Saturday, December 20, 2014

Found, Near Water

Found, Near Water by Katherine Hayton
Katherine Hayton Publication: 7/2/2014
eBook; 214 pages

ISBN-13: 9780473279936
Rena Sutherland wakes from a coma to discover her daughter's been missing for days. No one's noticed, no one's complained, no one's searching.  The victim support officer assigned to her case, Christine Emmett puts aside her own problems as she tries to guide Rena through the maelstrom of her daughter's disappearance. A task made harder by an ex-husband desperate for control; a paedophile on early-release in the community; and a psychic who knows more than seems possible. And flowing beneath everything is a crime - perpetrated across generations - pulling them into its wake.

My Thoughts:

Found, Near Water by Katherine Hayton is a highly recommended, well-paced mystery/crime novel set in New Zealand.

As a former psychiatrist, Christine Emmett should be the best victim support counselor around, but as the leader and member of a support group for women who have lost daughters, she is dealing with past trauma of her own that is still playing havoc with her life. When DSS Erik Smith of the Christchurch Police Department contacts her to talk to Rena Sutherland as her victim support officer, he really wants her to decipher the truth. Rena has woken up in the hospital after a car accident and wants to know where her daughter, Chloe, is. The trouble is that no one saw her daughter and the police aren't even sure they really believe she has a daughter. Once Christine determines that Rena is telling the truth, there is a mad scramble to look for her daughter. It's been days since the accident and so the trail is cold.

Interspersed between chapters are the stories of Terry, Ilene, Kendra, and Joanne, the 4 members of Christine's support group who have all endured the disappearance or death of their daughters. Adding to the tension is a known pedophile who has been released from prison, Rena's controlling ex-husband, and a psychic who claims to know where Chloe can be found.

Found, Near Water  was a riveting read for me. I found all the characters well developed and believable. You never know exactly what trauma a personal tragedy can extract on an individual's emotional health. The individual stories are powerfully written and emotionally charged. It makes the search for Chloe even more urgent and also more difficult for Christine to watch since she is still suffering from her own tragedy. The ending was not predictable and actually a surprise for me, which is nice. As a bonus, I rather enjoyed the New Zealand setting.

My Kindle edition was courtesy of Katherine Hayton for review purposes.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

No Mercy

No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality
by Eleanor Learmonth, Jenny Tabakoff
Text Publishing Company: 12/16/2014
eBook, 324 pages

ISBN-13: 9781922147240

"A fascinating post-mortem of how certain groups manage to survive while others flailed about in drunken, murderous chaos."—The Daily Telegraph
We approach the subject in the light of what can be called the Lord of the Flies principle, after the famous novel by William Golding in which a group of schoolboys is marooned on an uninhabited island after a plane crash. Lord of the Flies depicts the boys' horrifying and all-too-believable regression to a state of savagery and blood-lust.
A superb mix of psychology, history, and nail-biting storytelling, No Mercy investigates historical instances of disaster and asks, "How far would you go to survive?"
No Mercy looks at what happens to human beings when disaster strikes: how they tackle the task of survival, how they change, how they treat their companions.
No Mercy covers the infamous Robbers Cave experiment in Oklahoma in the 1950s, the wrecks of the Batavia in 1629 and the French vessel Medusa off Mauritania in 1816, the Chilean mine collapse in 2010, and many more disaster situations. The authors examine the factors that lead to failure or success and how they are explained by modern neuroscience.
My Thoughts:

No Mercy: True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality by Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff is a very highly recommended, thought provoking look at how groups of people act and the extremes they will go to in order to survive during a traumatic event, such as a ship wreck or plane crash in a remote area. Why do some people work together and survive the disaster with fewer fatalities while other groups disintegrate into stupidity and violence?

Learmonth and Tabakoff note in the prologue that, "This book considers numerous such examples of the Lord of the Flies principle in history. We focus on predominantly adult groups who found themselves stranded and in conditions of extreme stress at dates between 134 BC and 2010 AD, in remote locations across the globe. Several of these episodes will be considered in depth; others will appear as we look at the factors that seem to dictate the survivor groups’ behavior and dynamics. We analyze the twisting path of social disintegration with reference to other failed groups—some famous, others relegated to the dusty, forgotten corners of history."

