Winter Read #3: Sweetgirl

Sweetgirl

The stink got worse when I reached the second story, and I buried my nose in the crook of my arm and whispered for Carletta. I scanned the floor with my flashlight. The hall was narrow and unlit. The wallpaper was patterned with roosters and torn in wide strips, and beneath the paper, I could see the wood framing, and feel the cold whistling through. There was a door on each side of the hall and when I opened the first, the stench was like a wall I walked smack into. I jerked at the shoulders,and braced myself in the door frame, but couldn’t keep from retching. It was the foulest odor I had ever encountered, and I knew right off to call it death. I retched a second time, and then shone my light. The dog was lying stiff on the carpet in the center of the room, and I cried out when I saw its un-moving marble eyes. I saw the snout receding toward the collapsed jaw, and the fur that lay puddled where the muscles had gone soft. I backed the room and had to keep myself from slamming the door in rage. You want to bake your own brain with a bunch of damn Drano then fine, but leave a helpless animal trapped and starving to death while you did it? I was shaking angry, and had a thought like I should go downstairs and suffocate that son-of-a-bitch Shelton in his sleep.

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser

Sweetgirl is a novel about sixteen-year-old Percy who strikes out in the middle of a snowstorm to find her drug addict mother Carletta, who recently went missing once again. Percy does not find her mother – instead, she finds a baby girl, neglected in a drafty old farmhouse while the child’s mother lays in a drug-induced state downstairs with a local meth dealer named Shelton Potter. Percy knows that she cannot leave the baby alone to suffer – she takes the child with her out into the storm in the hopes that she can get her to a doctor before her condition worsens.

This novel is just as dark as you expect from the description. The druggies are as desperate and reckless as you would think, Percy’s life is as brutal and unforgiving as any child of a drug addict, and the details of baby Jenna’s neglect are as heartbreaking as they sound. However, Sweetgirl still stands out as a novel surprisingly full of forgiveness and hope. The point of view undoubtedly helped: the majority of the novel is told from Percy’s matter-of-fact perspective, and while she sees her life as it is, she still has that child-like expectation that things will work out in the long run. At the beginning of the novel, Percy comes across baby Jenna in a room by herself with an open window, and is determined to get Jenna to a hospital where she can be treated. Percy demonstrates an innocent confidence that if Jenna can make it to a hospital, her life will be dramatically improved; some adults may assume that Jenna will have a hard childhood no matter what, knowing that she will either be returned to her neglectful mother or go into a foster care system that often does not serve children well, but Percy does not show the same level of pessimism.

Sweetgirl absolutely does not flinch away from the brutal poverty of Michigan, and that, I believe, is the key to the development of the setting in this novel. As the action is beginning, a snowstorm is starting, spurring Percy to head out to find her mother and bring her home. She travels from house to house in a rural setting covered in snow, suffering frostbite, endangering her own life to save Jenna’s, we are taken across a wintery landscape as the snowstorm rages. I particularly appreciated the details given in the description of Shelton’s farmhouse and mobile home – I had a great mental picture of the world through which Percy moves. Even the culture of the drug world, and especially the conflict between Shelton and the Mexican American community was interesting – character development is almost always more thorough when we understand their world.

A novel like this one could easily tend towards simplified characters, especially the villains, but I was pleased to find that all the characters of Sweetgirl seemed well developed with strengths and weaknesses. Percy is compassionate and devoted to her family, willing to do anything to help those that need it, oftentimes at her own expense. Percy’s almost-stepfather Portis is an alcoholic and often irresponsible, but has a strong moral core and is willing to help Percy regardless of the personal cost. Even Shelton Potter, the “villain” of the novel, cares deeply for Jenna’s mother and when he believes that Jenna has been hurt he goes to great lengths to find her and bring her back – he is a villain due to his own poor decision-making and ignorance of babies. He never intended to hurt Jenna, he simply was ignorant (tremendously so) of how to take care of a child, and his drug addition makes him incredibly destructive and self-destructive.

