and trying to make sense of the events is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle-from two different boxes.  Frankly, even after finishing it I'm still not sure which of the events in the book actually happened and which ones she imagined.  But in the end it didn't really matter.  Unger writes the story of a woman desperately trying to gain power over her own life.  Everyone tries to manipulate Annie, even the people who love her most-maybe especially the people who love her most.    Annie's attempts to take back her life make you root for her, even when you're not sure you like her very much.  And even though there are parts of the plot that are pretty implausible, I was caught up enough in the story of Annie and her past that it worked for me.  Escapism at its best!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Never having read any of Gillian Flynn's other books, I wasn't sure what to expect from Gone Girl.  The plot sounded intriguing enough, but a story about a missing woman and her murder suspect of a husband could also go horribly, Lifetime-movie wrong.  But Flynn's story goes far beyond a schmaltzy made-for-tv plot.  In fact, it takes the all-too-familiar story and turns it on its head.

Gone Girl is a story in three parts, each told from one of two perspectives.  The first part sets the stage-a woman, Amy Dunne, is missing.  Her husband Nick comes home to find the front door open and the house a wreck.  He calls the police, and cooperates with their investigation until it becomes clear that he is the prime suspect in what the police have decided is a murder.  The rest of the novel explores both Nick and Amy's marriage and the investigation-both Nick's and the police's-that twists and turns its way to a really strange and dark place.

I realize that this summary is a little light on detail.  That's because this is apparently THE book of the summer, and I've decided not to ruin anything for anyone.  The fact is, this is a book that really needs to be read to be believed.  Flynn takes a rather cynical idea about marriage-that we pretend to be someone we're not when we meet our mate, only to be disappointed when we realize they aren't who they pretended to be either-and uses it as the basis for taking the reader to some dark and twisty places.  I literally had almost no clue what might be coming next for most of the book, and that unpredictability kept me reading long past when I should have put the book down and, oh, I don't know, cooked dinner/mowed the lawn/SLEPT!

Flynn also achieves another uncommon feat.  Even though I didn't like either of the main characters, or frankly most of the minor characters, I couldn't stop reading.  This book is really just one long object lesson against selfishness.  Every single character is selfish in some way, and it makes them pretty unattractive.  But it became an ugly fascination for me.  I couldn't believe some of the lengths to which the characters went to hurt each other and/or protect themselves from their own bad acts, but not in a bad "this books is ridiculously unbelievable and therefore unreadable" sort of way .  The mental gymnastics necessary to justify their actions was pretty impressive.  And you get to see a lot of mental gymnastics in this book-despite the fact that there is a lot of action, at least early on, the book really delves into the internal lives of the characters.  Flynn has really created an engaging, un-put-downable piece of fiction!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A New Monkeewrench Novel! Off The Grid, by P.J. Tracy

I read a lot of mystery/thriller series.  I mean, A LOT!  And over the last couple of years I have had some painful break-ups with some of my favorites.   There are very few things as sad as watching a formerly great character fade into mediocrity.  And I can honestly say that THIS IS NOT ONE OF THOSE TIMES!    (See what I did there?)  The new P.J. Tracy book, Off the Grid (coming out August 2nd), is just as full of quirky, loveable characters as the other Monkeewrench books, and the story is just as different and suspenseful.

Off the Grid, the lastest installment in the Monkeewrench series by the mother/daughter writing team known as P.J. Tracy, begins with Grace MacBride sailing in the seas near Key West, spending her days laying in the sun wearing a sundress and sandals.  Anyone who has read any of the other Monkeewrench books knows that this is the most unexpected thing that she could be doing.  After a life of violence and paranoia, Grace has finally allowed herself to relax and feel safe.  But her sense of security is shattered when the violence she fears and expects finds her, even miles at sea.  Someone is trying to kill her friend and emotional savior, John Smith.  A thousand miles away in Minnesota, her former love interest and cop Leo Magozzi and his partner are investigating the deaths of four Somali's with ties to terrorism.  Neither Grace nor Leo know how these two events happening a continent apart will connect them once again.

Grace and her band of super-computing geniuses have been in some sticky situations in the past.  But never before have the stakes been so high.  Each of them is forced to confront something about themselves as they race to uncover a terrorist plot, and that is one of the things that I liked about this Monkeewrench book.  Grace is such a larger than life character that sometimes I feel like the other Monkeewrenchers don't get enough backstory, but that is not the case this time.  Truth be told there is not a ton of exposition in this novel, but the events of the story and the character's reactions to them provide glimpses into the chaotic, painful pasts of the main characters.  Much of the first part of the novel revolves around Magozzi and his partner Gino and their efforts to discover what is happening with the dead Somali's, but I was OK with the focus being off of Grace for a bit.

