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

Savage-Grace-The-True-Story-of-a-Doomed

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

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

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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.

KimMiE” ’s #CBR5 Review #3: I Am Murdered: George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, and the Killing that Shocked a New Nation by Bruce Chadwick

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George Wythe was an American patriot. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served as one of Virginia’s representatives at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He was a well-known judge and a law professor at William and Mary (America’s first law professor, they say). Friend and mentor to Thomas Jefferson and a well-respected pillar of the community, George Wythe was admired by all who knew him, so it was quite a shock to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia, when he was murdered by his grand-nephew.

Wythe was 80 years old when he, along with two members of his household, fell suddenly and violently ill. His servant Lydia Broadnax, a freed slave, and his protégé Michael Brown were also stricken, with Broadnax eventually recovering and Brown dying within a week. Wythe hung on for two weeks, all the time insisting that he had been poisoned by his sister’s grandson—and ironically, his own namesake—George Wythe Sweeney.

It wasn’t hard to believe, of course. Everyone knew Sweeney as a gambler and a wastrel who had taken advantage of his uncle’s generosity time and again. While living with his uncle in Richmond, Sweeney forged checks and sold some of Wythe’s valuable books to pay gambling debts. Wythe never pressed charges in those cases, hoping against hope that Sweeney would mature and settle down, but even his generous spirit had to draw the line at his own murder. Wythe lived long enough to not only accuse Sweeney but to cut him out of his will.

The court of public opinion was roundly against Sweeney and the case against him seemed air tight. All signs pointed to arsenic poisoning, a star prosecutor was on the case, and there was even a reliable eye witness in Lydia Broadnax, who claimed to have seen Sweeney put something in the coffee that morning. Yet as with many a famous trial, mistakes were made. During the autopsy, the doctors failed to perform basic tests for arsenic that would have proven the cause of death. Two well-known attorneys eager to make names for themselves by winning an unwinnable case came to Sweeney’s defense. And Broadnax was prevented from testifying because Virginia law did not allow blacks, free or slave, to testify in court.

I Am Murdered provides an interesting account of law and politics in the United States’ early years. Chadwick delves into the relationship between Wythe and Jefferson and recounts their impact on Virginia law. He also paints a colorful picture of Richmond, which was apparently the Sodom and Gomorrah of colonial America with all its gambling houses and brothels. The botched autopsy and the doctors’ initial misdiagnosis of cholera illuminates how even the very best doctors of the day were prone to dreadful screw ups. Finally, the simple detail of Broadnax not being permitted to testify puts the period’s race relations front and center in the narrative.

I’d have to say that I Am Murdered is more about the history of Virginia than it is a historical crime story, which is fine, just not what I was expecting from a book with, you know, murder in the title. So even though I enjoyed the book and found the history interesting, I felt strangely dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s because it held so much potential to be a sensational true-life crime drama: the villain in the story is so shameless he tries to get his victim to bail him out of jail! Edmund Randolph, one of the attorneys who defended Sweeney, was the same attorney who drafted the new will that cut Sweeney out of his inheritance. My God, can’t you just see this as an episode of Law and Order: Colonial America?

As a slice of early American history, I Am Murdered is well worth the read. Just know that’s what you are getting, with a little murder on the side.

HelloKatieO’s #CBR5 Review #7: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berednt

The cover of the 1994 novel

The cover of the 1994 novel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perusing CannonballRead while in a book rut, I saw faintingviolet’s review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and couldn’t believe I’d never read it. It’s right up my alley – salacious gossip, Southern setting, murder mystery, small town style drama unfolding in the middle of an almost unbelievable set of trials.

Part I of the novel introduces the reader to the city of Savannah. Savannah is a character of its own in the book, and the city surpasses the sum of its very quirky inhabitants. You meet Joe Odom, a broke ex-lawyer running some kind of trashy piano bar salon where ever he’s currently squatting. And Lady Chablis, the gorgeous transvestite who tricks the author into being her chauffeur  And of course Jim Williams, he of the antiques and fabulous, prestigious part fame.

