Monday, November 16, 2015

French Lessons

When I was eleven-years-old and began junior high school, the class which excited me the most was French.  Language fascinated me because I love to communicate with other people.  The idea that I might speak a different language--not just English--and be able to speak with all sorts of people in their native tongue was so exciting to me.  As luck would have it, my teacher did not particularly like me.  She was a single woman who lived in Manhattan, which seemed incredibly chic to a girl living in suburban Long Island. Mademoiselle R. was very thin, and very fashionable. The fact that she was not fond of me didn't change the fact that she was a very good teacher.  Her detached manner only made her seem more alluring and fascinating.  I studied French through my junior year in high school, and had other instructors. Whenever Mademoiselle R. was our teacher, she would take us on class outings.  We came into Manhattan to see a Truffaut film on the Upper East Side.  We went to a cinema in Huntington which showed art and foreign films exclusively, and viewed Les Diabolique.  It was while I was watching this magnificent film that I realized that I understood what the actors were saying.  I understood French!

When I was twenty-three, I went on "The Grand Tour" of Western Europe.  My friends and I took Icelandic Air and, after a rather interesting weekend in Reykjavik, landed on the Continent in Luxembourg.  We dropped off our luggage at the hotel, and proceeded to a restaurant, a restaurant in which only French was spoken.  I don't think it was jet lag which made me weak in the knees and woozy.  All of the patrons of the restaurant, all the servers, were speaking French--fluently!  I was intrigued and intimidated.  Desperately in need of a restroom, I approached a waiter and timidly asked, Où est la salle de bain?

He looked at me as though I were feeble-minded, then replied,

Avez-vous besoin d'utiliser le toilete ?

I felt like “une idiot femme,” blushed profusely and then ran to the toilet.

This poor start did not prevent me from opening my mouth and speaking French for the rest of the summer of 1986.  Fortunately, I had learned German in college, and had ample time to practice that in Germany and Austria.  When we spent weeks in Italy, I realized I longed to understand what these animated people were talking about as they sat in the caffe and drank espresso.  Most conversations seemed revolve around “una ragazza” or “un ragazzo,” which I later learned meant “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.”

Our tour of the Continent ended in France, and we spent a week in Paris.  We spent quite a lot of time in the cinemas.  We shopped.  We ate bad American fast food because we didn’t know that “pommes frittes” were the mother of French fries. One of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever had was the view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower observation deck.  I didn’t have the opportunity to make any French friends.  So many Parisians seemed aloof.  I did not realize that the Parisians were living their lives and, being urban dwellers, bored with the sight of a young woman tourist, if I even registered on their radar.  And, as with Mademoiselle R., I found the French even more fascinating.

A few years later, I moved into Manhattan.  For several years I worked for a French-born literary agent and sold foreign rights for the agency's prestigious authors' books.  I became more sophisticated.  I found tourists annoying.  I was an urban dweller, and I loved my city.

When I was thirty-eight, 9/11 happened.  What helped me heal was the documentary film 9/11, directed by the French-born Jules and Gedeon Naudet.  Jules was one of three people who recorded clear footage of American Airlines Flight 11 hitting Tower 1 (the North Tower) of the World Trade Center. After 9/11, I began speaking French with tourists, with taxi drivers, with French New Yorkers, with French friends.  I speak with a lot of people because my childhood dream of communicating with everyone can be realized.  I speak with a lot of people because I want to understand evil, and need to know that other people are horrified by evil.  I need to know that there are good people.  And there are, and they speak all different languages, and come from other countries, and have families, and jobs, and dogs, and hopes and dreams, and they want to live peaceful lives.

French, “la plus belle langue,” the most beautiful language, opened so much of the world to me.  Sometimes I find the language, the people, impossible to comprehend.  Then I go back to the basics and realize that if I take my time, I can understand French.  And “the French” are people who happen to live in France. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Not Where I Would Like To Be But Soon...

I have been open about being a person with mental illness for twenty years--even when that admission certainly did not serve my best interests. For fourteen years I was diagnosed and treated for bipolar II disorder, and I did not have bipolar II disorder. I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it took me until 2008 to find a psychiatrist who believed me and who treats me for the right condition. It fills me with such pride to be able now to say, "I am in recovery from PTSD." I'm a veteran of in-country in Depression and Anxiety. Being a headstrong, resilient, and determined person has helped me be "in recovery."

I must dissent with Dr. Schweitzer, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1952).  For me, happiness must consist of bad health and a good memory.  I have had a constellation of mainly endocrinological, gastroenterological, and biliary problems all related to psychiatric medications. I've dealt with them with a great attitude, and a strong will.  I have a lot of backbone. Actually, I have a lot of damaged backbone. In November 2011 my personal trainer at my gym accidentally (negligently) added one hundred extra pounds to a leg press machine I was using. It broke two of my vertebrae at L5, S1. I had four spinal fusion surgeries between July 2002 and July 2005. As a result of the physical injury and trauma I suffered, I developed peripheral neuropathy. I have numbness in both feet, and I also get sharp shooting pains in them, as if I stuck my finger into an electrical outlet. After being given a good bill of health by a top neurologist, I returned to my orthopedic surgeon. He decided to perform a fifth surgery which would reduce the scar tissue and the compression on my spine. That surgery was in September 2012, three years ago. I wish I could say that I could feel my feet, and I am "in the pink." However, more often I am blue because that last surgery did not improve my neuropathy, and I still have a lot of difficulty walking. I am physically unable to do what my willing spirit wants to do. While I have been a mental health advocate warrior, I have been in severe denial about being a person with physical disabilities.

Why denial?  The main reason is I want to be seen as me, Maura, first, and not as a person with disabilities. I grew up with close family members and friends with physical disabilities, so, conversely, I saw them as people I loved, and not as someone unable to walk, or see, or breathe.  My nerves cannot regenerate, so I accepted the best possible outcome of the spinal surgeries.  So I have moved to a place of admission.