Other than revisiting these characters, who I love, the story was interesting and different than any thriller plot I've read before.  Sure, I've read stories about terrorism before, but this particular plot had a twist that was new, at least to me.  And the new characters who are introduced, a couple of old Viet Nam vets, are a good addition to the group.  I have no idea if they are going to make an appearance in any other P.J.Tracy books, but I could see them having a place in the off-kilter, gray area, sometimes shady world of Monkeewrench.  Or perhaps their own series.  Either way, I was pleased to meet them.  The book has an emotional punch that made me clench my fists, laugh out loud, and cry openly-quite a feat for a formula thriller.  But just like the cast of characters, the Monkeewrench books are unpredictable enough that you are never sure what you are going to get, other than a really good read.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Clean Break, by David Klein

As much as we may enjoy flashy stories about fantastical characters (you know, like mind-reading waitresses , sparkly vampires, and serial killers), the most moving, powerful fiction most often comes from the stories of ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances.  Such is the case with David Klein's newest book, Clean Break.  It tells the story of four people-Adam, Celeste, Jake, and Sara-and the way their lives randomly intersect, causing each person's path to be drastically changed as a result.

Celeste is a wife and mother, living the dream in the wealthy suburbs of New York.  At least, she is until she discovers that her husband, Adam, has gambled away all of their savings, and finds himself in debt to some unsavory characters.  Adam, for his part, admits he has an addiction, and goes off to rehab, certain that this will make everything OK between he and Celeste.  But Celeste has other plans.  After years of making excuses and forgiving his transgressions, she leaves him while he is in rehab.  When he comes out, he is determined to get her back-and even justifies a return to gambling (short-term, of course) as a way to get the money to convince her he can be a good husband.

Things come to a head one night when Celeste discovers that her husband has once again gambled away all of his money.  When she confronts him, and asks for a divorce, Adam attacks her.  Lucky for Celeste, Jake stumbles upon them on his way home from work, and he is able to diffuse the situation and save her from any further harm.  Jake, for his part, is at the end of an affair with an NYPD officer, Sara.  When Celeste comes to thank him for his help, he becomes infatuated with her.  But will be do whatever it takes to make her safe?

The story is told from alternating perspectives, a narrative structure that has become more and more common for this type of story.  Each person becomes the protagonist of their own chapters, and Klein is able to show each person's mental journey to the choices they eventually make.  Despite some initial sympathy, Adam end up being a very unsympathetic character indeed.  But the other three characters are more layered.  Each person is flawed in some way, but trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of their own bad choices.

The title is a bit on-the-nose regarding the essential question of the story-is it possible to get a "clean break"? But each characters is, in their own way, trying to find a new way to be.  They want to shed their old selves and become better.  But each one is fighting against something-their own nature, their past relationships, guilt over past actions.  The thing about making new start is that it is impossible to completely leave all of your past behind.  We are, each of us, the function of all of our experiences-good, bad, or neutral, each person we come into contact and each decision we make forms who we are, and we can't help but be affected by the patterns of thought and behavior they create.  But sometimes, we end up doing something that we never would have guessed we were capable of doing.  Whether that ends up being a good or bad thing is up to us.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Criminal by Karin Slaughter-The Blog Tour!

Welcome to the next stop on the tour for Karin Slaughter's new audiobook, Criminal!  If you've never visited BookAddictReviews before, feel free to stay awhile and look around after the main event.

Here is the official blurb for the book, courtesy of Goodreads:

Will Trent is a brilliant agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Newly in love, he is beginning to put a difficult past behind him. Then a local college student goes missing, and Will is inexplicably kept off the case by his supervisor and mentor, deputy director Amanda Wagner. Will cannot fathom Amanda’s motivation until the two of them literally collide in an abandoned orphanage they have both been drawn to for different reasons. Decades before—when Will’s father was imprisoned for murder—this was his home. . . . Flash back nearly forty years. In the summer Will Trent was born, Amanda Wagner is going to college, making Sunday dinners for her father, taking her first steps in the boys’ club that is the Atlanta Police Department. One of her first cases is to investigate a brutal crime in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Amanda and her partner, Evelyn, are the only ones who seem to care if an arrest is ever made. Now the case that launched Amanda’s career has suddenly come back to life, intertwined with the long-held mystery of Will’s birth and parentage. And these two dauntless investigators will each need to face down demons from the past if they are to prevent an even greater terror from being unleashed.

