nonfiction · true crime

Book Review: Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession by Sarah Weinman

A few years ago, I read The Real Lolita: The Kidnaping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman, which only made sense thanks to my earlier reading of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. It (the first book!) was a fascinating and compelling read, and it put Sarah Weinman on my radar. So when I learned about her new true crime anthology, Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsession (Ecco, 2020), I slapped that bad boy onto my list.

I went into this anthology expecting the book to continue as it starts, with stories that recap true crime tales like a finely-tuned episode of Dateline (which I occasionally listen to as a podcast). The anthology starts out strong, only to get even better. Beyond delving into stories of murder and deception, this book also takes a hard look at the true crime genre as a whole. Whose stories are told- and whose aren’t, and why? What does it mean that we as a society are so fascinated by these real-life stories of terrible, violent death? What happens in the aftermath of these stories? And what does cleanup look like after someone picks up a gun?

This is a lot more than whodunnit, than a voyeuristic peek into blood-spattered rooms and chilled interrogation chambers. This is intriguing reporting that asks hard questions and demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. What are we getting out of this ethically dubious genre? Look harder at the aftermath of these crimes, at the broken families plagued by grief and the unknowns, at the hospitals struggling to keep up with the trauma victims and the survivors whose wounds stay with them long after the gun stops smoking and the knife is cleaned off. Think a little harder; examine what pulls you so strongly to this genre and why, and what you can take from it in order to make our society a more just place for everyone.

My goodness, this was incredible. There’s some powerful writing in this book, both in terms of narrative ability, and in terms of straight-up journalism that strikes all the right chords. There’s an article about a trauma surgeon tasked with repairing gunshot victims; you may be surprised at how not-linear their recoveries often are. A piece on the impact of the band Soul Train’s early 90’s video for their hit song ‘Runaway Train’ is deeply moving; I had actually read this article before but appreciated coming back to it, as the song and its accompanying videos (plural) of missing and exploited kids, still tugs at my heart. And a story of a murdered mother who turned out not to be who she said she was fascinated me- it’s near the beginning, and I bet it’ll pull you in as well.

If you enjoy the true crime genre, this is truly an anthology you cannot miss. I blew through the whole book in one afternoon and am sorry that there aren’t 23748324032 other volumes to accompany it. This was phenomenal.

Visit Sarah Weinman’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell

My mom sometimes brings me books.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I do. It’s very sweet and thoughtful of her, and I love that she thinks of me. But there’s not a ton of overlap in my mom’s and my taste in books. I’m not sure she’s ever read a nonfiction book as an adult, and she loves Nicholas Sparks way more than I think is healthy, but I still always read the things she brings me (eventually!) even if they’re not exactly my taste. Because that’s what daughters who love their moms do. 😊 And that’s how I ended up with a copy of It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). It’s been sitting on my shelf for about two years, and I’m trying to read from that shelf in particular in order to make room to display some of my Jewish books. Thrillers aren’t necessarily my favorite genre, but I don’t mind them now and then, and this was okay.

The story features three friends who couldn’t possibly be more different, all starting out at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. There’s Aubrey, who’s had a rough life and who’s looking for her time at Carlisle College to provide her with a better future; Jenny, a townie, cynical yet ambitious; and Kate, a ne’er-do-well daughter of privilege, for whom things always seem to work out, no matter how deep she gets into the muck. The three are assigned to room together; Aubrey’s naïve enough to buy whatever anyone is selling, but Jenny’s not as easily pulled into Kate’s vortex as everyone else around her seems to be. She still gets caught up in it, though, as Aubrey and Kate begin to spiral into some harmful behavior, and before they know it, a boy lies dead in the river, and another is left barely clinging to life, with no memory of what happened. All three girls were involved; no one is talking, and the cover-up, orchestrated by Kate’s influential father, is swift and all-encompassing.