No Mercy looks at how William Golding in his book The Lord of the Flies presents us with a principle that can be used when observing any group that finds itself isolated and faced with the struggle to survive. "The Lord of the Flies principle 1. groups will inevitably fragment into factions. 2. leaders frequently become obsessed with maintaining control rather than leading. 3. if the strong are battling to survive, they will not waste care and resources on the weak. 4. morality, mercy and compassion are the expendable luxuries of civilization. 5. individuals will passively sanction evil actions by others to avoid becoming the next victim. 6. the rule of law will decay into a state of nature. 7. in the long run, there is only one rule: self-preservation." (Page xix)

I was engrossed in each tale of survival (or not) and the various actions each group took. "While almost every disaster has a degree of stupidity at its core, it is how the survivors behave and respond that often separates the living from the dead." The authors point out that some of the stupidity is actually the result of a built in neuro-chemical reaction that we have no control over.

Contents include:
A Location map
The Lord of the Flies principle
HELL ON WATER: THE MEDUSA RAFT; Fear; Panic; Faith in command; Alcohol; Fairness
PROBLEMS IN PATAGONIA: THE WRECK OF THE WAGER; Fragmentation; Caring for the weak and injured; ‘Polar disease’; Starvation; Stupidity and inertia
CASTAWAYS IN THE SUB-ANTARCTIC; The shifting sands of authority; Compassion; The dogma of race; The dark; The beast
BLOODSHED IN VINLAND; Suicide; Abuse and violence; The last resort; Killing for food
A MORAL ABYSS: THE LIFEBOAT OF THE WILLIAM BROWN; Murder; Thrill kills; Last man standing; Scars; Implications
Avoiding the Lord of the Flies principle; Into the woods: the Robbers Cave experiment; Précis of Lord of the Flies
Acknowledgments; Sources; Illustrations; Index

The opening of each major section shows the title and other quick statistics. For example
Hell on Water: the raft of the Medusa
Location: Atlantic Ocean off the Sahara Desert
nationality: Primarily French
Date: 1816
Fatality Rate: 91%
Duration: 13 days

Castaways in the Sub-Antarctic
Location: Auckland Islands
nationality: Multinational crew
Date: 1864
Fatality Rate: 0%
Duration: 600 days
"While the other case studies we have considered can easily be categorized as abject failures, this example shows that a group can sidestep the Lord of the Flies principle even in the harshest of circumstances." In this chapter it was also interesting that many survivors talk about an ‘unseen presence’, which felt malevolent for some and a comforting guardian angel to others. This has been named the Third Man Syndrome after Shackleton’s encounter.

This is really a compelling, fascinating, dramatic look back at the social decay and implosion that occurred in various groups of people under extreme stress. It proves "Golding’s overarching concept that the primary thing from which the group needs protection is itself."

youtube trailer

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the
Text Publishing Company for review purposes.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

You Could Be Home By Now

You Could Be Home By Now by Tracy Manaster
Adams Media: 12/5/2014
eBook, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781440583124

An hour and a half outside Tucson, Arizona, The Commons is a luxury retirement community where no full-time resident under the age of fifty-five is permitted. Young professionals Seth and Alison Collier accept jobs there as a means of dealing (badly) with a recent loss. When a struggling resident, underwater on her mortgage and unable to relocate due to the nation’s ongoing housing crisis, is discovered to be raising her grandson in secret, the story--with the help of a well-meaning teenaged beauty blogger and a retiree with reasons of his own to seek the spotlight--goes viral. You Could Be Home By Now explores the fallout for all involved, taking on the themes of grief and memory, aspiration and social class, self-deception, and the drive in all of us to find a place to belong.

My Thoughts:

You Could Be Home By Now by Tracy Manaster covers a wide variety of social issues in an intelligent, entertaining, and highly recommended debut novel.

Seth and Alison Collier are teachers who have recently experienced the death of their first child as a newborn. Seth, who is seemingly struggling more with handling his grief than Alison, suggests that they make a complete change of atmosphere to help them deal with their grief. They leave their teaching jobs in Vermont and move to the Commons, an over 55 planned community in outside Tucson, Arizona.

Once they are ensconced in their new positions, we meet some of the residents. Sadie, a recent widow, has her teenage granddaughter, Lily, come to visit. Lily who has come out as gay, has been sent to visit after her school reprimands her over a post on her blog, which features fashion advice for teens. She ends up saving the life of the grandchild secretly living next door with Mona Rosko, a curmudgeonly woman who has been unable to sell her house in the community due to the depressed housing market. The discovery of a child under 55 living in the community makes Mona a target for eviction. Ben Thales, who is a recently divorced retired veterinarian, has his own reasons for spouting off to a news reporter in such a vitriol manner that the clip goes viral, making  Ben's mental health a concern for his son and ex-wife.

