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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

No Stone Unturned: A Novel

I picked up James W. Ziskin's No Stone Unturned (An Ellie Stone Mystery) many years ago at a Book Expo, and it was part of my 2019 resolution to get through my TBR pile. The description interested me enough to bump it up on my list, and here we are.

Eleanora Stone is working to make her name in reporting. One night her police scanner comes alive and she gets the lead on a the murder of a beautiful young woman — the daughter of a prominent town judge and most popular girl of her graduating class. Knowing that this will be her big break, Ellie begins to investigate this case like she’s running out of time. Every hint leads to a newer, bigger lead until she finds herself in the midst of one of the strangest plots involving an engineering college program, an hourly hotel, and foreign nationals. Solving this case is not just about Ellie’s job, but also a matter of her own safety. 

There are some books, as I’ve mentioned on here prior to this, that I’m grateful that I waited so long to read as they came to me at the right moment. This was not necessarily one of them, although I found myself intrigued enough to keep on reading. The main character was flawed enough yet a ball of strength wrapped up in herself, and she could kick your ass from here to Sunday if you get in her way. She took her fair share of licks in this story, and it was quite a sight to behold. I enjoyed her immensely as a lead character. 

The storyline itself was also captivating and certainly intriguing. I was a bit hesitant at first about a storyline set in the 1950’s, but it ended up working very well for the story and for the character. In 2019 this would have been solved much faster with less intrigue. I love a good murder and mayhem story, and this one had more twists and turns than a mountain road. I enjoyed this, as it kept me interested and turning the page to put it all together at the end. There were a couple of moments that I wasn’t expecting, and the ending was ultimately quite satisfying. I’m now curious about additional mysteries involving Ellie. 

Thursday, March 14, 2019

No Regrets and Other True Cases: Ann Rule's Crime Files Vol. 11

Ann Rule's 11th volume in her Crime Files Series is No Regrets and Other True Cases. I picked it up over winter break and indulged in some murder and mayhem.

The main story is called “The Sea Captain,” and its about a man named Rolf Neslund, a brilliant ship captain and easily manipulated dupe. He was in love with one woman — he even had two sons with her — but then found himself forced to marry Ruth, a woman who was significantly less attractive and widely known to be unkind and cruel to everyone, specifically her husband. They grow old together — although not without their raging arguments known all over town — until one day Rolf disappears. To Norway, Ruth claims. But there is no evidence of that. Detectives search for Rolf, finding that the truth is far more disturbing than they can imagine. 

I found this to be the most interesting story in the book, and not just because it was the longest. Rule pulled out her usual charms of describing her characters and made Ruth come alive on the page through the descriptions of friends and family. It was hard not to hurt for Rolf and his not-quite-bride, but my sympathies lies more with the woman than with Rolf. He came across as an idiot and quite a sucker. Why would you move another into your home when you have the love of your life and the mother of your children there? Do you think that’s going to go over well? Keep your tiny man in your pants and take care of your family. Otherwise, you will absolutely get conned into marrying someone like Ruth — ugly on both the outside and the inside. 

Some of the smaller stories I found more disturbing than usual, and I can’t quite figure out if it’s me or if it’s the stories. One is about a woman abducted from her workplace and held hostage, another story is about a family that is murdered by their father right at Christmas. The story of the abduction and attempted murder by pimps was interesting, and not just because the story had merit. Rule made her disdain for pimps — and the Academy Award-winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” The song must have just been released when this book was being put together, as she spends a not-unreasonable portion of this story expressing her disgust for it. 

The actual most interesting story of the smaller ones was the story of the bank robber, Sam Jesse. It had some twists and turns that were of interest to me as a reader, and not just because of the cold-hearted murder of a bank manager. The investigation was quite intriguing, and the story was laid out well. Otherwise, I think I could have skipped some of these shorter stories and just stuck with the main one. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: A Novel

As a tie-in with the movie a couple of years ago, the publisher was giving away copies of Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at Book Expo. I ended up not seeing the movie or reading the book until this last week, and not damn if I’m not kicking myself for reading this earlier. 

Greg is a kid with no ties in high school. He likes it that way — he can float around with no group affiliation and just marginally stay out of trouble that way. He has a friend, Earl, who barely has parents and smokes and peppers his language with curse words regularly. They are film aficionados, and they bond over watching and making films. Those films, though, are never presented or shared. That is, until one of Greg’s classmates, Rachel, receives a cancer diagnosis and Greg’s mom makes him befriend her. She gets her hands on these films and they bring her joy. Unfortunately for Greg, this sets off a chain of events that make the knowledge of his filmmaking public and changes the events of his last months in high school. And not, I might add, for the better. 