Twenty years later, they’re all back in town again, back together, and suddenly there’s yet another body washed up in the river. Who is this woman? Who killed her? Long-buried secrets might unravel everyone’s lives. Friendship can be deadly…

So this was a decent thriller. I liked it, didn’t love it, but I feel that way about most thrillers, so that’s not particular to this one. What I did love, however, was how well Ms. Campbell crafted her characters. What was most remarkable to me was how deeply unlikeable almost every character in the novel was (there’s a female police officer whom I liked. That was really about it!). Aubrey is a social climber and desperate to sink her claws into Kate and what Kate’s status can bring her, and she doesn’t bother developing her own personality because of this. Ew. Jenny has her sights set on certain goals and allows herself to be manipulated in order to reach these goals (although there are some circumstances which make this a little more understandable), but she’s also willing to hide and destroy certain things in order to maintain a certain image. Ugh. And Kate is possibly one of the most manipulative characters I’ve ever read, and her pathetic, weak-willed boyfriend-turned-husband Griff had me rolling my eyes every time he opened his mouth. Gross. They were all such horrible, awful people that I was truly marveling at Ms. Campbell’s skill at creating a world filled with such unlikeable characters (and I swear, this is not sarcasm! This takes some serious skill as a writer and I’m in awe).

It was to the point where, by about three quarters of the way through, I wasn’t sure I cared whodunnit (meaning, which character in particular), because truly, everyone was so very awful that they all deserved some time in the slammer for various reasons! And the ending…predictable, yes, but honestly, it was pretty satisfying. I stayed up late to finish it, almost midnight- which is NOT something I make a habit out of; sleep is something I take pretty seriously after spending several years being dangerously sleep-deprived when my daughter was a baby- and was pretty happy with the way things wrapped up.

So if you’re looking for a decently-paced thriller stuffed with well-written, unlikeable characters you’d never want to hang out with in real life, It’s Always the Husband makes for a quick and fun read with a gratifying ending. Thanks, Mom!

Visit Michele Campbell’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · suspense

Book Review: A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Despite kidnapping being one of my worst fears, I’m still kind of drawn to fiction about it- I still remember exact lines from reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard in my early 20’s. Maybe my brain feels like if I face it in a controlled setting, it won’t be so bad, and I can figure out how to prevent my own children from experiencing this terrifying fate? Who knows. I’m pretty sure I learned about A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber (MIRA, 2019) from Susan at Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books– she’s fabulous; give her a follow if you haven’t already! It went straight to my TBR, but it’s been checked out almost continuously at my library for the past year. I got lucky with my last library order and was excited to dive into this dual-narrative suspense novel.

Anna has been raised in a fairly isolated fashion by her strict, religious widowed mother. Her life has been small; she hasn’t been allowed to do the things normal kids do thanks to her mother’s rules and overprotectiveness. A secret birthday trip to a local theme park (where she’s never been allowed to go) with her boyfriend (the pastor’s son, of course) brings back some strange feelings and images, though- a ride on a carousel, and the name Emily. Who is Emily? The man who leaves a bizarre letter in her mailbox seems to know, and Anna is positive that the images flashing before her eyes are real. When she discovers a hidden trove of items her mother tucked away long ago, she realizes something is very, very wrong, and that her entire life has likely been a lie.

Rosie’s lived her entire life under the shadow of her kidnapped older sister, a sister who was taken when Rosie was too young to remember. All she knows is parents who have struggled with the disappearance of their firstborn and the pain that infects their every move. When she realizes the trust that has funded the investigation into Emily’s kidnapping is about to dry up, she defies her mother’s wishes and begins looking into things herself. An online messageboard dedicated to crime investigation leads her down a rabbit hole of information, and soon Rosie’s turning up clues that have been long overlooked by authorities. As each girl lives out her own story on separate continents, the drama comes to a head and secrets buried for years come to light.

This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller; there are some tense moments towards the end, but I feel like suspense fits this better. Ms. Barber comes at this with a strong voice; dual narrative (which I love!) can be hard to pull off, but Anna and Rosie have distinctly different voices. Anna’s narrative is stiffer, slightly more formal, a product having been raised by her mother (whose comparison to the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie does not go unnoticed by Anna’s classmates- a comparison she doesn’t quite understand, having been so entirely sheltered). Rosie’s tone is more relaxed, lighter but with the forced maturity of a child having grown up under the canopy of family trauma. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the two girls’ divergent worlds, while still uncovering shocking information alongside of them as the story unfolds, yet never being overwhelmed by too much at once.