People with mental illness often, and incorrectly, are spoken of as people who lack character and integrity.  I have a great deal of pride in being reliable and dependable.  Yet, my health, at this moment has already caused me to miss deadlines. I'm afraid that promises I have made to people whom I respect, admire, and like may not be kept on time. My physical disabilities have been interfering with what I love to do and what I am good at doing: reading and reviewing books. 

Please bear with me.  I shall get caught up as soon as I am able.  For as that wise Frenchman said:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Remembering "Dancing at Lughnasa" on the Day Brian Friel Has Died

1991 was one of the most difficult years of my life because my father died on February 1st, and my beloved Aunt Elizabeth died on April 18th.  My heart ached daily with grief and the longing to see them again.  In the summer I learned that an Irish play was coming to Broadway, "Dancing at Lughnasa."  I had no idea what the play was about, and I was woefully ignorant about playwright Brian Friel.  

When I went to The Plymouth Theater that October evening, and the curtain opened, the magic of the play spilled off the stage, into my eyes, my ears, my heart and my soul.  "Dancing at Lughnasa" is a memory play told from the point-of-view of an adult man, Michael Evans.  Michael recalls when he was seven-years-old, and he spent the summer of 1936 with his five unmarried aunts in Ballybeg, a small town in County Donegal, which is in the north of Ireland.  The family goes through a time of significant upheaval, and the events threaten to tear at their very existence as a family.  Friel's language is ethereal, exquisite, graceful, and yet true to how a family communicates.

This play was such a balm to me.  Friel's themes are about poverty, a threat to family union and harmony, the need for self-expression and liberation (which is expressed in the play by great scenes of music, singing and dance), all resonated with me hugely.  My father was a self-made man who came from true poverty.  He was a child of The Great Depression, and I don't think the fear of poverty ever left him.  He died at 59-years-old in part because he worked so hard.  I was artistic and intellectual, and often he and I would lock heads over my desire to become a singer and an actress.  He wanted me to have the security of a business job (and, not so secretly, he hoped I would go to law school). While he and my mother gave me a great college education, he saw that as a stepping stone to a good career and not an end unto itself.  My Aunt Elizabeth knew how sensitive I was, and she fully supported me in my creative endeavors. I was expected to play the guitar and sing at every family gathering. She praised my irreverence and incendiary thinking.  She accepted me for who I was.

After my father and my aunt died, my world, as I had known it all my life, ended.  My mother had lost the only man she ever loved, and, with her younger sister, her lifelong best friend. A lot of fighting went on between family members so my family faced the prospect, and eventually, an actual parting of ways and estrangement.  Friel's play was a mirror to my own experience, but more. "Dancing at Lughnasa" was tutorial for me. I decided I needed go after what I wanted because life is short and time is precious.  At age twenty-eight, this was an enormous truth.

I  realized that I could access my memories of my late father and my late aunt any time I wanted.  Life is never perfect, especially not family life.  But the best lessons I took from "Dancing at Lughnasa" was that life, while imperfect, was full of great moments and immense joy. The love I had from my father and my aunt helped shape me, and that love has never left me, although they have gone.

I saw that Broadway production, which won the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play, twice that October.  I saw a revival at The Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 2000.  I last saw a production at The Irish Repertory Theater in 2011.  The film version adaptation was quite good, but this is a play, and attains its highest power and strength when performed on stage.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: THE FORGETTING PLACE by John Burley

Book Review:  THE FORGETTING PLACE by John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, Trade Paperback (ISBN-13 9780062227409)
Publication Date:  February 10, 2015

I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of John Burley’s THE ABSENCE OF MERCY and review his debut psychological thriller and suspense novel in November 2013. John Burley's second novel THE FORGETTING PLACE is an artful, exciting and intricately plotted novel which works on several levels.

Lise Shields is a psychiatrist who has been working for the past five years at Menaker State Hospital, a state psychiatric hospital, located twenty-two miles south of Baltimore, Maryland.  She’s thirty-three, and was a top resident at Johns Hopkins who could have found employment anywhere.  Her own childhood traumas drew her to the position at Menaker, where patients are

“Too ill to be released into the public, or referred by the judicial system after being incompetent to stand trial or not responsible by reason of insanity, Menaker houses the intractably psychiatrically impaired.  It is not the forgotten place, but it is a place for forgetting—the crimes convicted by its patients settling into the dust like the gradual deterioration of the buildings themselves.”

Dr. Charles Wagner, the chief medical officer at Menaker, assigns Lise a new patient, a young man named Jason Edwards.  Jason is a beautiful young man, and deeply troubled.  He scarcely opens up to Lise, and seems immediately resigned to never leaving Menaker.  Lise confronts Dr. Wagner because

“My patient—the one who showed up with no court order, no medical records, no written documentation of any kind…You can’t commit a patient to a state psychiatric hospital without a court order, and you know it.”

Lise cannot help Jason without knowing more about his background.  She investigates and discovers that Jason’s lover, Amir Massoud, was stabbed to death in the front hallway of their Washington, DC townhouse.  But did Jason kill Amir or was the murder committed by someone else?  After all, Jason has an older sister who is a CIA agent.  His sister believed that Amir had ties to a terrorist organization.
Since others—the CIA, government officials?—want to keep Jason’s location secret, so that he is forgotten in “the forgetting place,” Lise’s probing only pulls her into danger.  When she is off hospital grounds, she finds two men tailing her.           Lise continues therapy sessions with Jason with urgency.  She must uncover his past to keep him safe and guarantee him a future.  Yet her oath to “first do no harm” may end both their lives.