The pleasure I found in Manaster's novel surprised me. The writing is very good, but the real treasure is her characters. The emotions and inner turmoil of all the characters are handled so deftly and distinctly that I found myself enjoying the novel more and more. They have all the complex emotions, vulnerabilities, and disparate motives of real people, so they are not easily thrown into good/bad categories. They are all people struggling along with events, considering events and their actions based their own personal experiences. Each character is allowed to tell the events from their point of view and we are privy to the reason's they are doing many of the things that others are questioning.

Anyone who has ever lived with a home owner's association full of persnickety despots will totally understand how the rules in the retirement community, while written for a reason, are hard to accept in all situations. Life is never quite that neat and tidy. As a personal aside I once lived in an HOA community where a couple residents on the board were trying to dictate that only a certain kind of rose could be planted, as well as several other rules that were not in the by-laws and thus totally legally unenforceable. This experience did show me how a little power can affect some people, and, more importantly, that they can only be the neighborhood bullies if you allow it. You can say, "No, I will not sign that petition." and life will go on.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Adams Media for review purposes.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Her Brilliant Career

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties 
by Rachel Cooke
HarperCollins: 12/2/2014
eBook, 368 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062333865

In Her Brilliant Career, acclaimed journalist Rachel Cooke goes back in time to offer an entertaining and iconoclastic look at ten women in the 1950s—pioneers whose professional careers and complicated private lives helped to create the opportunities available to today's women. These intrepid and ambitious individuals—among them a film director, a cook, an architect, an editor, an archaeologist, and a race car driver—left the house, discovered the bliss of work, and ushered in the era of the working woman.
Daring and independent, these remarkable, unsung heroines—whose obscurity makes their accomplishments all the more astonishing and relevant—loved passionately, challenged men's control, made their own mistakes, and took life on their own terms, breaking new ground and offering inspiration. Their individual portraits gradually form a landscape of 1950s culture, and of women's unique—and rapidly evolving—role.
Before there could be a Danica Patrick, there had to be a Sheila van Damm; before there was Barbara Walters, there was Nancy Spain; before Kathryn Bigelow came Muriel Box. The pioneers of Her Brilliant Career forever changed the fabric of culture, society, and the workforce. This is the Fifties retold: vivid, surprising, and, most of all, modern.
My Thoughts:

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke is a highly recommended collection of seven essays that cover the lives and accomplishments of ten widely diverse women and their careers in the 1950's in the UK. Many of these women were the first in their careers, to make a mark. Cooke observes that, “One of the great upsides of being the first was that guilt, as it pertained to working women, had not yet been invented.”

The women presented in Her Brilliant Career include a diverse group: Patience Gray, cookbook writer; Nancy Spain, writer and personality; Joan Werner Laurie, magazine editor; Sheila van Damm, rally-car driver and theatre manager; Alison Smithson, architect; Margery Fish, gardener; Muriel Box, director, and Betty Box, producer; Jacquetta Hawkes, archaeologist; and Rose Heilbron, QC., the first woman to sit at the Old Bailey. Her Brilliant Career also includes a Select Bibliography, Acknowledgements, and an Index.

In the introduction, Cooke points out "I prefer the idea of role models, inspirational figures who make you want to cheer. The extraordinary, mould-breaking women you will find in the pages that follow weren’t perfect. They were, like all human beings, flawed. They doubted themselves, they got in muddles, they made mistakes; feeling defensive, they sometimes seemed difficult and distant even to those who loved them. They certainly did not – dread phrase – ‘have it all’, or not all of the time, at any rate. Their children sometimes had a hard time of it. But they loved what they did and they got on with doing it as best they could in far less equal times than our own. If that isn’t encouraging – a kind of rallying call to the twenty-first-century battle-weary – I don’t know what is."
Isn't that the truth?

All the women lived in the post WWII UK, but readers not in the UK,  should still find inspiration from these ten women and what their accomplishments meant for the women of today. All the essays can be read as stand alone pieces, but as Cooke writes, "But if you read all seven of them there will, I hope, be a cumulative effect, the culture of the Fifties – its food, its architecture, its popular culture, its habits and its opinions – revealed through the lives of ten revolutionaries and taste makers who just happen to have been women. I hope these stories make people reconsider the ‘lost’ decade between the end of the war and feminism. I hope, too, that they speak to readers everywhere, whichever city or continent they happen to be reading in."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
HarperCollins for review purposes.