There are a few moments I felt pushed the boundaries of being realistic- Rosie’s discovery near the end, the one that convinced her mother of the veracity of her claims, for one- and many questions that are left unanswered, especially by what I felt was an abrupt ending with no follow-up to what was obviously a life-changing moment. How did Anna’s mother manage to do things like enroll her in school without a birth certificate? Did she forge one? How did Father Paul slip under the radar for that long? (I wasn’t buying that Mary was the first or only one he’s traumatized; in this age of the internet, someone out there had to be talking about the Lilies online.) What happened to Mason’s family after his death and what the Lilies did afterwards? Did they not care about what happened to their granddaughter? Did they condone what happened? I have a lot of questions that the book didn’t fully answer, and that left me feeling unsatisfied.

But overall, this is a strong novel about a devastated family, and two teenage girls who are beginning to question who they are and their places in the world against the backdrop of personal trauma. Anna’s mother is creepy as hell, and the way she and Anna lived fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. Despite my ambivalence about the ending, this was absolutely worth my reading time.

Visit Lizzy Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White

I think I’ve said here about a million times that I’m not much of a thriller reader. I don’t care for that edge-of-your-seat tension, I’m not into reading about murder all that much, just…eh. But I’ll pick one up occasionally, and I grabbed Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White (Harper Paperbacks, 2019) from a used book sale two summers ago (which means the person who donated it must have bought it, read it, and passed it on fairly quickly!). I think it’s important to keep trying things I don’t necessarily love; it’s how I learned to finally enjoy olives in my 30’s!

Bailey Weggins has been assigned to write about the disappearance of Shannon Blaine, a mother of two from upstate New York who vanished while jogging. Hoping to impress her boss at the online crime magazine she’s writing for, Bailey throws herself headfirst into the case, interviewing everyone she can elbow her way in front of, but there are a lot of suspicious characters right off the bat: the slick husband (because it’s always the husband, right?), the jealous, less-pretty sister, the deacon who brushes her off constantly, the secretive best friend, a fellow reporter, the retired police chief. Bailey’s got her work cut out for her.

But not long after she begins digging, Bailey receives a phone call from someone who provides a tip that changes everything and turns the investigation from a search-and-rescue into the hunt for a serial killer. Everything is suspicious and the pieces don’t click together until it might be too late. Will Bailey make it out alive in order to report the truth?

Despite being about, you know, murder and death and other awful stuff, this was kind of a fun read. I’m TERRIBLE at figuring out who-dun-it (I’m also terrible at logic puzzles, thankyouverymuch; I would make an awful detective), so I had fun poring over the clues that Bailey dug up and trying to figure out what, if anything, they meant, and what was real and what was a red herring. I suspect everyone- I think I’ve only ever figured out the culprit in maybe two murder books!- so the constant guessing kept me on my toes through the whole book.

The setting here, Lake George in upstate New York, is pretty great. The isolated town where the story is set in the off-season gives the book a creepy feel, and I appreciated the several references to The Last of the Mohicans, which was also set in the area. The lake, while not featuring heavily in the plot, is described enough to nearly become a character of its own, which was kind of neat. The abandoned Catholic retreat center was suuuuuper creepy, straight out of every horror movie that has ever existed (and of course I was screaming, “DON’T GO DOWN THERE!!!!” as I read the parts where it appeared in the book, but after living through a pandemic and seeing all the stupid things that people do that make no sense, I wasn’t surprised that she went down there, because of course she did).

So. Fun book. It’s part of a series, though it’s fine as a standalone; I only occasionally got the feeling that I had missed out on some prior information, but none of it made a difference to the rest of the story as a whole. I don’t know that it turned me into a thriller reader, but I’ll keep picking them up now and then.