In all, I would give Sweetgirl a 10 out of 10. This is a quick read whose gritty realism will appeal to some, while its well-developed characters and persistent optimism will appeal to the rest. I believe that anyone who picks this novel up will be glad that they did so, even considering its dark subject matter.

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100 Books to Read in a Lifetime

Hello, fellow bookworms!

I recently came across Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime – a list compiled by the editors and described as thus:

So many books, so little time. With this in mind, the Amazon Books editors set out to compile a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. We had a few goals when we started out: We wanted the list to cover all stages of a life (which is why you’ll find children’s books in here), and we didn’t want the list to feel like homework. Of course, no such list can be comprehensive – our lives, we hope, are long and varied – but we talked and argued and sifted and argued some more and came up with a list, our list, of favorites. What do you think? How did we do?

There are some great books listed on here – most of which I have heard of, some of which I have not. I want to give my reading for 2018 a little more focus, so I am going to do my best to have all of these books crossed off by the end of the year. I have crossed off the ones that I have read before (only 20!). If you would like to follow my journey, I will mark these novels in my Currently Reading page, and will do an update at the end of the year.

1. 1984 – George Orwell
2. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking
3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – David Eggers
4. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah
5. The Bad Beginning: Or, Orphans! Lemony Snicket
6. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeleine L’Engle
7. Selected Stories, 1968-1994 – Alice  Munro
8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll
9. All the President’s Men – Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein
10. Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir – Frank McCourt
11. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume
12. Bel Canto (P.S.) – Ann Patchett
13. Beloved – Toni Morrison
14. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall
15. Breath, Eyes, Memory – Edwidge Denticat
16. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
17. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
18. Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
19. Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
20. Daring Greatly – Brene Brown
21. Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney
22. Dune – Frank Herbert
23. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
24. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
25. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
26. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown
27. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
28. Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond
29. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – J.K.Rowling
30. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
31. Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
32. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
33. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
34. Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
35. Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
36. Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
37. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
38. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
39. Love Medicine – Louise Erdrich
40. Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl
41. Me Talk Pretty One Day – David Sedaris
42. Middlesex: A Novel – Jeffrey Eugenides
43. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
44. Moneyball – Michael Lewis
45. Of Human Bondage – W. Somerset Maugham
46. On the Road – Jack Kerouac
47. Out of Africa – Isak Dinesen
48. Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi
49. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
50. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austin
51. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
52. Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
53. Teams of Rivals – Doris Kearns Goodwin
54. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
55. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon
56. The Autobiography of Malcom X
57. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
58. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
59. The Cather in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
60. The Color of Water – James McBride
61. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
62. The Devil in the White City – Erik Larson
63. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
64. The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
65. The Giver – Lois Lowry
66. The Golden Compass – Phillip Pullman
67. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
68. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
69. The House at Pooh Corner – A.A. Milne
70. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
71. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
72. The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr
73. The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan
74. The Little Prince – Houghton Mifflin
75. The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler
76. The Looming Tower – Lawrence Wright
77. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
78. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks
79. The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan
80. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
81. The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
82. The Power Broker – Robert A. Caro
83. The Right Stuff – Tom Wolfe
84. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
85. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
86. The Shining – Stephen King
87. The Stranger – Albert Camus
88. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
89. The Things they Carried – Tim O’Brien
90. The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle
91. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
92. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
93. The World According to Garp – John Irving
94. The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
95. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
96. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
97. Unbroken – Laura Hillenbrand
98. Valley of the Dolls – Jacqueline Susann
99. Where the Sidewalk Ends – Shel Silverstein
100. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

 
How many have you read? Are there any on this list that you have been meaning to read, but have never gotten around to it? Any books that you think don’t belong on the list, or that you would particularly enjoy? I would love to hear from you all!