Lise charges herself with helping Jason reclaim his memory so that he can move past the traumas of his childhood and of Amir’s death.  The exploration of the human mind in THE FORGETTING PLACE –and the secrets the mind yields-- are shattering and absorbing.  When Lise must flee Menaker or risk being killed, her high speed escape contains exceptional and explosive action scenes.   The reader is propelled to the end of the novel desperate to uncover the trauma and the people are responsible for Jason’s “disappearance, and the subsequent threat on both Jason’s and Lise’s lives.  The final revelations will leave the reader agog.  John Burley has ensured his place as a highly accomplished and formidable thriller writer. 

Book Review: THE ABSENCE OF MERCY by John Burley (November 13, 2013)

Book Review:  THE ABSENCE OF MERCY by John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, November 19, 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-222737-9 (trade paperback)
My review:  November 13, 2013

Ben Stevenson (47) is a pathologist at Trinity Medical Center.  He met his wife Susan (43) in medical school (she’s a family practice physician), and they have been happily married for seventeen years.  The couple has two sons, Thomas (16) and Joel (8).  Ben and Susan moved from the city Pittsburgh to Wintersville, Ohio when Thomas was two-years-old.  Wintersville is a small, safe Midwestern town with a population of five thousand, and Ben is happy to be raising their family here.  He enjoys his work at the hospital, and also serves as the town’s medical examiner.  But on the night of March 21, 2013, the mutilated body of a teenage boy is found in the woods, and Ben’s sense of security is ripped away.

From the first page of John Burley’s debut psychological suspense stand-alone novel, the narrative voice had this reader’s pulse racing.  As a fan of this genre, I had the familiar sense of fear and excitement I get when a talented writer is at the helm.  Ben maintains his professional objectivity and skill in the CO (Coroner’s Office).   Yet, Ben Stevenson, in comparison to Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist Kay Scarpetta in Cornwell’s debut novel Postmortem, is a family man first and foremost.  While Ben clearly is an excellent medical examiner, nothing in his prior experience Wintersville has prepared him for the horror of this case.  Ben clearly is terrified that evil literally has hit so close to home, especially as the father of a teenage boy. 

“In the case of traumatic deaths, however, it was different.  One’s eye is inexorably drawn to the fatal injury—that which has extinguished the flame of life so abruptly.  Especially in the case of young people, the autopsy ceases to be about discovering the marks left behind from a life richly experienced, and rather is about bearing witness to the end of a life barely begun.  Such was the case here, as Ben moved from one disfiguring injury to the other, each one denoting a blatant disrespect for the life of this young man, and for human life in general.  It was a tragedy to behold.  He simply wanted to stop, to cover the form in front of him with cloth, to save it from this last final disgrace.  Instead, he continued, using practiced and precise descriptive terminology like a shield to defend himself from what was real.”

As a writer, Burley has the advantage of a strong medical background (he is an emergency room physician).  The scenes at the coroner’s office and at a hospital are very strong.  His prose is vivid and intense.  Burley’s portrayal of the Midwestern small town setting its residents rings true.  Burley’s characters are captivating. The opening scene of the book terrifies in the depiction of a serial killer stalking and murdering the young teenage boy. Another character who is especially compelling is Chief Sam Garston of the Sherriff’s Department, a large man with presence who is understands the subtleties of criminal cases and who possesses sensitivity in dealing with all parties of a case.  Burley possesses a knack for voicing genuine teenage characters without patronizing them.  He is adroit with his red herrings. It’s unlikely that the reader will be able to predict the shocking ending.  I look forward to John Burley’s next book, and recommend The Absence of Mercy to fans of crime fiction and psychological suspense.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Book Review: THE ANGER MERIDIAN by Kaylie Jones

Book Review:  THE ANGER MERIDIAN by Kaylie Jones
Akashic Books, Trade Paperback (ISBN 978-1617753510)
Publication Date:  July 7, 2015

Merryn Huntley is a woman who has been keeping herself in line for her entire life.  If she had her own crest, the motto would be, “Estote semper parati” – “Always be prepared.” A model of self-restraint, Merryn keeps notes written in French all over her Dallas home in order to remind her about things she says and does which upset her husband Beau, a wealthy real estate tycoon who is rarely home.  (Merryn’s late father was a diplomat, and Merryn grew up in Paris and also Cameroon, attending French schools, so she is fluent in French.)   Merryn’s life revolves around being a good wife, and a good mother to her nine-year-old daughter Tenney.   But life spins out of control when two uniformed officers show up at 3:35 a.m. to tell Merryn that her husband was in a car accident with a waitress from the Blue Bayou.  The car hit a tree head-on while Beau was getting head from LouKeesha.  Merryn knew Beau had been cheating on her, but Beau’s social circle assumes she is extraordinarily naïve.  She is anything but. The phone rings and rings, and Merryn listens to the voice mail messages.  Jocelyn, the wife of Beau’s business partner Bucky, calls to console Merryn, but Merryn really has no friends in Dallas. A banker leaves a message regarding past due mortgage payments.  When Merryn tries using her credit cards, they are all declined.  Merryn wants to protect Tenney from the scandal surrounding Beau’s death, and decides that they’ll go to stay with her mother Vivienne “Bibi” in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  She takes Beau’s “emergency” cash—two thousand five hundred dollars—and hides it in the back of Tenney’s battery-operated talking bear, Blueberry.  Then she drives with Tenney to Mexico.

Kaylie Jones combines action, humor, insight, bawdiness, tenderness, flashback, a great story, complex characters, and creates a complicated, compelling woman protagonist, and that is only the first chapter of THE ANGER MERIDIAN!  This literary psychological thriller only gets better with each page.  The plot developments are intricate without being too elaborate.  Beau’s business dealings leaned to the nefarious.  The real intrigue, however, comes from Merryn’s past and her relationship with her mother Bibi.  Bibi is a full-fledged bitch out of a 1940’s melodrama, but she is not a caricature.  Bibi is beautiful, vain, self-involved, and, as Merryn notes, does not possess any natural compassion for others, especially not for Merryn.