Visit Kate White’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

Another book from my own shelves, the last read of 2020. I don’t read a ton of thrillers, but I don’t mind them when they’re more at ‘constant low level of unease’ versus ‘people chasing each other with knives and various other weapons through scary landscapes in the dark of night.’ I don’t want to be on the edge of my seat, but I do like trying to figure out what happened (and I’m really terrible at this!). The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (Harper, 2018) seemed to fit those parameters, or at least it did at the two-summers-ago book sale where I tossed it into my paper bag with all my other literary treasures for seven bucks. Either way, that makes it a win for me!

The May Moms are a new mom group, meeting first online and then in a park near their Brooklyn residences. It’s been a year of changes for them- pregnancies, work adjustments, moves, the addition of these helpless new creatures who have upended every part of their lives- and they’re leaning on each other for support. A night out for some of them leads to an unthinkable tragedy, and when the media descends, several of the moms are left questioning exactly how things happened that night. Where is their member’s missing son? How can they all possibly cope with this? And what exactly makes a good mother these days?

I’ve been a part of an online mom group- two, in fact- since my 18-year-old son was a newborn. I understand the quick camaraderie that comes from desperately begging a group of internet strangers what this rash could possibly be or asking how you can get this kid to sleep because you’re about to lose your mind. Aimee Molloy captures the support, the gossipy cattiness, and the tentative new connections forged during this tense time of life quite well, and she’s absolute magic at painting the full picture of new motherhood- leaking breasts (and the intense worry that you’re breastfeeding incorrectly and your kid is starving to death), your body feeling nothing like the body you’ve lived in your whole life, the exhaustion that pervades everything, the constant renegotiations of other relationships in your life (including your marriage/romantic partnership)… The new mothers’ desperation and exhaustion was so blatant and real on the page that it started to make me feel a little panicky from time to time. I do NOT miss those days at all!

I had a little bit of a difficult time keeping the characters straight. The POV switches back and forth and I did have to stop and keep going, “Wait, which is this one?”, but the rest of the story holds up well enough that this didn’t throw me off too much (and to be honest, this is probably more a me thing; I will occasionally read an entire book and can recount the plot with no problem, but I’ll be entirely unable to tell you a single character’s name). The story of baby Midas’s disappearance, the fear surrounding it, the media sensationalizing it and demanding to know why these mothers were out on their own and not at home caring for their babies (because as we all know, babies will DIE DIE DIE the second their mothers step away to do anything selfish like eat or shower, and definitely if they want a few hours to themselves to be their own people and not just infant servants. Ugh), it’s all so very modern and ripped-from-the-headlines. I’d never heard of this book before (not even 50,000 Goodreads ratings), but I feel like it should have gotten more attention, because it’s basically a layman’s Law & Order episode in book form.

The Perfect Mother is gripping, but in a gentle way. It’ll keep you turning pages to find out what happened, but it’s not that uncomfortable-on-every-page kind of unease that generally keeps me away from thrillers. This was definitely worth my time.

Visit Aimee Molloy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

Murder on the Orient Express- Agatha Christie

Okay, gang. Gather close for another round of Book Blogger Confessions.

This? This was my first Agatha Christie novel.

I get it. She’s super popular and people love her books like they love their children. I’ve heard librarians talk about how Christie’s books circulate as much or more than any other modern popular author and how they have to replace her books frequently due to constant use. Mysteries are some of the most popular items at almost every library, my own included (I asked at our last book club). And I almost never check them out.

It’s not like I’m opposed to the genre. I don’t mind watching movies with mysteries in them. I’m just BAD at them. And not just bad, like BAD. Really bad. I almost never guess the identity of the killer (and when I do, I’m practically doing a touchdown dance, it’s that rare for me to figure it out). There are too many characters, everyone seems suspicious, and I really overthink things and make them way more complicated than they have to be. I don’t love having to be *that* on guard while I read- don’t get me wrong, I love using my brain when I read, it’s why I enjoy nonfiction so very much- but mysteries? They’re like those logic puzzles…that I’m also bad at.