I am about a third of the way through listening to the audiobook, and I am totally hooked!   I love all of the Will Trent books.  I think that he is such an interesting, brilliant, damaged character.  I am very invested in how his life turns out, to the point that I was talking to (OK, yelling at) his wife Angie in the last AudioGo book, Fallen.  This book literally picks up right where Fallen left off, with Will about to start a new relationship with Doctor Sarah Linton.  But what is even more rewarding is hearing how Amanda Wagner, Will's boss, and Evelyn Mitchell, his partner Faith's mother, got started in their careers in law enforcement.  Let's just say that the Amanda of 40 years ago is NOT the Amanda of today.  I can't wait to hear more about her tranformation as I finish "reading" Criminal.  And the crime they are investigating is a sad one; throw away women-prostitutes and addicts-who are ruthlessly killed, and no one in the sexist police force of 1974 seems to care.  I already have some ideas about the connection between these women and Will Trent, but one of the great things about Karin Slaughter is that she keeps you guessing, so I'll just have to wait and see if I was right.

The audiobook, by AudioGo, is very well done.  The narrator's voice is pleasant ans expressive, and she does both the male and female characters justice.  But then, you can discover that for yourself if you listen to this excerpt from Chapter One (warning:  the first chapter details the graphic story of one woman's slide into addiction and prostitution, and is not always easy to listen to)

Criminal-Chapter One, Part 3

If you like what you heard, and want to hear more of the first chapter, you can visit the other blogs on the tour, listed below.


Monday, July 9: Literate Housewife (http://literatehousewife.com/)
Tuesday, July 10: Teresa’s Reading Corner (http://teresasreadingcorner.com/)
Thursday, July 12: Book Addict Reviews (http://bookaddictreviews.blogspot.com/)
Friday, July 13: In Real Life (http://www.erin-faye.com/)
Monday, July 16: Geeky Blogger’s Book Blog (http://www.geekybloggersbookblog.com/)
Tuesday, July 17: You’ve GOTTA Read This! (http://sandynawrot.blogspot.com/)
Wednesday, July 18: Alison’s Book Marks (http://www.alisonsbookmarks.com/)
Thursday, July 19: Jen’s Book Thoughts (http://www.jensbookthoughts.com/)




Sunday, July 08, 2012

More Summer Popcorn: The Missing, Chris Mooney

My summer of popcorn books continues with another thriller, The Missing, by Chris Mooney.  The book begins with three friends-Darby, Stacey, and Melanie-high-school age girls, sneaking off into the woods to smoke and drink.  They had barely gotten their party on when they witness what they think is a murder.  They call the police, but when they show up both the man and the body are gone.  Several days later, Darby is at home alone when she hears noises downstairs.  Suddenly, a man with no face is chasing her through her house.  She escapes, but Melanie and Stacey are not so lucky.

Fast forward 15 years, and Darby is now a criminalist in Boston.  A young woman is kidnapped, and Darby is assigned to process the crime scene.  As she and the police investigate, with the help of the same FBI agent who worked Darby's own case, Darby begins to sense that there is some connection between the new case and hers.  But how is that possible, when the perpetrator of her attack was killed by police over a decade before?  As Darby is forced to revisit her own nightmare, she and her team race against time to find the missing girl.


I was completely sucked in by Mooney's writing in this book.  The narrative structure goes back and forth between Darby's perspective and the killer's, a man named Daniel Boyle.  This puts the reader in the position of knowing things that Darby doesn't, leading to more than a few moments when I wished I could somehow communicate with a fictional character and save her some trouble.  Mooney did a pretty good job writing as a psychopath-the chapters from Boyle's perspective were pretty chilling.  I did figure out one major twist, but there was another one that took me completely by surprise.  It would have been more satisfying had the twist actually contributed more to the story, but it didn't take away from it, so at least it was an unoffensive plot point.    All in all a quick, enjoyable read.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Lord John and the Private Matter, Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon is well-known for writing the Outlander series, a historical/fantasy/romance series about a Scottish nobleman and his time-traveling wife Claire.  Extensively researched, very detailed, the Outlander books are a fun, engaging romp through 18th century Scottish history.  Or at least, the first two are-those are the ones I've read.  At any rate, what the Outlander books are NOT are traditional mysteries.  But it turns out that Gabaldon has a knack for those as well, as she aptly demonstrates in the Lord John Grey series.