While she should be fully focused on dealing with the fallout from Beau’s corrupt business practices—including visits from two FBI agents, and a possible connection to a terrorist, Merryn uses much of her strength and energy on keeping Bibi happy.  It’s a fool’s errand and a Sisyphean task.  Merryn has been psychologically abused by Bibi all her life.  Yet she is an incredible mother to Tenney.  Tenney is an incredibly intelligent little girl, but Merryn realizes that she is a little girl, a child who needs to be protected, loved, disciplined, fed, and heard. Precisely because Merryn is a good mother, she manages to confront the evil which terrifies her the most.  She faces the twisted lies she has told herself in order to survive a lifetime of Bibi’s neglect, bullying, and cruelty. Merryn masters true self-preservation.

While the criminal aspects of this novel are fascinating and brilliantly conceived, the transformation of Merryn from helpless trauma victim to fully realized, self-empowered (and sexy!) woman is what captures the reader’s attention.  Kaylie Jones’s writing is awe-inspiring, and The Anger Meridian is a spectacular and true domestic, psychological thriller.  

Read this novel now.  I've read it three times since June.  It is life-affirming. You'll crave strong Mexican coffee and tasty food, wander the streets of San Miguel, feel the heat of the sun, and heat generated by a certain American physician.  You will be utterly captivated by Merryn and Tenney.                                                             

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: BROKEN GRACE by E.C. Diskin

Book Review:  BROKEN GRACE by E.C. Diskin
Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Publishing
Publication Date: August 25, 2015

E.C. Diskin may do for the Lower Peninsula of Michigan what Daniel Woodrell did for the Missouri Ozarks.  She is that good and that talented.  Broken Grace is like a mashup of Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone the critically acclaimed Vince Gilligan crime drama Breaking Bad.  This thriller has murder, drugs, amnesia, family secrets, infidelity, stupid criminals, menacing villains, gambling, junked cars, good, bad and a lot of gray. 

The novel opens with Grace Abbott, age twenty, fleeing her home in rural Michigan on a cold Saturday morning, December 7, 2013.  She’s jumped into her car, and needs to get to the police.  As she drives to the station, a deer bolts across the road.  Grace slams on the breaks, but hits the deer.  Her car swerves off highway, and Grace slams her head hard before the car runs into a tree.  She awakens eight days later in a hospital in Kalamazoo.  Grace cannot remember anything due to a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The doctor believes Grace’s memory will return if she rests and takes the heavy psychotropic medications he’s prescribed.  Her older sister Lisa has been sitting vigil at Grace’s bed, and Grace goes with Lisa to their family home just outside Sawyer, Michigan so that she can rest and recover.

Grace is scarcely home for an hour before Detectives Bishop and Officer Hackett show up.  They have come to question Grace about Michael Cahill, whom Lisa says was Grace’s boyfriend until about week ago.  Grace inquires if Michael is in trouble.  You could say that—Michael Cahill is dead.  He was shot in bed in the apartment which he and Grace had shared. The police want Grace’s help figuring out what Michael was doing up until he died, but Grace is not able to recall anything. Lisa is very protective and stops the interview from going further.

Bishop is the senior investigator, and spent most of his career in Detroit. Justin Hackett is a local rookie, newly transferred from Indiana.  Like many seasoned homicide detectives, Bishop believes the killer is probably the person closest to the victim, and that would be Grace. Justin has his own reasons for wanting the killer to be anyone but Grace. 
Grace is in the most vulnerable position in every possible way.  She is physically weak, suffering from terrible headaches and insomnia.  She initially only gets flashes of memory of her life before the crash, and many of these are traumatizing.  Grace becomes the center of the novel, but only truly comes into focus once she becomes her own detective.  She cannot trust anyone, and so she must rely on herself to discover who she is, and who murdered Michael.  Grace may seem rather weak at the start, but she is not to be underestimated.

As Bishop and Hackett work the case, they uncover unseemly details about Michael Cahill’s life.  There were many people who wanted Michael dead, and for various reasons.  He was a drug user who gambled, he cheated on Grace, and he hung out with men and women of ill repute.  These details coalesce and bring an urgency to find out if Grace was the murderer—or if she is the next intended victim.

On its police procedural merits alone, the novel is excellent.  The device of revealing the plot through Grace’s emerging memories, as well as through Bishop and Hackett’s investigation, is genius.  E.C. Diskin has a sensitive grasp of human behavior, and great noir chops.  Broken Grace is an exceptional thriller with hairpin plot turns and moral complexity.  

Thank you to Thomas & Mercer for loaning me a digital copy of the book through NetGalley.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin

Book Review:  BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine/Penguin Random House
Publication Date:  August 11, 2015

In a small town just outside of Fort Worth, Texas in 1995, Tessa “Tessie” Cartwright, sixteen, was abducted by a man who already had taken three other young women.  Tessie, a national hurdling champion and runner with an abnormally low heartbeat, survived her internment, but the other three girls did not.  She was found and saved after a farmer’s dog alerted his master of the grave site.  The girls were given the macabre nickname “the Black-Eyed Susans” because the killer buried the girls and then planted the wildflowers over their shallow graves.   Terrell Darcy Goodwin, a black man, was arrested, even though all that linked him to the crimes was a muddy jacket found a mile away with his blood type on the right cuff.

Tessie had been a passionate, whip smart red-haired athlete prior to her abduction.  She developed “conversion disorder,” i.e. hysterical blindness, after her abduction. The killer had broken her ankle, and she stopped eating and became a shell of herself.  If Tessie hadn’t had a loving family and her best friend Lydia, she doesn’t know how she would have recovered.  Her father took her to from one therapist after another.  She finally agreed to see the final doctor only because:

“You signed a legal document that said you will not prescribe drugs, that you will not ever, ever publish anything about our sessions or use me for research without my knowledge, that you will not tell a living soul you are treating the surviving Black-Eyed Susan.  You told me you won’t use hypnosis.”