But Agatha Christie was already on my list this year, as she was an author I’d never read before and I wanted to know what I was missing out on. And it just so happened that the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge included a prompt for a book from a series with more than 20 books. I’m not a big series reader as it is, so I was a little nervous about this, but it just so happened that Agatha Christie fit this prompt with her Hercule Poirot books, and thus Murder on the Orient Express (HarperCollins, 1934) went on my list.

Detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express train when it runs into a snowdrift overnight and is stopped…and so is the heart of one of its passengers, dead after being stabbed multiple times. One by one, Poirot meticulously questions the motley crew aboard, searching for the pipe smoker, the owner of a scarlet dressing gown, and someone with the initial of H. Twists and turns abound, with each interview revealing new pieces of the puzzle to only Poirot, until at last, he’s able to click the final piece in place, revealing the dastardly plot and the name of the killer. All aboard for one serious thrill ride!

First off, and if you’ve read this, you won’t take this the wrong way- the ending is the best part. YES. I absolutely loved how Poirot ended this, though I won’t say more in case there are people other than me who are new to this book. Just a brilliant solution to what could have been messy. True justice right there.

I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s plain writing style. She never veers into much description, which made me happy. I’ve disliked long descriptive passages since I was a kid, when I would sometimes just skip over the flowery description altogether. Her writing is quite to the point, much like Poirot’s questioning, and that makes for a delightful read without much fuss.

I don’t know that this made me love mysteries any more than I did before, however. There are still a lot of characters to sort through, I still overthought every last bit of information Poirot wrangled out of each passenger, and much like the two men who were aiding his questioning, I remained baffled by the identity of the killer to the very end. I’ll never be a world-renowned detective (or a world-renowned…mystery reader…); that fact is very, very obvious by my obliviousness. I mean, at one point, I was like “How did all these people, connected with that, end up on this train???” I never once considered… At times, I’m far too jaded with the world, and at others, I give people way too much benefit of the doubt.

If you’re hiring, never hire me for a job figuring stuff like this out. I’d be terrible at it.

And then there was this passage in the book, which I will file under “Things Published Before World War II That Immediately Did Not Age Well”:

Uh…yikes.

Anyway, this was a fun book and I’m glad I’m better acquainted with Agatha Christie’s style. One more author and one more reading challenge book ticked off my list!

Visit Agatha Christie’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

The Other Americans- Laila Lalami

Back to Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! They’re prompting readers to choose a mystery where the victim (or victims, as some mysteries go) is not a woman. Mystery isn’t really my genre (and I’ll go into why in a future post), but I really got lucky with The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2019). While the main conflict does center around an unsolved death, the story itself is about so much more than that- family, culture, immigration, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, friendship, conflict between generations…this is a complex novel that goes well beyond any kind of ‘whodunit.’

A restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant is struck down by a hit-and-run after leaving work late one night, leaving his family in upheaval. Nora, a struggling musician and composer who hasn’t quite found her path yet, reluctantly returns home to a mother who has never fully accepted Nora’s career path. Maryam, the widow, has complex feelings toward her homeland, America, and her deceased husband. Coleman, the detective covering the case, is also making personal discoveries; Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, has fallen hard for his returned friend, but he’s also carrying the weight of PTSD from the Iraq war, as well as the PTSD, alcoholism, and rage of a veteran friend; Efraín, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident that killed Driss Guerraoui, is afraid to come forward for fear of what authorities might do to his family.

Told in alternating viewpoints (including that of the deceased), Ms. Lalani shows the complexities of life in America and the weight each of us is expected to carry, as residents, as citizens, as friends and family. Relationships are forged and broken, out of pain and fear. Some characters fit in better in their surroundings than others, and there’s a heavy pall of the culture of American individualism that hangs over nearly every scene. It’s increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships these days, and this is evident in the loneliness and the wrenching decisions each character must make.