The first book in the series is Lord John and the Private Matter.  The main character is Lord John Grey, an important but not always present character in the Outlander books.  Goodreads has this summary of the plot:
The year is 1757. On a clear morning in mid-June, Lord John Grey emerges from London’s Beefsteak Club, his mind in turmoil. A nobleman and a high-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Army, Grey has just witnessed something shocking. But his efforts to avoid a scandal that might destroy his family are interrupted by something still more urgent: the Crown appoints him to investigate the brutal murder of a comrade in arms, who may have been a traitor.
Obliged to pursue two inquiries at once, Major Grey finds himself ensnared in a web of treachery and betrayal that touches every stratum of English society — and threatens all he holds dear. From the bawdy houses of London’s night-world to the stately drawing rooms of the nobility, and from the blood of a murdered corpse to the thundering seas ruled by the majestic fleet of the East India Company, Lord John pursues the elusive trails of a vanishing footman and a woman in green velvet, who may hold the key to everything — or nothing.
And lest you think that I am just feeling too lazy with my summer brain to actually write my own summary, I will tell you that I've spent the last 20 minutes composing and erasing prospective summaries-the plot is intricate and detailed, with many moving parts.  Gabaldon's Lord John reminds me of the William Monk books by Anne Perry, who also writes very well-researched historical mysteries.    But there is one major difference-Lord John Grey is gay.  Since the 18th century was not known for its acceptance of homosexuals, this adds tension to the whole story.  Gabaldon gives us a fascinating look at the gay culture of London in the mid-1700s, and weaves it seamlessly into the story so that it feels authentic rather than contrived.  Because Lord John is also a character from the Outlander series there are a few mentions of Jamie Fraser and Claire, but for the most part this is a stand-alone series that does not require that you read the very loooonnnnngggg Outlander books to enjoy.  In fact, if you enjoy Gabaldon's writing but think the Outlander books are too long, then this series is for you!

Sunday, July 01, 2012

24 Hours, Greg Iles-Southern Fried Popcorn

It is probably every parent's worst nightmare, despite the fact that it almost never happens-stranger abduction.  As much as popular media would like us to think that a child is being snatched off the street every few seconds by some slathering monster, the fact is that most child abductions are perpetrated by someone the child knows.  But the same media culture that seems to revel in sensationalizing the tragic stories of abducted children has created within our society a deep-seated fear of the other, the dark stranger, the playground stalker.  It is that fear that is highlighted in Greg Iles 2000 release, 24 Hours.

Will Jennings is a successful doctor, a well-respected anesthesiologist who has been asked to speak at the Mississippi doctor's association convention.  A small plane pilot, Jennings decides to fly down to the conference in his small engine plane.  When  his wife, Karen, arrives home from the airport with their daughter Abby, Joe Hickey is waiting for them.  Joe, his mentally retarded cousin Huey, and his stripper-turned-wife Cheryl have a plan-spirit Abby out of the house, take Karen hostage, and contact Will to set up a ransom exchange.  The plan is supposed to take 24 hours, and if everyone cooperates, Will and Karen will be reunited with Abby once the money is changes hands.  But what Joe Hickey didn't know was that Abby has juvenile diabetes, and needs insulin shots at regular intervals. And what Will and Karen don't know, but soon discover, is that Hickey has a very personal reason for choosing their family for his fifth and final kidnapping plot.

I've been a fan of Iles' work since I read True Evil, so I was happy to pick this one up at the library book sale.  24 Hours is an earlier book, and it is obvious that Iles has become more skilled with his craft since he wrote it in 2000.  It's a little slow getting started, but it eventually picks up and becomes as exciting and action-packed as his other books.  It even has an "Of Mice and Men" vibe going.  The relationship between Joe and Huey reminded me a bit of Lennie and George-if George had been an evil mastermind, that is.  All of the family member's characters are well-developed as well, even five year old Abby.  While the final resolution of the kidnapping is more like a scene from a Bruce Willis action movie than something that could possibly really happen, it definitely kept me riveted until the very last page.  A good summer read for mystery/thriller lovers like me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Neighbor, Lisa Gardner

I realize that I am in the minority in this, but I have always been uncomfortable with the sex offender registry. In our justice system, the idea is that you do the crime and do your time, and then once your debt to society has been paid you are (almost) free to live your life as you see fit-hopefully in a law-abiding manner.  I understand that sex offenders, especially those that prey on children, are different.  Recidivism is very high, and true pedophiles have some defect in the wiring of their brain that makes them very hard to treat, even with intensive intervention.  That said, I'm not sure that the "one-size-fits-all" nature of the sex offender registry adequately addresses the difference between the 19 year old who has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend and the serial rapist or child molester.