This psychiatrist helped Tessie prepare for Terrell’s trial.  Her mind blocked most of her memories of the abduction.  Still, her appearance on the stand at Terrell’s trial was crucial to the jury’s guilty verdict.  Terrell Darcy Goodwin was convicted of the murders and has sat for nearly two decades on Death Row in Huntsville awaiting his execution. 

In the present Tessie is called “Tessa.”  She’s in her mid-thirties and lives in Fort Worth with her daughter Charlie, age fourteen. Tessa has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as survivor’s guilt.  Like so many trauma victims, she doubts herself, and mistrusts her own senses.  Tessa has built her life on normality, anonymity and routine.  Six years ago she was contacted by an attorney named Angie Rothschild.  Angie believed that Terrell was innocent of the murders, and was relentless in her efforts to convince Tessa.  When Angie dies suddenly from a heart attack, the appeal process is taken over by attorney William “Bill” James Hastings III and Dr. Joanna “Jo” Seger, a forensic scientist.  Tessa wants to help with the appeal.  She has another reason to doubt Terrell’s guilt.  Although it is February, someone has planted a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, a summer bloom, just outside Tessa’s bedroom window.

While many novels are classified as “psychological thrillers,” Black-Eyed Susans actually is because Julia Heaberlin places the focus on the mental state of all the characters.  The retrieval of memory is the key to unlocking the murderer’s identity.  The novel is told through alternating first-person narratives between Tessie in 1995 and Tessa in the present.  Heaberlin includes a lot of fascinating, authentic forensic science, particularly that of mitochondrial DNA.  Jo wants to identify the bodies, as more bones are discovered, in order to closure to families of the missing girls.  I think Dr. Jo Seger deserves her own book!)    Tessa wants "the Susans" to be at peace finally too.

The narrative moves at a rapid pace, and the dialogue sounds genuine. Julia Heaberlin’s writing is so gorgeous and poetic that the reader will want to read this novel slowly. Texas is not just the setting, but a character in the book.  The book handles two very serious subjects with objectivity and sensitivity:  people who are trauma survivors, and the death penalty. Heaberlin has a firm hand on the plot, but has a delicacy for dealing with the characters’ mental states.  Tessa may seem fragile at times, but this protagonist perseveres.   Black-Eyed Susans is a rich, remarkable and intense psychological thriller and suspense novel.

Thank you to Ballantine/Penguin Random House for loaning me a digital copy of the novel through NetGalley.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Book Review: TRUST NO ONE by Paul Cleave

Book Review:  TRUST NO ONE by Paul Cleave
Atria Books, Digital Loan, Publication Date:  August 4, 2015

If you are the sort of reader of thrillers and crime fiction who prides yourself on being able to figure out “whodunit” before the end of the story, then TRUST NO ONE by Paul Cleave will test your mettle.  Paul Cleave’s latest novel is a magnificent psychological thriller which contains all the right elements of the genre.  The characters, plot, action, tension, suspense, plot and pacing are flawless. Jerry Grey, the protagonist, age 49, lives in Christchurch, New Zealand.  He is happily married to Sandra, age 48, and they have one daughter Eva, age 24.

The opening scene is precise, subtle yet powerful.  Jerry is at the police station being interviewed by a detective.  He has confessed to a murder which occurred thirty years ago, the murder of Suzan, a nineteen-year-old woman with whom Jerry was infatuated as a young man.  Suzan’s boyfriend was convicted of the crime, and sent to jail.  Jerry needs to confess and he wants absolution.  He claims Suzan was the first of many victims, and tells the detective:

“Let the monster have a voice.”

The detective gives Jerry a book called A Christmas Murder.  Then the detective explains that Jerry is a crime writer who, under the pseudonym “Henry Cutter” has written twelve bestsellers (the thirteenth is now being edited by his publisher).  Jerry is confessing to a murder which he created and included in the crime novel in his hands.

Jerry has had a good life, but the bottom has fallen out because he has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.  In order to keep track of his rapid decline, Jerry keeps what he calls a “Madness Journal.”  He wants to let “future Jerry” know what “present Jerry” is like, and what he is doing.

“…this is a journal to let you know about your life before the disease dug in its claws and ripped your memories to shreds.  This journal is about your life, about how blessed you’ve been.”

Jerry’s fear of losing his mind is no fantasy, because he actually is losing his mind.  When young women are murdered, and each is murdered very much like the fictional killings Jerry has written, the characters and the reader are left gaping over who the killer is.  Every single character is suspect.

Cleave’s Jerry Grey is one of the most unreliable narrators ever created.  The narrative switches from the third-person narrative to the first-person seamlessly. Cleave’s prose is crisp, his dialogue crackles, and the entries in Jerry’s journal, as well as Jerry’s interior monologues, are utterly absorbing.   While the plot revolves around quite a lot that is grim and disturbing, Cleave’s talent is such that he manages to include wit and humor with panache.  Given Jerry’s Alzheimer’s, the reader is never sure whether what is being told is only what is being shown, or if what is being shown is really what is being told.  The narrative pace slows down when necessary, but, as a whole, charges to the finish.  The lesson the novel offers is in the title; how much can you trust anyone, even yourself? TRUST NO ONE is a mesmerizing and brilliant thriller which will keep your own brain sharp.

Paul Cleave, the author of this stand-alone novel, lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is the setting of his award-winning crime novels.  These novels have been translated into twelve different languages, and sold over one million copies.  I believe Mr. Cleave will have much success in the United States for many years to come.

Thank you, Atria Books, for loaning me a digital copy through NetGalley.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain

Book Review:  CIRCLING THE SUN by Paula McLain
Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House, Publication Date:  July 28, 2015
Hardcover ISBN 978-0345534187

Paula McLain’s first literary historical novel, The Paris Wife, was embraced by readers—receiving good reviews and a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations-- and it became a New York Times bestseller when published in 2011.  She wrote the story of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, and of their life and literary circle in Paris in the 1920’s. 