The Other Americans is a mosaic of stories centered around the death of one central figure, and while the initial premise- who caused Driss Guerraoui’s death?- is a sad one, the novel advances far beyond that to showcase the struggles of all varieties of Americans- immigrants, those of the second generation, veterans, working class people, parents, undocumented immigrants, children going against their parents’ wishes after growing up in a country their parents don’t always understand… There’s joy and sadness, triumph and regret, and always the knowledge that one must continue to put one foot in front of the other despite any terrible circumstances life throws one’s way.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel doesn’t necessarily read heavy, although it wasn’t the most uplifting of choices during this strange time. I was rooting for Nora and Jeremy until they fought and he lashed out at her in a way that felt unacceptable to me, and to be frank, I was disappointed at how they ended up. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I felt Nora should have had enough self-respect to shut him down permanently after the things he said to her.

The Other Americans was a surprise for me. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but despite its sadness, I deeply enjoyed it (especially the multiple first-person viewpoints. TOTALLY MY JAM. GIVE ME ALL THE MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON VIEWPOINT BOOKS!).

Visit Laila Lalami’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer- Michelle McNamara

So, according to Goodreads, I’m the last person on Earth to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (Harper, 2018). I read maybe a handful of true crime books every year; it’s not usually a section I wander through at the library, but if a case interests me for a particular reason or someone I know recommends something from this genre, I’ll pick it up. A ton of my friends read this last year; I finally picked it up based on a prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title (this being an Olympic year and all…if the Olympics still happen, what with mass events like that getting cancelled due to coronavirus). Not being a huge true crime person, I went into this book almost entirely cold, which made for an interesting read.

Michelle McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She passed away unexpectedly in her sleep from an accidental overdose in 2016, but in life she was a true crime writer and obsessively searched for the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Southern California throughout the seventies and eighties. He was responsible for at least thirteen murders and more than fifty rapes (and who knows what other crimes haven’t been tied to him). Despite massive effort to pin him down, he always seemed able to slip through the fingers of law enforcement, to blend into the background and remain unnoticed.

Finding him was Michelle’s obsession. She dug through old evidence, interviewed witnesses, befriended investigators. From what it sounded like, she was as much a part of the investigation team as some of the officers and retired officers still at work on the case. She passed away before her book was finished, a heartbreaking ending to her story, and a devastating blow to her family.

SPOILER ALERT- not for the book, but for what came after:

I *thought* I remembered hearing things about this on the news recently, but I didn’t look it up while I was reading (and I wasn’t entirely sure if what I saw related to the case itself or to the book). It was only this morning, after I finished the book, that I allowed myself to Google, and sure enough, they found him, just as Michelle had so desperately hoped. His time had indeed run out, thanks to a DNA match that investigators were finally able to run through an ancestry site. With the help of a genealogist, suspects were narrowed down and a match was secured. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, will go on trial at some point for being the Golden State Killer. Science is amazing, you guys. Back when he was terrorizing the people of Southern California, he was nearly unstoppable, but science hunted him down. I’ve seen articles purporting that the age of the serial killer is over, or at least greatly slowed down thanks to DNA testing, and I pray that’s the case.

Two major emotions settled in as I read Ms. McNamara’s work. First off, fear. It’s nigh impossible to read real-life accounts of home invasion, rape, murder, and the type of terror that this man evoked and not feel at least somewhat vulnerable. Even in this age of heavy locks, security systems, doorbell cameras, and the like, do any of us ever feel entirely safe? This book definitely creeped me out (and made me thankful for my cats, who would never greet me at the door like they did this morning if there were a stranger in the house, as they’re kind of terrified of strangers and scurry off to hide under the bed if someone they’re not familiar with enters the house) and made me a little more aware of my surroundings and my safety during the time I was reading.

And second, sadness. It’s hard to read the master work of someone who passed away so young, not only before she had a chance to finish the book but before she had a chance to see the case come to fruition the way it has. Reading the scenes where she talked about her husband and young daughter were heartbreaking, because I read them with the obvious knowledge that they’re still here and she’s not. Life is so very, very unfair in so many different ways. I wish Ms. McNamara were here to see this monster finally caught and celebrate his capture with her investigator friends. I wish she were here to watch her daughter grow up and to live out her natural life with her husband. I wish she could have finished the book with its rightful conclusion.