 

Winter Read #2: The Vanishing Season

VanishingSeason

Maggie continued through the kitchen into the living room, which looked out across a crumbling deck toward the blue shimmer of the lake. Turning left toward another open archway, she walked through a web that she had to pick out of her mouth, then moved on down the hall to the stairs. She laid her hand on the wobbly banister and creeped her way up to the second floor. To her left, she found what she instantly knew would be her room: a nook with a slanted ceiling and a large window that looked out on the grass and across it toward the white house, with a small, yellowing radiator against one wall. The cozy space felt like a hideaway from the world, and smelled like trapped summer air, flowery and dusty. It made her think of the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, downgrading to a cottage by the sea. She could make the best of it, like they had. And if life ended up being as underwhelming here as she expected, well, it was only a year anyway. Then graduation. Then real life.

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

The Vanishing Season by Jodi Lynn Anderson

The Vanishing Season is a novel about a girl named Maggie who moves during her Senior year in high school to a small town named Gill Creek in Door County, Wisconsin after her mother loses her job in Chicago. Maggie is not optimistic about the move and is concerned about her parents’ financial situation, but she quickly feels at home in the big, beautiful Victorian home that she and her parents are fixing up, and she makes friends with a boy and a girl on her street – the beautiful but child-like Pauline, and the quiet, honorable Liam. When high school girls start disappearing in Door County and end up dead in the river, the peace of the small town is disrupted as everyone tries to figure out who among them might be the killer.

There is so much to the setting that it is almost difficult to summarize – the small town and the gossip that spreads like wildfire, the tension that builds as girls end up dead, the strange isolation of Water Street where Maggie, Pauline, and Liam live. The author gives us a great sense of space throughout the novel – Maggie often describes what she can and cannot see through her bedroom window, Pauline’s steps up to Maggie’s front door are traced with great detail towards the end of the novel, and the path to Liam’s construction project is often described. Even the distance to and from town is identified. I loved this book’s ability to drop me into a place that absolutely feels real.

This book is definitely character-driven, and the author did a stunning job of creating complex and realistic characters. Maggie is incredibly relatible – she is soft-spoken, she likes to read, and she spends most of her life observing those around her, but she still has internal motivations, and shows great depth of emotion even if she doesn’t always express her feelings aloud. Maggie loves her homeschooling, and is highly motivated to have a successful future. Pauline in particular breaks stereotypes in a refreshing way – she is beautiful but silly and sometimes awkward, she is often oblivious to the feelings of those around her but still is not intentionally cruel, and she cares deeply about her friends and family. Even Liam, the most one-dimensional of the friends, still is interesting and realistic. He has nursed feelings for Pauline since they were children and is incessantly kind to everyone, but he still resists her bad treatment and is willing to stand up for himself when he needs to.

Surprisingly enough, I really enjoyed the love triangle between Maggie, Liam, and Pauline, and that plot line held my attention. However, I kept expecting the murders to become more significant, and was disappointed at how they just seemed to hang out in the background. In fact, the murders in Door County just seemed to feel more like an element of the setting rather than a plot line itself. I’m not quite sure whether the author was aiming for an element of realism (most people do not in fact hunt down murderers in their area), got caught up in one plot line and decided not to pursue some of the others after all, or if perhaps she was trying to draw a wider audience by staging the novel like a murder mystery, but it felt like a loaded gun that never went off. The novel just felt somewhat unresolved by the end.

In all, I would rate The Vanishing Season a 7 out of 10. There’s a little bit in this book for everyone – romance, drama, mystery, and a little fantasy, with the ghost that narrates a good deal of the plot. However, there were a few too many places where the plot seemed to get hung up on itself, so while everyone will enjoy this some, I wish there had been a little more of everything.

Winter Read #1: White Heat

WhiteHeat

“He wants to locate his ancestor’s body. Reckons it could be on Craig. Bringing an assistant – just the two of them. Think they might be able to get some TV company interested.”
On the surface, this sounded like the perfect gig. Small party, presumably with some knowledge of local conditions. No hunting involved, and she knew Crag Island as well as anyone. It seemed unlikely that they would find Sir James Fairfax’s body, she thought, but you could never tell. Under all that snow and ice, the tundra was one great open-air charnal house, bones, antlers, skeletons scattered all over. Nothing ever rotted or even stayed buried long. There was no deep archeology, no layering of history here. Southerners often marveled at the way the recent and ancient past were equally present, as though there had only ever been one yesterday, and everything in the past had happened on that single day.