Her new novel CIRCLING THE SUN is about another woman from the earlier part of the 20th-century:  Beryl Markham.  Markham is best known as the first woman solo pilot to fly the Atlantic from west to east (in 21 hours, 35 minutes, from England on September 4, 1936 to Nova Scotia on September 5, 1936).   Markham’s memoir West With The Night was published in 1942.  In Paula McLain’s Author’s Note for Circling The Sun she writes:

“[West With The Night] sold only modestly, though many believed it deserved accolades, including Ernest Hemingway, who said,  in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, ‘Did you read Beryl Markham’s book…she has written so well that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer…it really is a bloody wonderful book.’”

I think McLain has written “a bloody wonderful book.” 

Beryl Markham led a fascinating but very complex and difficult life. McLain deftly and sensitively reveals Beryl the girl and the woman.  The novel is written in the first-person narrative, and allows the reader to become quite intimate with Markham, from the age four to twenty four.  Born Beryl Clutterbuck in England in 1902, she moved with her family to British Colonial Africa (now Kenya) because her father Robert, a horse trainer, purchased a farm where he could breed and train race horses.  Beryl’s mother returned to England just a few years later with Beryl’s brother.  Beryl was left to basically raise herself.  She loved horses as much if not more than her father, and she loved Kenya.  She was part of the ex-pat white community, but her closest friend from childhood was a Kibii boy who became a morani (warrior). 

My first point of reference for early 20th-century colonial Africa was Sydney Pollack's Oscar Award-Winning film Out of Africa, released in 1985.  The film, adapted from Judith Thurman’s biography of Karen Blixen, is a luscious vision of Kenya, its magnificent landscape, the native people, and, of course, the romance between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton.  Beryl Markham was turned into some character named Felicity.  Like so many others, I love this film, but I know that this was not the most accurate portrayal of the time and setting.  I much prefer the truth—that Denys Finch Hatton had a complex and tumultuous relationship with Karen Blixen, and he also had a love affair with Beryl Markham, who matched him in being a free spirit, and very comfortable with the wild and with animals.  Denys introduced Beryl to aviation, because the Africa they both loved so fiercely was already disappearing.  The insufficient wildlife conservation we have today began its downward slope a century ago.  Beryl became Africa's first woman licensed professional pilot.  

Beryl was beautiful, highly intelligent, inquisitive, strong, hardworking and independent.   She faced adversity—and there was quite a lot of that in her life-- head on, endured, and thrived.  McLain has written a true literary historical fiction novel in both senses of the “literary.”  Beryl did become a literary figure, and gained renown for many achievements.  The first-person narrative and McLain’s deceptively simple but rich writing style transported me to another time and another place, into another life.  McLain tackles the oppression of women, feminist history, reproductive rights, the loose sexual mores and double-standard moral judgments of white society.

It was a privilege to spend a summer Saturday with Beryl Markham, who was far more remarkable than I ever could have expected.  I am very grateful to Paula McLain for extending me this extraordinary pleasure as a reader.  I shall be recommending Circling The Sun to friends and other readers as an essential and favorite historical fiction novel.

Thank you to Ballantine Books for loaning me an e-book copy of the novel through NetGalley.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Personal Essay: "We Are Not Alone. Mental Illness Is Real."

Sarah Fader is the founder of Stigma Fighters.  Sarah created a forum where people with mental illness, people like me, can share our stories.  1 in 5 Americans has a mental illness.  That is 42.5 million Americans, 18.2% of the American population [Newsweek February 28, 2014].  That does include teens and children who have mental illness.

Sarah is a powerful writer, an advocate, and a warrior.  Stigma Fighters allows people with mental illness to tell our stories, and talk about the pain, suffering, stigma and shame which encroaches our lives.  Last December, Sarah asked to include an essay I wrote about having PTSD in an anthology she was editing. Stigma Fighters Anthology was published May 29, 2015 by Gravity Imprint, which is directed by Rachel Thompson, and focuses on trauma and recovery. Sarah edited it, with the help of Allie Burke. All three women have essays in the anthology.

Please watch this video.  Then go buy Stigma Fighters Anthology (Volume 1), and read it.  If you don't have a mental illness, you probably know--and love--someone with mental illness.  Refusing to acknowledge mental illness means denying the existence of people with mental illness. Mental illness is real. We are going to end stigma by giving ourselves a voice. We are fighters, we are survivors, and we are not alone.

Book Review: GOING HOME by James D. Shipman

Book Review:  GOING HOME by James D. Shipman
Lake Union Publishing/Amazon Publishing publication date July 28, 2015

Trade Paperback, ISBN 9781503944190

Immigration was a major socio-economic factor in shaping the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Territorial expansion and the prospects of owning land, as well as finding employment, were enticements to Europeans seeking a better life.  James D. Shipman has taken the true story of his great-great-grandfather Joseph Hastings and transformed it into an historical novel which is affecting. While the plot has many sensational events, Shipman’s skill prevents melodrama from seizing center stage.  Rather, his attention to well-drawn, detailed characters makes Going Home a very engaging and moving read.

The third-person narrative begins with the protagonist Joseph Forsyth, a Union soldier, fighting in the trenches during the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia on January 2, 1865.  Joseph is shot in the chest by Confederate soldiers.  He is taken to the Union Hospital Camp.  Rebecca Walker, a young nurse who is grieving the death of her only child from illness, and that of her husband in another battle a few months before, is the first to triage Joseph.  As she tries to locate where he has been wounded, she finds a letter pinned to the inside of Joseph’s blood-soaked jacket.   The letter is from Joseph’s wife, and reminds Rebecca of her patient’s humanity.  His mortality evokes that of her late husband.  She decides that she will fight for Joseph’s life.  She pleads with the Army surgeon, Dr. Thomas Johnston, to check Joseph’s wound, which is in the left collar below the bone.  Johnston relents and operates on Joseph.  Joseph survives, but now faces the risk of infection.  Rebecca’s nursing and determination, as well as a growing closeness with Dr. Johnston, may save Joseph after all.