If you’re into true crime, you’ve probably already read this, but if you’re like me and only read the genre now and then, it’s a worthy pick despite the aura of sadness surrounding the untimely demise of its author. Lots of information on investigations and police procedures, what happens when a case goes cold, and the history and growth of DNA testing in here, and that alone makes it a great read, as does Ms. McNamara’s own history and her explanation of her involvement with the case.

Now that the suspect is caught, my thoughts go not only to his victims, but his family members. His ex-wife, his children, his grandchildren. They never asked for this, they never asked for the publicity or to be related to this monster. My heart breaks for the family members because he turned them into victims as well. I so hope they’re getting support from their friends and community, because this has nothing to do with them as people.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is probably the most in-depth true crime study I’ve ever read, and I’ll definitely be following the trial much more closely than if I hadn’t read this.

Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016.

fiction

The Child Finder- Rene Denfeld

I’m not the biggest thriller fan- my brain makes enough anxiety of its own so I don’t need to go in search of it- and I’m not the hugest fan of missing and abducted children, either, but occasionally a book that ticks both of those boxes finds its way into my pile. A walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over had me grabbing a copy of The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). I mean, it’s about a woman who finds children, right? Not just kids going missing or being abducted. That sounded like something I could handle.

Naomi Cottle has turned her nebulous past- a found child who came of age in the home of a loving foster mother- into a career, using her sharply honed instincts to search out children who have gone missing. Running from her own past and from connecting too deeply with others, she relies on word of mouth and her phenomenal success rate to give parents the answers, both miraculous and devastating, they’ve been denied for far too long. The subject of her latest case, Madison Culver, went missing months ago in Oregon’s beautiful but desolate Skookum National Forest, and Naomi has promised her desperate parents a resolution one way or another. The only things that might distract her from the case are her past, Mrs. Cottle, her dying foster mother, and the attention and growing affection from Jerome, the foster brother with whom she was raised.

Deep in the snowy mountains of the forest, the Snow Girl has developed a way to stay strong, stay alive, first in the dark basement of a man named B, and then as his companion, trapping animals in the woods. The stories she tells herself about what her life has become have helped her to survive this far, but things are changing, and the Snow Girl may not have much time left.

Content warnings for child abduction and captivity, and mentions of child sexual assault and death.

The Child Finder is a page-turner. I blew through the book within less than twenty-four hours, I think. I tend to shy away from thrillers because I can’t stand every page being so tense, but this book was a slow, simmering build, leading to a single major tension-filled climax (expected in a story like this, so I wasn’t bothered by it). Naomi has a mysterious backstory, having been found running in the night by migrant farm workers when she was just a child and dropped off at a police station miles away. She has no memory of her past, only wisps that come to her now and then, and that she fights against, scared and resistant to letting too much come back to her.

Her budding relationship with the man who was her foster brother is carefully written, sweet, and doesn’t feel at all creepy (years ago, I read a book, whose name escapes me, where the main character ended up hooking up with her stepbrother and I seriously could. not. even with that; everything about it felt wrong and gross, but Ms. Denfeld steers clear of that territory). Naomi is a complex character, and it’s fascinating watching her make the connections between the cases she’s working and her complicated emotions towards her past.

The Snow Girl’s chapters are occasionally difficult and painful to read when you remember how young she is and the horrors that have been and are currently being visited upon her. Her voice and strength feel authentic, which isn’t surprising, considering that Rene Denfeld has worked as an investigator and helped victims of sex trafficking (along with being a foster parent, which also lends authenticity to Mrs. Cottle’s and Naomi’s voices).

In some books, the setting is as much a character as any of the living people, and the isolated, snow-covered landscapes of the Skookum National Forest really give this book a creepy feel. The description never veers toward the long-winded, but instead allows just enough to create a menacing ambiance and a sense of desperation for Naomi, Madison’s parents, and the reader. It’s not a place I’d ever want to go after reading this, that’s for sure!