This question, and the resulting issues around statutory rape and child sexual assault, are at the heart of Lisa Gardner's mystery The Neighbor.  Sandra and Jason Jones live a quiet, solitary life in the Boston neighborhood known as "Southie" with their daughter Ree. When Sandra disappears one night, leaving her four year old daughter alone in the house, Jason is fearful that the past they have worked so hard to put behind them is coming back to haunt them.  Sure that he is going to be arrested at any time, Jason tries to protect his daughter from the police and reporters, as well as from her maternal grandfather, with whom the couple has had no contact since their marriage, and who appears seeking custody of Ree after he sees news of his daughter's disappearance.  Jason and Sandra have a highly unusual marriage, and detectives quickly determine that Jason is hiding something, making him a likely suspect.  Meanwhile, they also have a pretty solid person of interest in the Jones' neighbor, a convicted sex offender who is on the sex offender registry.  But Jason appears to be trying harder to cover up evidence and keep his daughter away from questioning than find his wife, and Detective D.D. Warren feels like she is racing against time to find Sandra, before it is too late.

The novel is told alternately from the first person memories of Sandra, the first person experience of the sex offender neighbor, and in the third person narrative of D.D. Warren and Jason Jones.  Gardner takes her time doling out the dirty secrets of all of the characters, but in a way that draws you in rather than making you frustrated.  The most interesting thing about this book, though, is that I ended up rooting for the main characters, even after it became clear that they should not, on the surface, be sympathetic characters.  But that's where the subtleties of the effects of childhood abuse and sexual assault come in.  We as a society seem to be much more comfortable with black and white than with shades of gray.  Some of the things that the main characters do in this book are reprehensible, but Gardner presents it in such a way that while you can't condone, you can almost understand.  Not the abuse of children-the evil nature of that is never in question.  But the effects that is has on the children as they become adults, the way that it skews their mindset and their ability to have relationship, and the actions they may take as a result-those are harder to pass judgement on.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: Eye of the Beholder, by David Ellis

Today's popcorn book entry is another mystery, thriller.  Eye of the Beholder by David Ellis begins with a murder spree, six young women killed by a seemingly deranged man, acting out the lyrics of an anti-woman hard rocker named Tyler Skye.  Here is the Booklist blurb:
Fifteen years ago, prosecutor Paul Riley made his mark by putting away Terry Burgos, who was inspired by song lyrics to kill six young women in the most gruesome of fashions. Now, a new series of killings bears a frightening similarity to the Burgos murders, and as the victim list keeps growing, Riley realizes the killer seems to be sending a personal message to him. In order to solve the new crimes, Riley, realizing that the connection to the Burgos case is very real, must confront his own past and the terrifying possibility that, 15 years ago, he might have made a terrible mistake.
As thrillers go this one was pretty good.  it kept me guessing from beginning to end, blending fairly predictable thriller plots (shady father, wild child teenager, wealthy people with dark secrets, schizophrenic serial killers) and  puts them together in ways that make them feel fresh and intriguing.  I must admit to being slightly annoyed with the "innocent man accused of a crime he didn't commit" thing, but it ends up a) not really being that and b) moving the plot along in unexpected ways.  There is a cast of interesting characters, including a troubled police detective (aren't they always?), and Riley's girlfriend, who happened to be the daughter of the governor.  In the end I didn't find the actual solution to the mystery that believable, but by then I didn't really care.  It has been a fun ride, and in the summer that's about all I'm looking for.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

True Crime With a Personal Twist

As much as I love mysteries, I've never been a huge fan of true crime books.  I think it has something to do with not wanting to contribute to voyeuristic, tabloid culture.  After all, you can hardly turn on the television without seeing a 20/20, 48 Hours, etc...special dissecting in minute, excruciating detail every thrilling part of the crime.  But sometimes a book comes along that intrigues me enough to pick it up.  A Death in Belmont is one of those books.

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger tells the story of The Boston Strangler, but using the context of a black man named Roy Smith, who was convicted of a murder in the suburb of Bemont, MA.  The murder fit the profile of the Strangler murders, but there was enough circumstantial evidence to convince police that TBGDI-"the black guy did it".  Later, when Albert DeSalvo confessed to the killings, he never confessed to the killing that Smith was convicted of.  What made gave it a personal twist was the fact that during the time of the killings, DeSalvo was working on a construction project for Junger's family, and may in fact have left the Junger home to commit the Belmont murder.  All pf the principle players died before the complete story was revealed, and experts differ on whether the Belmont murder was a miscarriage of justice against a black man by a racist justice system, or whether Smith did in fact commit the crime.