The narrative then flashes back to 1849.  Joseph, a lad of eleven from County Derry, Ireland, boards a ship for America with his father Robert, a drunk with a violent temper, and his beloved, long-suffering mother Lydia.  They hope to find and purchase land to farm.  Robert has been the undoing of his family.  He cannot keep a job, and he gambles when he drinks.  During the voyage, Robert continues to drink, and joins a card game.  He bets with money he doesn’t have.  To pay his debt, he sells Joseph into an apprenticeship with Michael O’Dwyer, a printer who lives in Quebec City, Canada.  When the ship reaches New York Harbor, Joseph remains on board while his parents disembark.  Joseph finds himself alone in The New World, without any control over his destiny.  His powerlessness grows into an iron resolve to become master of his fate.           

The novel touches on many social and economic injustices which continue to beleaguer the United States today.    The poor find that, no matter how hard they work, their lives are dictated by the wealthy.  While others profit from war, the poor are sent to fight in it.  Women and immigrants are treated as subordinates, not as equals.  Families are dysfunctional due to poor communication, denial of existing problems, and fantasies about the way people actually are.

Shipman‘s writing is in sync with the tale he is telling.  He explores his characters’ interior lives, and makes them human, and sympathetic.  The dialogue is very realistic as well.  Since this is based on Shipman’s actual forebear, he does not take liberties with the story and transform it into an allegory.  The only hidden meaning in Going Home is the truth each person conceals from himself or herself until they are forced to confront it, or ready to face it. 

I recommend this historical novel, and want to emphasize that the story does not focus on Joseph Forsyth’s possible death from battle in The Civil War.  Shipman wrote a compelling story about Joseph Forsyth’s life, a life which reflects the struggles, trials, loves and triumphs of many American families. 

Thank you to Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, for the loan of a digital copy of the book through NetGalley.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: PARANORMAL INTRUDER by Caroline Mitchell

Book Review:  PARANORMAL INTRUDER: The Frightening True Story of a Family in Fear
by Caroline Mitchell (ASIN: B00GURVKHY) 

PARANORMAL INTRUDER by Caroline Mitchell is the true story of one family's a haunting by a preternatural spirit.  Caroline, her husband Neil, their four children, and other family members and friends dealt with terrifying encounters over the course of several years.  Caroline is a police officer in England (who original hales from Ireland) faces a lot of terrible things in her line of work.  But nothing prepared her for the abnormal and strange phenomena which occurred in her own home. Objects in the home were moved, destroyed, and often sent like missiles at people.  There was a lot of activity involving electrical appliances, and even a few close calls with fires near the house. Most of the activity was centered on her husband Neil. From the beginning, Caroline and Neil and other documented the occurrences with cameras, camcorders and audio recorders. Caroline and Neil sought help from several paranormal investigators, as well as from their Roman Catholic parish, and the Free Church, but to no avail.  Neil fell into very poor health. The stress on their marriage, and on their family and friends, was enormous.  I won't give away the ending.  This book was a page-turner, and I read it in one sitting. Many people confront evil in their lives, and it was especially difficult for Caroline and her family because it is hard to "prove" that the evil is paranormal. For readers who enjoy true tales of paranormal encounters, I highly recommend PARANORMAL INTRUDER.

WARNING:  The following link is to YouTube video in which the author Caroline Mitchell discusses the case -- and plays two frightening EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) recordings.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Review: IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware

Book Review:  IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware
Scout Press/Gallery Books, August 4, 2015 (digital edition)

While every psychological thriller since 2012 has had to bear the burden of comparison to Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL, Ruth Ware's novel harkens back to Agatha Christie's masterful "whodunit," AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Ware employs Christie's ingenious plot device, i.e. friends are invited to a remote location on a pretext when the real intent is nefarious (and Ware's characters reference Christie's novel), Ruth Ware's thriller IN A DARK, DARK WOOD is brilliant, riveting and original. 

Leonora Shaw, who prefers to be called "Nora," age twenty-six, lives a rather solitary life, and writes crime books in her tiny studio flat in Hackney (a borough in Greater London).  Nora tells the story, as the first-person narrator. Since she works from home, she sticks to a routine, and she starts each day with coffee and toast, and then out for a long run.  After a shower, she checks her emails.

Nora is startled and upset when she receives a group email invitation to a "hen party" (the English version of a bachelorette party).  The sender is Florence Clay, who is hosting the weekend in honor of Clare Cavendish.  When Nora was growing up in Reading, Clare had been her best friend.  Clare was the Queen Bee, beautiful, popular, alternately warm and loving, and cruel and hateful.  Nora has not seen Clare in ten years, not since she left Reading at age sixteen.  The circumstances surrounding Nora's leaving home are kept secretive. It is clear that this was a turning point in Nora's life.  She had gone by "Lee" then, and now is firmly "Nora."

The only other guest in the group email whom Nora recognizes is Nina de Souza, a friend from childhood who is still part of Nora's life in London. Nina is a doctor training as a surgeon who has recently returned from a stint with Medcins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Colombia, repairing gunshot wounds.  Nina is a very witty, intelligent character, and provides a great deal of relief throughout this suspenseful story. Nora makes a pact with Nina to attend the party.  The hostess, Florence Clay, known as "Flo," is Clare's "BFF" from university.  She is highly strung and absolutely idolizes Clare, even dresses like her.  The party is being held in Flo's aunt's country home, The Glass House, a magnificent structure which seems incongruous with its setting in the woods of Northumberland.  Melanie Cho, a lawyer who is married and a new mother of a six-month-old boy, is another friend from Clare's days at university.  The fifth guest is Tom Deuxma, a very handsome gay man and a playwright.  (His husband Bruce is a theater director.)  Finally, Clare Cavendish arrives.  Then, to paraphrase Northumberland in Shakespeare's Henry V, the game is afoot.