I tend to shy away from series, but there’s a follow-up to this book, The Butterfly Girl, and I enjoyed The Child Finder enough that I might actually pick #2 up (which is pretty high praise for me!).

Do you enjoy that edge-of-your-seat feeling when you read, or are you more of a read-to-relax person?

Visit Rene Denfeld’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie- Alan Bradley

Another pick from the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a cozy mystery.

Mysteries have never been my thing. When I was young, my mom attempted to get me hooked on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins. Each of these series fell flat and I was bored to tears (my apologies to all the many Nancy Drew fans out there! These books just weren’t the books for me, and I tried. Multiple times in every series, even!). I don’t remember reading any mysteries as a teenager, either, because by then, I already knew that this was a genre that didn’t much captivate me. But I’m always interested in shaking things up in a literary sense, and so I grabbed this copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley while visiting a thrift shop a few months ago. I remember when this was published and it seemed like everyone I knew was reading it, so I was looking forward to giving it a go myself.

Flavia de Luce is 11 years old and knows way more about chemistry than you do. She even has her own lab tucked away in her family’s Georgian home, a lab where she learns, experiments, and dreams up ways to torture her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. After adding the oils she extracted from poison ivy leaves to Ophelia’s lipstick, Flavia happens upon several events that will change everything for her. First, a curious bird turns up dead on their doorstep, a postage stamp impaled on its beak; the next morning, she stumbles upon a body in the garden, a man who breathes his chemical-scented last in her face. Far from being terrified, the precocious Flavia is deeply intrigued. Using her well-honed powers of deduction and despite the efforts of law enforcement and other pesky adults, she sets forth determined to figure out the real story. Who was this dead man? How did he die? Did his death have anything to do with that argument she overheard Father having last night? The stakes rise when Father is arrested and jailed, and Flavia will have to use everything she’s learned about chemistry and life in order to save him…and herself.

I enjoyed this. It wasn’t so much the mystery aspect of it that drew me in, but instead Flavia’s precocity, her no-nonsense way of looking at the world, and her deep love of science. I barely managed to pass high school chemistry (I accept some of the blame for this, but the class average was 33; the teacher wasn’t a great one. He was also a creeper who used to sit on his porch and stare at my mom through bincoulars when she was sunbathing when I was young, but that’s another story), so I admired her strive for knowledge in her chosen subject. There was something that reminded me immediately of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; despite their differences, Flavia and Christopher operate by the rules of logic, rather than feelings, which give both stories a similar air. Not to mention that both books are considered to be written for adults, yet they’re narrated by children. I’ve come across instances where that’s annoying, but for these two books, the authors made it work well.

I also liked getting a glimpse of village life in postwar Britain in this. Dogger, the family’s gardener (among other jobs), has a terrible case of PTSD and both Flavia and her father are so protective of him, which was absolutely lovely to read. The descriptions of the clothing and decor, Father’s hatred of the telephone, the library that’s only open Thursday through Saturday (THE HORROR!!!), Flavia’s mention of listening to the radio…it all added up to such a fascinating picture of a time I’ve only really ever read about in one other book (one of my favorites, Back Home by Michelle Magorian). And Flavia’s explanation of bits of chemistry here and there definitely interested me. I’ve always wanted to understand chemistry, but when it comes down to it, I can never wrap my mind around the different kinds of bonds, and how many electrons are shared here or there, and if you can’t grasp the basic building blocks, there’s nowhere else to go from there. Still, reading her commentary on various chemical makeups and her descriptions of experiments delighted me. I’ll take any chemistry I can understand!

Will I read more cozy mysteries? Hmm. Maybe. Some of the other choices on Book Riot’s list, such as Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien and Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A.L. Herbert intrigued me; I was planning on reading one of those two before I happened across my copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I generally don’t care for books with a lot of grisly murder scenes or action that makes me feel anxious, but maybe this is a genre I can keep in my pocket for a rainy day, when nothing on my TBR interests me or I’m looking for something different to pull me out of a reading slump.

Do you enjoy cozy mysteries? Any recommendations that are along the lines of this book?