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 na├»ve.  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.