Ware's writing style is perfectly suited to suspense.  Each character is drawn flawlessly. Her prose is efficient, and moves the plot along, but can be rather lyrical and descriptive, particularly with Nora's interior monologues. The pacing is superlative. Ware utilizes flashbacks, or, rather, reverse chronology, from the start and throughout the novel.  The reader knows right away that something bad has happened.  But what?  How did it come to pass?  And who did it?  Nora may seem like an underdog, but is she a dark horse?

I enjoyed IN A DARK, DARK WOOD completely and thoroughly.  This psychological thriller contains all the right elements and stands on its own merits.   Ruth Ware is a significantly talented writer, and has an exceptional career ahead of her.

Thank you to Scout Press for loaning me a digital copy to read through NetGalley.  


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: DANGEROUS WHEN WET by Jamie Brickhouse

Book Review:  DANGEROUS WHEN WET by Jamie Brickhouse
St. Martin’s Press, April 28, 2015 (hardcover)
Memoir has long been one of my favorite genres.   The first memoir I read about alcoholism was Caroline Knapp’s DRINKING: A LOVE STORY in 1997, and so, excuse the awful pun, the bar was set quite high.  Jamie Brickhouse's DANGEROUS WHEN WET is absolutely amazing and staggering.  He has a rare talent for fully confronting each part of his life with total honesty, sensitivity, cutting wit, and Falstaffian vigor.  Mr. Brickhouse said he only was able to write this memoir after the death of his mother, “Mama Jean—my greatest champion and harshest critic.”  The book is a brave and clever fusion.  He writes about his Texas boyhood, his relationship with Mama Jean (and his father Earl),   and his homosexuality and coming out, his discovery of alcohol, and, according to Mama Jean, his true destination was to become a writer.
“…you need to be a writer.  That’s what you should be doing!  I’m telling you, your ticket is the writing.  And remember what I’ve always said:  you control your destiny.”
Mama Jean was right (she was about mostly everything), however Jamie’s journey involved a lot of rough road.  He moved to New York City after college in the autumn of 1990, just after graduating from college in Texas.  He developed his lifelong love of Manhattan mostly through 20th-century melodrama films and trips up to New York with Mama Jean and Earl.  Like many writers, Jamie went into the commerce of books rather than the practice.  He was a highly successful publicity executive at the top book publishers.  He also was lucky in love, having met his boyfriend within six weeks of his arrival.  However, he systematically destroyed his life because he could not control his drinking, or what he did during alcoholic blackouts.
This is a deeply moving read.  I was in tears over some passages, only to start giggling over Jamie Brickhouse’s brilliant humor.  DANGEROUS WHEN WET is a memoir of recovery, but, man, it don’t come easy.  I believe this will appeal to people in recovery, to gay men, and, frankly, everyone because we each need to deal with our relationships with our parents before we can truly say we have grown up.
I for one cannot wait until Mr. Brickhouse writes a novel.  Until then, I shall be preaching the gospel according to Jamie, and Mama Jean, for quite some time.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


by Caitlin O'Connell
Alibi/Penguin Random House April 7, 2015 (digital edition)

The word "page-turner" is overused for so many crime fiction novels and thrillers.  It is spot-on for Caitlin O'Connell's first Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery.  With her theme of ivory trafficking and elephant poaching, O'Connell has created her own thriller sub-genre:  the wildlife conservation thriller.  (Environmental thrillers tend to have plots involving bioterrorism, but O'Connell places the spotlight squarely on the slaughter of elephants for their tusks to feed the real beast--ivory trafficking). Her protagonist, Catherine Sohon, is well-developed, and O'Connell uses a first-person narrative.  Catherine is a white American wildlife blogger who has been living and working in South Africa. She's grieving the recent death of her fiancé. O'Connell imbues her with a lot of depth and emotional complexity.  In the opening scene, after her truck breaks down on a remote, dry road in the sub-Saharan African country of Namibia, Catherine stumbles on a horrific murder scene. She has traveled to Namibia under the guise of doing an elephant census, but Catherine's actual purpose there is to substantiate evidence and put a stop to an ivory trafficking ring.  As a woman reader (and writer), I appreciated that O'Connell wrote this scene, using the first-person, without giving any initial indicators of whether the narrator was a man or a woman. Speaking from my previous experience as a "book scout" for a producer at Warner Bros., this thriller would make a riveting film adaptation which, with the right screenplay, could give an actress a pivotal career opportunity.

The pace is breakneck, yet the stylish writing allows the reader to absorb a lot of fantastic (and horrifying) content and facts about ivory trafficking, and about Namibia.  The scope is international and yet the action and the details are of a very specific place.  The villains are terrifying precisely because they are portrayed in all their humanity and greed. Catherine may even have a new romantic opportunity with the Minister of Conservation, Jon Biggs.  Their vexatious conversations barely conceal the sexual chemistry between the two characters. Then, of course, there are the elephants.  Scenes with the elephants were so galvanizing, and could not make a stronger case for why poaching is such a reprehensible crime.  O'Connell's thriller leaves no room for debate that it is a moral imperative to stop and prevent ivory poaching. Trafficking seeps its evil into everything and everyone it touches.

Caitlin O'Connell is an ecologist and a scientist, a world-renowned expert on elephants and vibrotactile sensitivity (vibrotactile means "Relating to or involving the perception of vibration through touch.").  She has been documenting elephants in Namibia for the past twenty years as a writer, photography and filmmaker.  Her nonfiction science memoir THE ELEPHANT'S SECRET SENSE was an internationally acclaimed work. This Renaissance woman may now add "expert thriller writer" to her resume.  I eagerly await the sequel to Ivory Ghosts.  

Thank you to Alibi, an e-originals imprint of Penguin Random House, for the opportunity to read the digital copy via NetGalley.