loulamac’s #CBRV review #77: Follow Me Down by Shelby Foote; audiobook read by Tom Parker


It’s 1949, and in the shoreline water of a Mississippi island the body of a young woman is discovered. She has been strangled, tied with wire to blocks to weigh her down and has been in the water for a few days. Her blonde hair and the gold anklet she is wearing quickly identify her as Beulah, the eighteen year girl who turned up on the island three weeks before with her fifty year old lover Luther Eustis. A witness leads police to him, and he is arrested and tried for her murder.

All of this is revealed to you in the opening chapter, which is narrated by the court reporter in the town where the trial is to take place. The joy of this book, then, is not in detection or the chase, but in the gradual reveal of Eustis’ motives, and the strange path that seems to inevitably lead him to murder. Faith, passion and birthright all combine to bring Eustis to his young lover and his crime. This is disclosed to us over the course of the book by an array of narrators. These include the aforementioned reporter, Eustis himself, his wife, Beulah, the ‘Dummy’ witness who identifies him, and his trial lawyer. Each of these very different voices has its own perspective, knowledge of and level of intimacy with the quiet, respectable and devout Eustis, and helps build the picture of how he came to do what he did.

Shelby Foote came into my life years ago, when he appeared in Ken Burn’s documentary series about the American Civil War, and I was curious about his works of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed. His writing is evocative and dreamy without the slightest hint of showiness or fuss. He also does not shy away from the darker side of human nature and what can drive a man to do a terrible thing that is so out of character. Tom Parker’s reading of the novel is beautiful. Calm and considered, his tone and accent combine with Foote’s prose to hypnotise. The story will exert a quiet grip on you, and is not easily forgotten.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #20: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

dark-placesOn its own, Dark Places is probably a very good book. But if you have read Gillian Flynn’s other novels, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, Dark Places will seem familiar, derivative.

Dark Places may not be the page turner that Gone Girl was, but I still really like the way Flynn composes her novels. Her back-and-forth style not only creates suspense and tension, it gives the characters a chance to tell the story. You hear events from one character, and in the next chapter, another character corrects the errors, fills in the blanks, expands the story. I also think she is a uniquely descriptive writer.

That said, there is certainly a recipe to the success of her novels. Start with a troubled girl. Throw in a tragic past. Give her an addiction or vice. Make her family dysfunctional. Add a colleague who may turn into a love interest. Include one or two truly terrifying women. Turn the female protagonist into an amateur detective. End on a slightly optimistic note that still makes you feel dirty.

Libby Day is the troubled girl in Dark Places. In her tragic past her sisters and mother were killed, and when the signs and the townspeople pointed to Libby’s brother, she claimed he killed them. Libby’s vice is that she has lived off insurance money for 25 years. She doesn’t want to hold a job, have friends, clean herself or her apartment. And yes, she drinks and steals. Her possible love interest is Lyle, a member of the local Kill Club, a strange organization that is fascinated by murders and believes her brother is innocent. Libby herself is a pathetic character, but the doozy in this novel is Diondra, a sexually precocious 15-year-old addict, alcoholic, abuser, Satan worshipper. She’s a peach.

When Libby’s insurance money starts to run out, she teams up with Lyle and the Kill Club, who pay her to reconnect with her father and incarcerated brother, and sell mementos from her dead family. It’s no surprise that she begins to question her brother’s conviction and doubt her memories.

I would like to say that this book also ends more hopefully than it begins. But in the end Libby’s family is still dead (that isn’t a spoiler) and now you have the Diondra character in your head.


Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #93: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

What some deprecatingly call “chick-lit” plus a murder mystery all rolled into one: how can you go wrong? I found this book by Australian author Moriarty mostly delicious, written with a woman’s often profound, often funny insight into relationships—spousal, parental, neighborly and otherwise–and with a brilliant sense of timing.

The Husband’s Secret is the story of three families–or three women–whose separate lives eventually intersect painfully, then tragically, in a well-orchestrated plot that is rife with mystery, intrigue, betrayal, lust, incest, and murder – and a large dollop of humor. Her characters are all too human, with all the flaws and foibles, strengths and sensibilities, night terrors and daylight insecurities that all of us suffer at one point or another in our lives. In fact, we can all too easily place ourselves in any one of their places, and see how easily our well-planned lives can falter, and even crumble apart like theirs.