The Sweetness of Life

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer
MacLehose Press: 12/2/2014
eBook, 320 pages

ISBN-13: 9781623658533

A German bestseller, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, and longlisted for the German Book Prize in 2006, Paulus Hochgatterer has created a chilling psychological thriller a group of damaged people living in a pleasant and seemingly tranquil Austrian village. It's the Christmas holiday, the presents have been opened, and a six-year-old girl is drinking cocoa and playing with her grandfather. The doorbell rings, and the old man gets up. The next time the girl sees her grandfather, he is lying by the barn, his skull broken; his face a red pulp against the white snow. From that time on, she does not speak a single word.
Along with Detective Superintendent Ludwig Kovacs, Raffael Horn, the psychiatrist engaged to treat the silent child, reluctantly becomes involved in solving the murder. Their parallel researches sweep through the town: a young mother who believes her new-born child is the devil; a Benedictine monk who uses his iPod to drown the voices in his head; a high-spending teenager who tortures cats. With his background as a child psychiatrist, Hochgatterer draws back the veil of normality and presents a disconcerting portrait of a winter-held town filled with unsavory inhabitants.
My Thoughts:

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer is a highly recommended, atmospheric and almost melancholy psychological thriller.

“Who could do a thing like that?” and why it sounded so jolly when she said it.
“Someone who has a problem with the sweetness of life,” he said, astonishing himself with his own words, because it was unlike him to tolerate such fanciful turns of phrase.

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, this is author Hochgatterer's U.S. debut.  Set in the Austrian town of Furth am See, The Sweetness of Life opens with a grandfather, Sebastian Wilfert, playing Ludo with his granddaughter, Katharina during the Christmas season. A knock at the door sends her grandfather outside and Katharina later discovers his headless corpse outside, in the snow. Katharina goes mute, tightly holding onto two Ludo pieces. The crime is investigated by Detective Ludwig Kovacs,while child psychiatrist Raffael Horn sees Katharina in hopes of getting her to talk.

Both are Kovacs and Horn are morose, introspective, middle aged men who tend toward self -contemplation and disillusionment, which lends the whole novel a melancholy, mournful feeling. While we follow both men we see who the suspects in a town that seems to be full of damaged people. The actual setting and time of year amps up the bleak, atmospheric tension.

The strength of Hochgatterer's novel is found in the elegant descriptions juxtaposed to the sometimes depressing and brutal insight into the human condition, which makes perfect sense since Hochgatterer is a Vienna child psychiatrist. There is no nail biting suspense here, but rather a tale with an overwhelmingly feeling of depression, akin to seasonal affective disorder, mixed with the fragile hold on sanity experienced by several people. 

The pace is slow and thoughtful, but the mystery is solved in the end, while you hope even more for some relief for both Kovacs and Horn as they plod through their very challenging jobs where despair and gloom seem to be close companions.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of MacLehose Press for review purposes.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

My Sister's Grave

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni
Amazon Publishing: 11/1/2014
eBook, 410 pages

ISBN-13: 9781477825570

Tracy Crosswhite has spent twenty years questioning the facts surrounding her sister Sarah’s disappearance and the murder trial that followed. She doesn’t believe that Edmund House—a convicted rapist and the man condemned for Sarah’s murder—is the guilty party. Motivated by the opportunity to obtain real justice, Tracy became a homicide detective with the Seattle PD and dedicated her life to tracking down killers.
When Sarah’s remains are finally discovered near their hometown in the northern Cascade mountains of Washington State, Tracy is determined to get the answers she’s been seeking. As she searches for the real killer, she unearths dark, long-kept secrets that will forever change her relationship to her past—and open the door to deadly danger.

My Thoughts:  

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni is a highly recommended police procedural/legal thriller that will keep you thoroughly entertained.

Twenty years ago Tracy Crosswhite's younger sister Sarah disappeared without a trace in the mountain town of Cedar Grove, Washington. Now her body has been found and Tracy, a Seattle homicide detective, needs some answers. Although there was a man convicted for her murder, Tracy has never been entirely convinced that he was guilty as it appeared that the evidence presented at the trail may have been rigged. With the discovery of the skeleton/body after so many years, Tracy wants some questions answered but it seems that many of the officials involved want her to stop asking the questions.