A Death in Belmont is well researched, and Junger doles out the facts and his own speculation in a well-paced account.  He goes back and forth recounting the movements of Smith, DeSalvo, the detectives, and his own family from chapter to chapter.  In the end he makes a pretty good case for his theory of the crime.  And, of course, what makes the whole things that much creepier is the idea that while he was an infant, his mother spent her days caring for him in the company of one of the most prolific serial killers of the 20th century.  Junger's writing is compelling, and even though he goes into pretty exhaustive detail I never felt bogged down by facts or overwhelmed by the amount of information.  If true crime is your thing, this book will probably suit you quite well.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Popcorn Alert: Immoral, by Brian Freeman

Ah, summer...that magical time of year when a (not-so-young) woman's fancy turns to MURDER.  Well, at least this not-so-young woman.  Summer is the time when I catch up on all of those popcorn books I've been wanting to read-the ones that don't make me think so much but satisfy my need for pure reading escape.  This time, it was the book Immoral, by Brian Freeman.

At first glance, this book is just another formulaic mystery/thriller.  A young girl goes missing.  A hard-working but seriously flawed detective tries to figure out what happened to her.  John Stride is haunted by the disappearance of another girl the year before-a girl who was never found.  But that girl, Kerry McGrath, was a good girl with no secrets.  The victim of the most recent disappearance, Rachel Deese, was a wild child with a sordid sexual history and a sociopathic personality.  Nevertheless, the media is calling for an arrest, and despite not having a body, they have a perfect suspect in the creepy step-father.  Sounds fairly unoriginal as a plot goes, no?  But when the trial part of the book ended about two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized that in fact, something else entirely was going on.

Freeman does a good job of creating characters, and he draws you into not just the mystery itself but the lives of all of those involved.  I happen to be watching The Killing on Netflix right now, and I see similarities to the way the book and the show are structured.  Immoral is not just the procedural you might expect, but looks closely at how the case, and the missing girl, affect the police investigators, the parents, and the community.  The only thing that gave me a little bit of pause was the fact that Rachel was seen as a sexually precocious teen who may have "asked" for what happened to her.  But I think that Freeman gives enough background about her life and her evolution as a cruel, damaged person to counteract my gut-reaction feminism.  It was believable to me that she could, in fact, have been the instigator of her relationship with her step-father.  And since Freeman takes what you think you know and turns it on it's head in the last third of the book, that particular aspect ended up not being relevant anyway.  Good summer read for the mystery lover!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath, or Lessons Never Learned


A perennial favorite on those "lists of American novels everyone should read", I knew that Grapes of Wrath would speak to the singularity of the American experience.  What I didn't know going in was that it would speak to the American experience right now the same way it speaks to the American experience during the Depression.

Steinbeck's masterpiece (and I don't use that term lightly) follows the Joad family on a journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work, and as a result from independent to dependent, from settled to homeless, from self-determining individuals to victims of chance, from a simple existence to crushing poverty.  When they lost their farm during the droughts of the 1930s, they set off cross country in search of work in California, otherwise known as the Promised Land.  Setting off hopefully because of the handbills they've seen advertising for workers, they soon realize the sad reality of their situation, and the situation of the hundreds of thousands of others on the same journey.  The poor are powerless to control the whims of the ruling class, who can choose who to hire, what to pay, where people can live, what they can eat, and where they can sleep with impunity in a system where the laws are written in their favor.  Slowly, the family and their life is eroded, starting with the old folks, eventually affecting the sons and daughters, until the family literally has nothing left but their own bodies.

This novel is infuriating, and unfortunately all too familiar sounding.  America was changing, from a farming economy to a manufacturing economy.  Small farmers were no longer able to make a living from their farms because the banks demanded payment on loans that they had no way of paying after years of bad crops.  When the banks took the land, they knocked down the houses so the people had to leave.  Sound familiar?  In the early 21st century, we have changed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, people who used to have decent paying manufacturing jobs (or associated jobs) are now out of work, not able to pay their bills, leading to the housing crisis, when many people are losing their homes.  Why have we not learned from the past?

Oh, wait, that's right-because those who have the wealth and power will do anything they can to hold onto it, even at the expense of lots of other people.  It may sound like I judge them for that, but in the grand scheme of things I understand.  Banks and business owners have a responsibility to make money-that is their role.  So how do we protect the average person from overreaching by banks and businesses in their quest for profits?  Well, that is the role of government, right?  Not in today's current climate...

