Sunday, May 15, 2016

Book Review: BLACK-EYED SUSANS by Julia Heaberlin - Paperback Edition Publication, May 31, 2016

In August 2015 I was privileged to read and review BLACK-EYED SUSANS  by Julia Heaberlin. In September 2015 writer-director Rod Lurie optioned Heaberlin's crime thriller.  Ballantine Books will publish trade paperback edition of BLACK-EYED SUSANS on May 31, 2016. Furthermore, this exceptional book is on the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel Of The Year Longlist.  Here is my review:

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.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Book Update: IN A DARK, DARK WOOD by Ruth Ware (May 2016)


Last year, I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing a debut psychological thriller by Ruth Ware, a British author, which was being published by Scout Press Books.  Since then, the film rights were bought by Reese Witherspoon and the film adaptation is being adapted for the big screen.  

The paperback edition was published on April 19, 2016 and now this:

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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 Gallery/Scout Press for loaning me a digital copy to read through NetGalley.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Review: WHAT WAS MINE by Helen Klein Ross

Book Review:  WHAT WAS MINE by Helen Klein Ross 

American women who were born in the 1950's and early 1960's--the Baby Boomers--had an abundance of choices and opportunities when we were in our twenties in the 1980's. Many of us obtained college educations, and graduate degrees, more than any previous generation of women ever had.  We wanted, and expected, to have the same career opportunities that men had.  We weren't naive.  We knew we had to work smarter, harder, and longer hours than our male counterparts in order to be considered for promotions.  We also learned that we generally received less money than men did with those promotions.  So we continued to work smarter, harder and longer.  We knew how to succeed.  We met our spouses back in school or through work, and married. We deferred having children because we wanted to save up money to buy a house in the suburbs or a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. There was one obstacle which we hadn't considered: our biological clock.  As I said to a woman friend who is a Millennial, "You don't get two '20's' and turn 40."  No matter how goal-oriented a woman may be, she cannot control biology. For many women, the postponement of children meant there would be no children.  Many couples used fertility and reproductive technology so that the woman could get pregnant.  Sometimes this worked. Sometimes it didn't. Women realized we couldn't have it all.  But what if you were a woman who would do anything to have a child?

Helen Ross Klein's psychological thriller WHAT WAS MINE poses that very question. Lucy Wakefield was born in 1954.  She attended the Ivy League university Cornell, and met Warren there, and they marry in 1979. They live in Manhattan, where Lucy works in advertising writing copy, and Warren is a consultant.  They get caught up in their careers. When Lucy and Warren turn thirty, his father dies.  The couple jump-start their plans to have a family.  They purchase a home in the New Jersey suburbs, and start fertility treatments.  Lucy decorates and stocks a nursery that is completely prepared for arrival of the baby she is sure they will have. The treatments don't work.  Warren won't adopt.  Warren meets a younger woman. Warren leaves Lucy when they are thirty-five in 1989.
"When Warren left me, I was thirty-five, the age grandmothers died in the Middle Ages."
Lucy pours her energy into her career.  Her advertising firm wants to land IKEA as an account. The second IKEA store in the country has opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from Lucy's home. She's goes there to do research in May 1990, then returns to IKEA every Friday that summer.  It's the perfect place for a woman to fantasize about everyday family life, and for her to watch children playing in the store's Ball Room. Three months later, on Friday, August 10, 1990, Lucy returns to IKEA. She's looking for candles but, instead, Lucy finds a baby girl on her own in the plastic infant carrier of a cart.  Lucy finds "her" baby.  She names the baby "Mia," a name which means "mine."

WHAT WAS MINE is an amazing and provocative thriller, and Helen Klein Ross is a brilliant writer. She has a true gift for making the reader examine moral complexities and feel a range of emotions, all while offering a highly entertaining read. She provides a very informed and modern tale based on the one of the most primal and ancient desires:  to be a mother. The action--and the chaos--occurs in the homes, offices and hearts of working women, and what is at stake is a child, and the direction of many people's lives. Helen Klein Ross's novel encompasses and explains women's issues from a generation ago, matters with which women still grapple.  The story unfolds from the point-of-view of multiple characters, major and minor. Her characters are quite real, believable and nuanced.  One has a certain amount of sympathy for the baby's birth mother Marilyn. But it is very hard not to root for Lucy.  She is a kidnapper, and she carries a great deal of guilt over what she has done. Lucy makes a lot of sacrifices to be a good mother, working hard to provide Mia with a good life, a first-rate education and other privileges.  Eventually, Lucy has to face the music. Being a mother involves great pain along with great joy.  There are some complicated but plausible plot twists and Ross pulls all of them off with panache and talent.  I look forward to Ross's next thriller!

{Thank you, Gallery Books, for providing me with a digital copy of this novel through NetGalley.}

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Redemption Through Character

I have several disabilities. I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  I also have mobility issues, nerve damage and pain related to a broken back and five spinal surgeries.  I cannot measure myself with the same yardstick that "normal" people use. Having PTSD means I deal with a lot of fear, rage, irritability, shame, guilt, anxiety and depression.  That's what I have to do--deal with these feelings.  Having a disability does not give me a free pass to take out these feelings on other people.  I am not allowed to rage on other people, even when I am triggered.  I make mistakes.  I make apologies.  I keep myself in check.

In my recovery, I focus on what I do possess.  I have a warm and loving heart.  I have intelligence and education.  I have a sense of humor which steers me through even the most grotesque situations. My work ethic is intense.  Most people could not survive even a few of the experiences I have lived through.  There have been times when I wish I could give up, just stop and rest.  However, my life force is vigorous.  My mental disposition consists of resilience, independence, focus, strength, flexibility, sharpness, spirit and compassion.  I was raised by parents and in an extended family for whom fortitude of character was essential.  They are and were people who had developed a moral compass which consisted of the following:
  • You have to care about what happens to other people. Love your neighbor.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • You have to respect other people, all people.
  • You have to be respectful.  
  • You have to be truthful.
  • You have to be loyal.
  • You have to be honorable.  You have to keep your promises and live up to your commitments.  You have to pay your debts. 
  • You have to be able to earn a wage from an honest day's work.
  • You have to be fair.   
  • You have to be courteous.  Use your manners.  Be kind.
  • You have to have a sense of humor and fun.  You need to be able to laugh at yourself, and at the rest of the human comedy.  You have to enjoy life.  Stop and smell the roses.
  • You have to get an education, and continue learning throughout your life. Having an education does not make you better than someone who does not. There are no stupid questions, only arrogant people who may try to make you feel stupid so that they feel better about themselves.
  • You have to apologize when you make a mistake.
  • You have to follow rules. You have to have respect for authority. The only reason not to follow a rule is that rule goes against the rest of your values.

Sometimes, to my detriment, my integrity places me in painful situations.  Truth and justice do not prevail all the time. That's no reason to stop pursuing both, but it's not easy.  All people do not deserve my time, my energy, or my care.  When I realize I have been giving any of those to an unworthy person, then the sting of discovery of  teaches me to be shrewder.  I have several disabilities, most as the result of the cruelty and negligence of other people.  But I also possess the recognition that I am accountable for my actions.   I have character.