I was quite pleasantly surprised by how humorous I found this book. Not every book that purports itself to be a comedy about cancer is actually funny. Andrews’ protagonist, Greg, is hilariously amazing. I completely understood him as a character very early on, because Andrews’ character development is fully on point. I imagine he must be a teenager at heart because his characters were fully, entirely three dimensional and incredibly real. I know Earl; I’ve seen him and met him and he was painted with such a fine tip that I got him. Rachel is important but somewhat minor; her illness is sad for sure, but it’s more of a vehicle to understand Greg than it was about her dying. 

This book was just so funny. It’s not a traditional kind of funny, but more of a snarky and “catch me if you can” kind of funny. Greg is odd, and that’s what makes him so likeable. His telling of this story in differing formats, including as a screenplay at times, made the story enjoyable and easy to relate to. After all, who doesn’t envision their lives as part of a movie? I’m holding on to this book to put on my son’s shelf when he becomes of age to read it. I think he will enjoy it as much as I did. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away

How I got to this book is interesting in and of itself. It started with one of those articles that lists books you would love if you love true crime, and when I saw that this one occurred at Penn State, I was excited because a dear friend of mine works there. This is David DeKok’s Murder in the Stacks: Penn State, Betsy Aardsma, and the Killer Who Got Away. 

1969 was quite a year across the United States, and Pennsylvania State University was not to be left out. It was in between some students who fought for more rights and against a government sending their friends off to war, and a state university in the middle of a tiny, conservative town that wanted everything to stay the same. In the middle of all of this, a beautiful, young graduate student is murdered in the library the day after Thanksgiving. No one knows it’s a murder for hours; it appeared as though she fainted. The crime scene was destroyed, and it would take years to identify all of the witnesses. 

But most interesting is who on earth would want to murder the young woman whom everyone says was wonderful? While the murderer would be pinpointed within a few years, he would never be brought to justice. Her close-knit family, her friends, and her fiancĂ© would be forever broken hearted after losing the light of their lives. This book, however, gives Betsy life in a way that had been missing for decades. DeKok gives readers this woman who had so much promise — she wanted to enter into the Peace Corps, but instead commuted to being a physician’s wife, which at that time meant hosting and supporting and philanthropizing. However, she was lost to a violent act that could — and should — have been stopped. 

You can (and should) read about the man that we all accept as her killer in this book. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are willing to cover up horrible acts by people in order to save their own reputations or belief systems. For example, and quite related to this book, is the current sexual abuse scandals coming out about the Southern Baptist church, which mimics that of the Catholic Church. This was done to protect an institution, which protected individuals’ reputations and belief systems, not to mention keeping systems of power in place. This reminded me of this book, in that the man responsible for Betsy’s murder was an established pedophile who was let go by police and the community time and time again. 

There are many points in this book that are dry and tedious, and I tried to think of how they could have been edited or cut to make the story flow better. However, after much thought, I realize that this story called for these details. It’s not a whodunnit — at least not the whole book — but rather a full bodied portrait of a murder and a system that allowed her perpetrator to get away. It’s Betsy’s story, but it’s also a treatise on what happens when we don’t hold our fellow citizens to account for their egregious acts. It’s the story of a small town with politics owning every move the police force makes, and it’s the story of what happened, not what might have been. It’s detailed for sure, but it captures the entirety of the story, not just the juicy bits. And that is what makes the book well worth the time you will spend with it. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

His Favorites: A Novel

I read a blurb about Kate Walbert's His Favorites on a "Best of 2018" list somewhere, so I picked up an e-book version from the library. 

The blurbs were right — this is a bewitching story that weaves two huge events together. The beauty of this book is not in a climactic punch, but rather in its intense prose and weaving together if the narrative. Jo is a young, carefree girl until the death of her best friend which will haunt her for years to come. She can’t go back to school — it’s too much to bear. She is lucky to be accepted to Hawthorne, a boarding school, so late after the start of the year. Her isolation, however, makes her a target of Master, the notorious teacher who gloms onto the beautiful young things he grooms through his modernist seminar. These two seemingly disparate events shape Jo into adulthood. 

This book was such a whirlwind that taking a step back to think on my thoughts about it knocks the wind out of me. It’s such a beautiful book that I felt like a lobster in a cool pot of water; it wasn’t until the book ended that I realized the water was boiling and I wouldn’t make it out alive. Jo was at times sympathetic and at others quite not so, as it’s hard to tell her that she shouldn’t blame herself for her best friend’s death. However, the most beautiful part of Jo is when she explains her confusion with the public reaction to Stephanie, her best friend, after she dies. Suddenly, in the newspaper articles and funerals notices, it’s a new girl. While everything these reports say is true, they capture an angel and not the true person Stephanie was on a Tuesday evening. This description was apt and quite affecting, as it’s something I’ve ruminated on for sometime, how we take people in death and make them into someone they weren’t in life. Or at a minimum a better version. Walbert wrote it better than I could. 

This book was just glorious, and it was quite a meditation on who we become when we live our lives. Every little event affects us, and shapes our souls. Walbert’s prose brings this through the paper and to the surface of our consciousness. And what a beautiful ride it is.