Cecilia is the supreme organizer of her circle of family and friends, the perfect wife and mother to her three pretty daughters, PTA president, and a model Tupperware party-giver. When the story opens, she is lamenting her proper but oh-so-unremarkable life and wishing for a bit of drama. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for!  Rachel is the elderly manager of St. Angela’s elementary school in Sydney, where Cecilia’s children go to school. She is a walking tragedy to those around her, due to the unsolved murder of her daughter Janie 25 years earlier, and the more recent death of her husband. Unrelieved anguish is the air she breathes, and her sole reason for being is her 2-year-old grandson, whose parents are about to whisk him off to America and out of Rachel’s life.

Finally, there is Tess, whose husband and best friend/cousin have informed Tess that they are in love with each other. A stunned Tess takes her 6 year old son and flies to Sydney to live with her mom and where she plans to enroll her boy at St. Angela’s. Enter hunky 40-something Connor, beloved P.E. teacher at St. Angela’s and Tess’ former boyfriend.  In a rage at her husband, Tess sees Connor as a prime candidate for a sexual fling, while Rachel decides that Connor is a prime candidate for her daughter’s murderer. Into this mix comes a dusty old letter from her husband that Cecilia innocently stumbles upon in her attic, containing a secret that rips off the patina of complacency in her life.

The fact that the letter doesn’t appear until nearly half-way through the story is cleverly designed to build up anticipation, and it’s an effective device. I also appreciated the way Moriarty gives us private glimpses into a wide variety of relationships, while using self-reflection on the part of several of her characters to show how easily we can derail ourselves with our own insecurities. Finally, I found especially clever the epilogue that Moriarty offers us, which supplies all the “what ifs” that may have run through our heads throughout her story, and which provokes the all-important question: how might our own lives have taken a different path, if only….

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #47: Locke & Key Volumes 1-6 by Joe Hill, Art by Gabriel Rodriguez


Locke & Key is a six volume graphic novel that is scary, smart, and humorous. The first five volumes [Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, Crown of Shadows, Keys to the Kingdom, Clockworks] have already been published. Volume 6 [Alpha & Omega] will be published in February 2014, but you can pick up the single issues now, except for the final chapter. That will be published Nov. 27 and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Locke & Key involves quite a bit of murder and horror, which is familiar territory for author Joe Hill and his father Stephen King. I usually shy away from creepy stuff, but the story line is so good, it sucked me in, and the artwork is a stunning complement to the writing.


The series focuses on the Locke family and their ancestral home Keyhouse, which sits on the edge of a small Massachusetts island town called Lovecraft. When mom Nina, teen son Tyler, teen daughter Kinsey and first grader Bode arrive at Keyhouse, which has been maintained by cool, artsy Uncle Duncan, their dad Rendell has just been brutally murdered by a mentally unstable high school student named Sam Lesser. Tyler feels responsible, Kinsey is overcome by fear and tears, Bode feels lost and alone, and Nina hides inside a wine bottle. The local police keep a watch on the family when Sam Lesser escapes Juvenile Detention in California. Sam is on the road to find the family, drawn forward by a voice that comes to him and promises him everything he desires in return for his service in locating some keys.


Throughout the volumes, Bode, Kinsey and Tyler find unusual keys around Keyhouse, keys that unlock magical/supernatural powers. Meanwhile the malevolent force that sucks in Sam also tries to work on the members of the Locke family. The story itself is fascinating because it’s more than a traditional quest story or “forces-of-good-versus-forces-of-evil” story. It is truly a psychological thriller. Many of the keys have the power to transform the person him or herself — to change form or look or even to get literally inside someone’s head. In the wrong hands, they could wreak havoc not just on one person or the town of Lovecraft, but the whole world.


I enjoy graphic novels, but for me, it’s only worthwhile if the plot and writing are any good. That’s the hook for me, while my husband gets pulled in by art first. We both loved Locke & Key. Hill’s creative plot and sympathetic characters made me keep reading even when I was terrified about what was going to happen next (which I hate; I generally avoid horror in all forms). He goes back in time to provide an unusual family history for the Lockes, and his tale of the creation of the keys demonstrates an inventive mix of historical and supernatural imagination. The modern day Lockes are dealing with the usual teen angst and high school drama, which is also the source for the humor in the story. I especially enjoyed the prom scene that gives a hilarious nod to “Carrie.” Hill has written a “sins-of-the-father/sins-of-the-son” storyline that unfolds with tragic consequences but the possibility of redemption.