Steinbeck makes a strong case for government intervention in the book.  The only place that the Joads felt safe and secure after leaving home was a government-run camp they stayed in for a few weeks in California. There, the people governed themselves, making up their own rules, developing work schedules for camp chores, and helping each other stay fed and healthy, whether they were working outside the camp or not.  In contrast, Steinbeck describes the "Hoovervilles", migrant camps that sprung up around large farming towns all over California.  There, the people slept in tents, distrustful of each other and the people from the town.  The townies rarely wanted the migrants anywhere near, so they would periodically burn out the camp, causing people who had already lost to much to be left with literally nothing, not even their lives.

Steinbeck also makes a strong argument for labor organizing-you know, that thing that conservatives now bash as some sort of liberal take-over of business.  To hear most conservatives tell it, labor unions are jack-booted thugs who come in and intimidate the business owners into giving away the store, sort of like gang members demanding protection money.  Because we apparently never learn the lessons of history in America, the vast majority of people seems to have forgotten that it was by organizing that workers got us the weekend, the end of child labor, the minimum wage, overtime pay, employer health coverage, and work safety regulations.  Steinbeck makes it very clear that there is power in numbers, and that the system has a harder time beating down a group than an individual.

Obviously I agree with the politics of the novel, but what makes this book so powerful is the masterful way it is written.  Steinbeck intersperses the story of the Joad family with poetic chapters where he describes various parts of the migrant experience-from the decision to leave to the buying of the car to the making of camp to the search for work.  The story feels biblical, and in fact the journey of the Joad family and thousands of other families from the central US to California has been compared to the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites wander the wilderness for a generation.   Steinbeck perfectly captures of the feel of the times, the cadence of the speech, the struggle against despair and the moments of hope that describe the migrant experience in the 30s.  The Grapes of Wrath shows the contrast of the inhumanity that man can show towards his fellows, and the saving power of family-both the kind you are born with and the kind you make through shared experiences and kinship.  It shows the depths to which the soul can descend when a man feels beaten down, and the dignity he feels when he channels his wrath to fight for his rights.  People who like tidy endings will not like the way Steinbeck leaves the Joad family.  There is no resolution to their journey.  But in ways large and small we as a country are still on that journey, still trying to find the balance between people and profit, still trying to ensure the rights of the weakest among us, still looking for the Promised Land.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Popcorn Alert: Have You Been Naughty?

wow...ok, that title makes it sound like I am going to be reviewing that Fifty Shade of Gray that everyone is reading right now...let's rewind, shall we...

My summer vacation just started.  After a year full of students and grading and assessment and assessment and assessment (see a pattern here...) I have several weeks to recharge my batteries and renew my love of popcorn books.  For those of you who have not heard me describe popcorn books before, that's what I call books that are lacking in substance but oddly satisfying-just like popcorn.

My first popcorn read of the summer was Meg Gardiner's The Dirty Secret's Club.  Since mysteries and thriller are my favorite popcorn (consider them the cheddar/caramel mix of popcorn books), I was happy to delve into the world of Jo Beckett, Gardiner's latest character creation.  Jo is a forensic psychiatrist.  In other words, she is called in not to figure out how someone died, but rather why they died.  In cases of equivocal death (in other words, a death with no clear motive), it's her job to investigate the person's life and determine whether the death was an accident, suicide, or murder.

Her first case involved a series of apparent muder/suicides taking place in and around San Francisco.  A high-powered attorney was involved in a high-speed chase with police, ending in her car going over the side of a bridge and into the traffic speeding below.  Jo is called in by the police to determine why a successful woman who seemingly had it all would drive her car over a metaphorical cliff to her death, taking her passenger and three bystanders with her.  Jo soon discovers that the beautiful prosecutor was hiding a secret-in fact, that she belonged to a group of people who all had shameful secrets.  The Dirty Secrets Club arranged dares for people-dangerous acts that would either allow them to assuage their guilt over their secret, or let them feed their egos for the shameful, sometimes criminal things they had done.  Now it appeared that someone was targeting group members, and Jo needed to discover who was behind the murders in order to stop others from being killed.

There are no real surprises in the structure of the novel.  Female investigator plus tragic past plus complicated relationship with unapproachable/inappropriate man pretty much describes the work of many authors in this genre.  But I don't read popcorn books because I want to have to think-I read them for escapist enjoyment.  And this book provided that in spades.  Gardiner did a good job of pacing the action of the story so that I was engaged the whole time, and the characters are likable enough.  The plot description makes it sound like the reader will be dragged into some seedy underworld of sex and violence, but while the members of the Dirty Secret's Club do have terrible secrets in their past, Gardiner doesn't dwell on the specifics enough for you to come away feeling like you need a shower after.  I look forward to more installments in the life of Jo Beckett, with more psychological mysteries to solve.