Part II is what happens after the murder. The most fun part of this book is that it’s not a whodunit, it’s a whydunit. We know Jim Williams pulled the trigger.  Self defense or cold blooded murder? This is not the typical crime novel trope with the angelic, innocent victim who was clearly wronged.  This is real life; murder is messy; Williams’s victim Hansford was a male hustler with a violent temper. It depends on what evidence you believe. It depends on who you’re friends with in the town. It depends on who you like the best.

If you’re interested in what I disliked, read more….

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #4: My First Murder by Leena Lehtolainen

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Leena Lehtolainen is a Finnish writer who has had success in her native land with a murder mystery series featuring detective Maria Kallio, the lone female in the violent crimes unit of the Helsinki Police Department. The author highlights chauvinism in the department and in society at large, along with the capital’s problems with drugs, prostitution and other illegal activities involving shady types from Estonia and Russia.

Maria is trying to decide where to go in life and with her career. She had been in law school but turned to police work as way to help people. But with this stint in violent crimes, dealing with rapes and murders and an alcoholic boss who is frequently out on leave due to his problems, Maria is losing her taste for the work and considering going back to school to finish her law degree.

The case that falls in her lap involves a group of people she once knew. A former roommate’s boyfriend has been murdered at his summer villa while spending the weekend their with choir friends. Tommi had been a ladies man, successful engineer, from wealthy family. Was it a jilted lover or a jealous boyfriend? As Maria conducts her investigation, she discovers details about a life that even his closest friends had little knowledge of. Did one of them do it or was it some gang-related murder?

As murder mysteries go, it was an okay book. This is the first of a series, and I feel like authors need 2-3 under their belts before they really flesh out their characters. There are a few who will clearly be around — her drunk boss, her good-humored and hard working sidekick, the possible love interest. The suspects in this novel were an interesting bunch, each with some reason to love and hate Tommi. The details about crime and culture in Helsinki were adequate, but I think I have been spoiled by Stieg Larsson. When I think of Nordic crime thriller, I expect a little more these days. Larsson’s Girl series was brilliant and would be a better choice for people who want gritty, complex characters and crimes. This is more of an airport read — something to pass the time when you can’t be doing what you want to do. I wouldn’t rush out to read the next one, but if it came across my path, I’d probably read it and not mind it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #6 – Mad River by John Sandford

I’ve done a ton of driving this week: Tampa to Miami and back again (in one day), out to Ocala, and various other shorter trips. Hours and hours and hours of driving. Did y’all know that the Cracker Barrel (that’s a “restaurant,” for those of you who live places they ain’t) has a book-on-CD rental deal? You can go to the CB, grab a book, and go. Well, after they charge you what it would cost to buy the book-on-CD. Then you do your travelling, and return the CDs to any other Cracker Barrel anywhere. Then they figure out the rental fee, and you get the rest back. Costs a little more than the library, but (given funding) with better hours. Oh, and it’s a fairly red-state operation, so a lot of the books available are Glenn Beckish and John Grishamy, so often one is stuck with picking the best of a bad lot.

I kind of felt that way about this book – looked like pulp fiction, but at least no one was trying to convert me to anything. I had heard of Sandford and his Prey/Lucas Davenport novels. Not sure if I’ve read any, but I was at least familiar with the name. The jacket copy was pretty standard, murder, mayhem, clever dicks (that’s short for detective, potty mind), stuff like that. In this one, some young Minnesotans go on a killing spree. There are no spoilers here, the book opens with the three killers committing their first two murders. They want to think they’re Bonnie & Clyde (and that other guy), but Bonnie & Clyde had two brain cells to rub together. These kids don’t, for sure. There are some complications behind one of the murders, and the whys and wherefores.

This book features Virgil Flowers, as kind of a spin-off of the Davenport stories (and, if you look at all of those books, it’s a wonder there’s anyone left alive there). I had no idea who the guy is, and this book is not the first in the series, but it was easy enough to follow. It was interesting, and repeatedly noted by the characters, that the cops knew who did it, but couldn’t find them, so the killings kept happening.

The story was more Starkweather/Fugate than Bonnie/Clyde, but with a couple of twists. It was a fine listen (can’t call it a read), and definitely kept me interested whilst driving all over the damn state. I may check out a few others, but I may stick to the “on CD” option.