White Heat by M.J. McGrath

White Heat by M.J. McGrath

White Heat is a mystery novel about Edie Kiglatuk, an Inuit woman living in northern Nunavut, who begins investigating a series of deaths in her small town after a loved one appears to commit suicide. Edie is a former polar bear hunter turned local guide and part-time teacher with a history of alcoholism. After two local deaths – one a qallunaat (a foreigner) and one an apparent suicide – Edie believes that something larger is happening beneath their noses. Determined to bring it to light, Edie begins an investigation into the events of her own time as well as her family’s history.

When I first started reading White Heat, I thought that M.J. McGrath must be Inuit herself – the setting and the culture were so detailed and realistic that I felt entirely immersed. I was quite surprised to find that the author is not in fact Inuit; she is a researcher and a writer of nonfiction, and I can definitely tell that she has brought that skill to her fiction writing. White Heat did not come across as an idealistic imagining of the North, nor did it feel like a series of complaints against it. Instead, I truly felt as though I were there, meeting real people and witnessing real culture. Edie speaks often of the difference between Inuit and qallunaat (non-Inuits, usually white people). She observes behaviors that I would never consider, such as wearing watches, or what type of coat someone wears. The author also often observes the food that Edie eats (things like caribou tongue, blubber, and walrus gut), and it helped maintain the setting – I never found myself passively imagining Edie eating a sandwich or chicken noodle soup. Instead, I was able to consistently imagine Edie as a real person and an Inuit, and with the differences of her culture highlighted, I was better able to see the similarities between my culture and hers – the conflict among step families (Edie and Willa), the tendency to avoid unpleasant investigation when I’d rather stay home (Derek), and mental illness and substance abuse.

Aside from the realistic setting and developed culture, Edie is undoubtedly one of the best-developed characters I have read. She is incredibly stubborn and often makes choices that seem like poor ones in the moment, but her own determination wins out in the end, and she absolutely would not be the heroine of the novel otherwise. Edie struggles with alcoholism, and I felt this struggle was portrayed well – she demonstrates that her alcoholism is an ongoing struggle, not something she has “overcome”. At one point in the book, it also directly hampers her ability to pursue leads, and I liked that it was shown to truly be a problem for her, unlike many books that treat alcoholism as a character trait rather than an illness. Derek too exhibits character flaws while still remaining likable. Derek is the local law enforcement, and while he demonstrates a tendency to “get along” rather than aggressively pursue possible violations of the law, he still has a strong moral core, and when Edie spurs him into action, Derek proves to be a worthy ally to Edie. Even the minor character of White Heat, though, show good development. Edie’s ex-husband Sammy is still an alcoholic with a history of violence, and he often stands in the way of Edie’s investigation, but still deeply loves his family and wants the best for him, even if he does not know what that might be. Edie’s step-son Willa blatantly dislikes Edie, but as the past is revealed, his disrespectful attitude is given a context, and he is still given the opportunity to act as an ally.

I admire M.J. McGrath’s ambition in the plot of White Heat – there are multiple murders, many lines of investigation, two locations, many guilty characters, and many that are (for the most part) innocent, even if you don’t think they will be. However with so many threads running, about two thirds through the novel I felt as if we had wandered away from the main plot. It did come back around and all the conflicts were resolved by the end, but I nearly lost track of things towards the end, and struggled a little with the resolution. I was rather disappointed by this – there was so much of the novel that was done extraordinarily well, and I was hoping to give this book a 10 out of 10. I definitely enjoyed reading White Heat, but the complexity of the mystery nearly got in its own way.

In all, I’ll rate White Heat an 8 out of 10. The complex characters and detailed setting will appeal to many readers, even those that do not often enjoy mysteries and thrillers. However, the overly complex plot did detract a little from my enjoyment of the novel, and others may feel the same.