My husband recommended Locke & Key and we discussed the merits of the graphic novel form over traditional fiction for this story. Certainly, Locke & Key could have been told as a novel, but given the incredibly imaginative creatures and scenarios Hill envisioned, the graphic novel form was the perfect form for the story. Rodriguez’ ghosts and demons, the keys, the settings (Rodriguez is trained as an architect and it shows in his blueprints for Keyhouse) and characters are better than anything my poor imagination could have come up with. I also loved his homage to Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes at the opening of Vol. 4.


I both look forward to and dread the last installment of Locke & Key. Hill has no compunction about killing characters in brutal ways, and children are not exempt from that. I’m worried about losing some of them (I love Rufus and Erin — two characters who know the truth and suffer horribly because of it), and I hate to see the story end because it’s so good. The series has been nominated for The Eisner and other awards, and fellow writers such as Warren Ellis and Robert Crais have praised the writing and art. As they say, this is a graphic novel for those who don’t really like graphic novels.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review 26: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is an amusingly dark novel with an interesting conceit. The narrator, Balram Halwai, tells his story of murder, oppression, and triumph through a letter he is writing over the course of several days to the Chinese premiere. It is bizarre, twisted, and compelling, and I highly recommend it.

Adiga’s portrayal of India received mixed reviews from what I have seen. Some critics felt his explanation and details were terribly exaggerated where others felt that he gave a fair, thigh exaggerated, picture of reality. I don’t know much about India so I read it with a bit of skepticism, assuming it to be sort of historical fiction in that respect. The caste system in and of itself is so different from my reality that the treatment of people in t he novel was jarring and horrific.
I really enjoy a story that gets you to root for the bad guy, and Adiga does just that. Balram is an admitted murderer, cold, calculating, narcissistic, and probably a little psychotic. Even so, he gets you to root for them because of the odds he is against, and the system he is caught within. Even though his decisions have probably lead his family to a horrible end, you can see why he made his choices. That sort of uncomfortable championing coupled with an effective use of a non-linear timeline makes for a good read.

Valyruh #CBR5 Review #80: Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

I’ve been reading Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels for years now, and most of them are pretty good but I must say this one left me shaking my hard at the scattered plot, the uninteresting characters and, worst of all, the trite and predictable ending.  Even Delaware’s buddy, colorful homicide cop Milo Sturgis, has only a minor role to play in the story—Delaware’s too-cute dog has a larger role– and it all falls to psychiatrist Delaware to pull the threads together and solve the mystery. He does so, of course, but at a snail’s pace that fails to capture the imagination along the way.

The story opens with Holly Ruche, a pregnant lady in an uninteresting marriage who has invested a great deal emotionally in her newly-purchased home, only to discover the bones of a dead infant buried in a box in her garden. However, the infant is many decades old and probably died a natural death. Until the very last insipid page of the book, Holly doesn’t add anything further to the plot, and so I couldn’t figure out why Kellerman keeps her in the first four chapters of the novel? The story finally gets underway when another infant’s bones turn up in a nearby park, but these are much fresher and indeed, appear to have been deliberately de-fleshed before burial.  Aha! Finally, there’s a villain to hunt down! Delaware starts piecing together the mystery from woefully insufficient evidence, and a couple of bodies turn up that keep him on the right path—a path that appears to lead to the underbelly of Hollywood glitz.

 I’ll stop there for fear of giving away too much to die-hard Delaware fans, but I must say that this novel left me sorely disappointed. Perhaps if Kellerman stayed away from Hollywood and went back to the real-world dramas which Dr. Delaware has proven so good at dealing with over the years.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #63: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

This debut novel takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s, where a newly-arrived young British cop hopes to start his life over thanks to the sponsorship of his rich and politically connected uncle. Field is just getting used to the atmosphere in Shanghai–hot, corrupt, sordid, and exotic, drastic contrasts of rich and poor, with deadly but exciting currents running just under the surface—when he is assigned by the political unit to which he is attached to keep tabs on a rival police unit involved in criminal investigation. The heads of both units are vying for the post of police commissioner, and Field is an unwitting pawn in the battle. Money begins to accrue mysteriously in Field’s account, but he is not sure who is trying to buy his loyalty.

When Field gets in the middle of a homicide investigation involving the brutal mutilation/murders of several Russian prostitutes under the thumb of a powerful Chinese criminal warlord named Lu, he finds himself falling for one of Lu’s women, Natasha. Like the other women, Natasha had been the privileged child of wealthy white Russians until they were forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended up in Shanghai without wealth or protection. Considered homeless refugees, the Russians slipped to the bottom of the Shanghai social order and their daughters fell under Lu’s control to survive. But someone is killing them and Field is determined to solve the mystery and protect Natasha.