The story is told through flashbacks twenty years ago set between today's current events. Most of the book focuses on Tracy trying to uncover the truth and get some real answers to her questions. Tracy is a compelling, strong female lead character who is persistent, determined, and intelligent. Certainly she will be welcomed back if Dugoni should start a series featuring her on the investigation.

There were a few times that the plot unnecessarily slowed down, as past events were ruminated over again, and the ending seemed rather predictable to me. That said, I read compulsively to the end to put all the pieces together and reach the conclusion. This is a very satisfying police procedural and should satisfy fans of that genre.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Amazon Publishing via Netgalley for review purposes.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Vineyard

The Vineyard by Michael Hurley
Ragbagger Press: 11/25/2014
eBook, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780976127567

Dory Delano, Charlotte Harris, and Turner Graham have been drifting through life since their days as roommates at Smith College, ten years ago. Dory is resisting taking the reins of her family's legacy and fortune even as she relishes the fabulous lifestyle it affords her in the fashionable seaside resort of Martha's Vineyard. She invites her old friends to join her for a summer on the Vineyard in hopes of rediscovering the innocence of old days and healing new wounds. But hidden in their midst and unknown to all but a few, a reclusive--some say dangerous--fisherman wanders alone, fueling wild speculation about his purpose and his past. None of these women can imagine the events their encounter with the fisherman will set in motion, the shadow he will cast over their destinies, or the transformation that awaits the world they know.

My Thoughts:

The Vineyard by Michael Hurley is a highly recommended novel about friendship and overcoming difficult circumstances.

Three friends in their early 30's gather at Martha's Vineyard for a summer of reconnections but it ultimately becomes a time of healing and reawakening - with some added mysticism and allegorical tie-ins. Dory, Charlotte, and Turner all reunite on Dory's family residents on Martha's Vineyard. For Dory it is a time to keep trying to escape the expectations placed upon her based on her heritage and wealth. Charlotte has accepted her invitation because she is planning to commit suicide as soon as she arrives. Turner is simply at loose ends in her life and has no direction, beyond continuing her blog.

All three women have encounters with the fisherman. "His name was Enoch, which didn’t much matter, because almost no one knew his name or referred to him as anything other than “the fisherman.”  In the turn of events, he changes the lives of all three women.

The Vineyard opens with Charlotte planning to wade out into the ocean with her daughter Meredith's ashes immediately after she arrives. "Only the sea was far and wide enough to cover the grief of losing a daughter, a marriage, and a life that once had seemed to rise continually skyward, like a zephyr." She is still mourning the loss of her daughter and lamenting the refusal of the church to bury Meredith because she died unbaptized. Charlotte has the numbers 1183-2 tattooed on her left forearm as a self-imposed badge of shame. "They comprised the paragraph and section number of a single line of the Code of Canon Laws of the Catholic Church: The local ordinary can permit children whom the parents intended to baptize but who died before baptism to be given ecclesiastical funerals." She buys shrimp from the fisherman, and he later touches her life in an unexpected way.

Dory is a larger than life character who does nothing in half measures. It was all or nothing at all—with everything. The expectations her family's name seem to require of her has placed a restraint on her life from which that she wants to rebel. Her encounter with the fisherman is miraculous and alters her life.

Turner is a skeptic and negative about any help from a fisherman. She does know a good story hook when she sees one, however, so she blogs about the miraculous doings of the fisherman, freely making her posts allegorical as well as exaggerated. Her blog posts go viral and her hit numbers are unprecedented. Suddenly people all over want to know more. "The world was eager and the market was ripe for a new theology of redemption, and Turner’s stories about a strange fisherman on the Vineyard conveniently filled that void." People are all clamoring for a copy of what they think is Turner's soon to be published The Book of Enoch.

After enjoying Hurley's The Prodigal last year, I was pleased to read The Vineyard. The writing is still excellent and the narrative encompasses many of the same features: personal challenges, Catholicism, allegorical tie-ins, and sailing. This time there is a whole lot of sex, however, and not of the romantic variety or even with any care (emotional or practical). It's either a sexual predator, someone using their sexuality for their own purposes, or raw lust.  So, although the quality of the writing is just as good and descriptive, the actual story lost some of the momentum for me because the female characters just seemed off and rather mindless during those scenes. I enjoyed the novel enough to keep reading, though the ending, while it ties up all the storylines, was a bit too pat and sort of fizzled out for me.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the author for review purposes.