Monday, June 04, 2012

Vinegar Hill, AKA A Life of Quiet Desperation

Conservatives love to harken back to the good ol' days, when men and women knew their roles and the family was strong and sacred.  In fact, the main argument that conservatives have against gay marriage is that we were all so much better off when the nuclear family was defined as a husband and his obedient wife and children.

Here's the thing-that ideal was never the norm.  Sure, there were families that resembled the 1950's stereotype a la Leave It to Beaver, but look at the statistic about how many poor mothers had to work, and how many middle-class mothers had substance abuse problems, and they tell a different story.  This state of affairs is beautifully illustrated in A. Manette Ansay in her novel Vinegar Hill.  Vinegar Hill tells the story of Ellen Grier and her family in 1960s Wisconsin.  When her husband loses his job in Illinois, he moves the wife and kids back to their hometown to stay with his parents.  Ellen, a school-teacher from a devout Catholic family, chafes under her mother-in-law's disapproval and her father-in-laws cruelty.  Her husband find living with the father who abused him as a child drains all energy and ambition from him.  He turns away from his wife and their children, paralyzed by his memories and his crushing fear that he will not be able to keep his family safe.  Underlying all of this misery is a family secret that has warped the minds and hearts of everyone involved, creating antipathy and unhappiness.

Much of the novel focuses on the strict gender roles that each member of the family was expected to play.  Ellen's mother-in-law and her own mother are disapproving of her career, believing that she should be at home taking care of the children.  Her father-in-law believes himself to be the head of his wife, and expects her-and everyone else-to submit to his every command.   The crushing disappointment that Ellen feels in her marriage and the feeling of being trapped in an unhappy life lead her to take long walks alone at night, and eventually leads to substance abuse.  Her mother-in-law is just as unhappy, having lived her adult life under the thumb of an abusive husband.  And her husband's unmarried aunt is perhaps the most miserable, feeling as she does that she was never able to measure up to her more attractive sister, and bearing most of the guilt for the family secret that eventually comes to light.

An action-packed novel this is not.  What action there is takes place almost exclusively within the narrow confines of the family home.  But despite that, the novel feels full.  Full of repressed emotions, quiet sadness, mini-explosions of anger.  Ansay has captured the slow, inexorable march of the unfulfilled life.  Even when Ellen makes a decision that will better the lives of her and her children it doesn't feel joyous. It's just another sad event in the sad life of a sad woman.  But Ansay leaves us with hope that things can and will get better for Ellen, even if she and her children are the only ones who pull themselves out of the emotional morass that is their family.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Top Ten Books With Staying Power

This week's Top Ten List (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us to choose ten books written in the last decade (or so) that we hope people will still be reading in 30 years time.  Since I haven't done a Top Ten in a while, this seemed like a good week to jump back in.  I mean, basically I just have to list my ten favorite books of the last ten years right?

As it turns out, wrong.  There is a difference between a book that you loved personally and one that you think that people should still be reading in 30 years.  For that kind of staying power it should be something that speaks to our common humanity and portrays something important about our society at large, in my humble opinion.  So, I have created a list not just of books that I love (though I do love them all), but that I think have something important to say about the human experience and the societies we create.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Mosseini-The eradication of the oppression of women is a major indicator of a society becoming more developed, and this book shows us why.


The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins-Yes, I know it's YA and people are probably tired of hearing about it, but this book is so full of social commentary that I hope teachers are actively teaching with it 30 years from now-and that we have not yet taken our voyeurism and "reality" tv to that extreme.


The Harry Potter Series-Basically for the same reason as The Hunger Games.  Underlying the magic and whimsical elements is a solid foundation of social justice and equality.


The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger-OK, this one is mostly on the list just because I loved it so, but it does have some interesting things to say about the nature of relationships.

Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood-What The Handmaid's Tale did in highlighting reproductive choice, these books do for environmental issues, with some feminism thrown in.

Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich-This book puts the lie to the conservative claim that if you have a job and work hard you will get ahead in American.  Not if you are working for minimum wage, and Ehrenreich lived it to prove it.


The Book Thief, Markus Zusak-Amazingly beautiful, heart-breaking, transcendent and brutal, reading this book made me understand how the Nazi's affected the everyday German, and it is a great picture of courage.

Monster, Walter Dean Myers-Another YA title, this book illuminates the way that poverty and the need to survive can make people act against their own interests, and how incarceration affects teens.