Especially fascinating about this novel are the author’s insights into the role of the British colonial elites in carving out a gilded enclave for themselves in the midst of the hunger and poverty, the crime, drugs, filth and tragedy that is the real Shanghai. Our hero Field is bounced back and forth between the uncle and his ilk at their clubs and dinners, their elegant homes and offices, their gorgeous clothing, their perfumed wives, and the underbelly of society represented by Lu and his army of thousands, who among other things finances orphanages so he can have his pick of discardable playthings and who can order murders with the flick of a finger. It is when the idealistic Field discovers that his uncle’s circles are wholly dependent on Lu for their political power, that he becomes the target of both sides.

The action comes thick and fast, and the identity of the killer eludes Field’s—and thus the reader’s—grasp time and again. Field and Natasha have to decide whether to trust each other, Field has to decide who among his fellow cops he can trust, and who among his uncle’s friends he can rely on. Nothing is as it seems, and the good guys and bad change places several times as the story races to a terrifying conclusion.  An exciting, well-written, well-paced and atmospheric  thriller.

Mrs Smith Reads Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson, #CBR5, Review #14


Everybody’s parents screw up. In Antony Baekeland’s case, it seems he never even had a chance against the completely off the scale fucked-up-edness of his parents and their raising of him. Savage Grace documents, through interviews, letters and remembrances, as well as medical and police reports, the long strange trip it was, growing up and becoming the poor little rich boy who murdered his mother.

Mrs Smith Reads Savage Grace by Natalie Robins and Steven M. L. Aronson

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #30: Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante


For those who prefer their narrators unreliable, Alice LaPlante provides a truly unique take on this literary device in her murder mystery Turn of Mind. The unreliable narrator in this novel, Dr. Jennifer White, is an orthopedic surgeon in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her attorney husband James has died in a car crash; she has two grown children; and her best friend/neighbor Amanda has  been murdered, her body discovered with four fingers surgically removed. Did Jennifer do it? As the murder investigation unfolds, we see Jennifer experiencing the deepening stages of her disease. On good days, she recognizes her children and remembers a few facts of her past, but good days are growing fewer in number, and Jennifer’s aggression is increasing. Her family has to make decisions about placement outside the home while a Chicago police detective tries to piece together the facts of the murder from Jennifer’s fragmented memories.

As a murder mystery, the novel is quite successful. LaPlante is skillful in creating her characters and their relationships to one another. Jennifer, her family and her friend Amanda are revealed, piecemeal, to be quite a dysfunctional crew, but that is only if you believe Jennifer’s murky and sometimes cryptic recollections. Her marriage had some rough passages, her children seem to have had rocky relationships with both parents and each other, and Amanda seems to be a friend with some rather sharp edges. The final resolution to the mystery was both tragic and plausible.

As a depiction of Alzheimer’s disease, the novel is an even greater success. LaPlante’s mapping of the progression of the disease in Jennifer is gripping and heartbreaking. Jennifer is initially aware of her problem, but with time, she fades more and more into her memories. We also see how those around her react to her illness. When Jennifer “checks out” down memory lane, some try to force her back to the present day and seem angry and resentful that she can’t remember things they’ve told her repeatedly. Others accept that this is the new reality and try not to upset her. The importance of financial planning as well as health care planning in advance is evident, as is the fact that the rich and successful can access better services (home care nurses, a well appointed nursing home) than others.

Turn of Mind is a satisfying and successful murder mystery that will educate the reader about Alzheimer’s disease. And keeping your mind engaged with reading and writing book reviews is an excellent way to try to stave off the disease.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #13: White Oleander by Janet Fitch

I believe that I read White Oleander many many moons ago and I recently reread it due to my participation in a book club with students at the college where I am employed. Lately I’ve been reading comics and slowly slogging my way through “A Song of Ice and Fire” so this was a nice departure into some meaty, but not too meaty, literature.

This is the story of Astrid, and how her life is altered by her mother’s total self-serving and unyielding personality and sociopathic behavior. Astrid’s tale is one of nature versus nurture. As she bounces around the foster care system you wait to see how she is going to fair. She tries to make sense of her mother, her place in the world and ultimately herself as a lone survivor and stumbles frequently and with great consequence.

It’s a slow, painful read and rich in imagery and symbolism. As a former english major it was nice to have this sort of story to dive into without feeling compelled to pick it apart. Instead I chose to just revel in the story and the language and sad reality of Astrid’s life, and her struggle to connect with anyone and climb out from the depths of despair into which her upbringing have pushed her.