What’s Coming this January

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all got to celebrate, however you like to do that – go out, stay in, drink champagne, drink hot tea, or even just go to bed. I am so excited about 2018 – I finally signed up for Goodreads (yes, I know, it’s silly that I hadn’t done so before now), and you’ll be seeing some great things coming from Fiery Seas Publishing this year on my blog, because they have agreed to send things my way for reviews and interviews. Yay!

We have made it through the Christmas season, and hopefully will have a lot more time for reading (plus all that Christmas money to spend!), so for January, The Effervescent Bookworm and I have decided to highlight some winter-themed books to read when it’s snowing out there. Here is my line-up for the month:

January 4th: White Heat

WhiteHeat

January 11th: The Vanishing Season

VanishingSeason

January 18th: Sweetgirl

Sweetgirl

January 25th: All We Left Behind

AllWeLeftBehind.jpg

Triple Cross Killer


“Santa letters lead the Double Cross Killer to the kids.” Jaq pounded her feet on the truck floor. Her whole face brightened. “He’s a wacked-out Robin Hood with a red hat and white beard.”
“Instead of green tights. Good move for Santa.” David laughed out loud. Jaq wasn’t quite ready to join him.
Realizing this perhaps, David’s attitude sobered. “Motive?”
“Save the kids. A kid like Suzanne asks Santa for help, not toys, books, or clothes. Gives Santa details – enough to know why elp is needed and how to find them. Double Cross Killer finds them, scopes them out, and kills whomever the kid claims causes the harm.”
Jaq was practically bouncing in her seat. “And the bastard leaves a calling card. A reverse message for the victim’s victim.”
“Like whipping the victim’s back and cuffing his hands,” David said. “Those children knew exactly what daddy was doing to momma.”
“Exactly. The kids might’ve understood the message all along.”

Triple Cross Killer by Rosemarie Aquilina

Triple Cross Killer by Rosemarie Aquilina

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. In no way did this affect my review or my rating of the novel.

Triple Cross Killer is a thriller novel about a serial killer named Nick Archer and the team of investigators who are trying to catch him before he kills again. Christmas is coming, and like every year, children write to Santa Clause asking for the things they want for Christmas. However, this year, Nick Archer has access to the letters, and when children ask Santa for help with their abuse, Nick tracks down the abusers of Detroit and Sarasota and murders them, then displays the bodies in a message to the children that they have been “saved”.  Not far behind him are the investigators of Detroit – Jaq and David – and the investigators of Sarasota – Rabbit and Abel. In the meantime, Nick is developing a relationship with a beautiful young woman named Rita, who is still recovering from a deep betrayal after her last engagement. Little does he know that his new girlfriend Rita is best friends with Jaq, the police officer who is pursuing him. Separately, the investigative teams and Rita have little to go on, but if they can work together they just might catch Nick before he can cross yet another name off his list.

Thrillers are not necessarily known for their detailed character development, but Triple Cross Killer surprised me on this front: I absolutely loved the characterization. Nick Archer in particular, as the villain, intrigued me: from the very start of the novel, we know that he is the killer, allowing us to see all aspects of him as he interacts with his family, his developing relationship with Rita, and then of course his victims. While I certainly cannot claim to like Nick, I did find him intriguing – he demands perfection from everyone around him, but still shows himself capable of gentleness, if not real kindness. The relationship between Nick and Rita was incredibly well done – Rita of course resists his blatant attempts at control, but like in most abusive relationships, the blatant abuse is not the problem. Instead, Nick begins to wear her down slowly, with “mostly reasonable” requests that he make all the decisions for her, pinning her into a corner where she has lost autonomy slowly rather than all at once. Rita too was well developed – she is independent and well-educated, but still vulnerable to Nick’s attention. She is a woman who is very capable but has lost confidence in herself, so Nick’s interest in her is flattering, and she finds herself willing to compromise independence for a little emotional security. I loved the author’s willingness to show Rita as a realistic victim: she is not powerless, just vulnerable, and while we as readers can tell her what she does wrong, we still understand why she did it.

Sarasota was perhaps a little underdeveloped as a setting – Nick spent less time there and Rita did not seem to have any real epiphanies in Sarasota so the author did not have as much to work with, but I do wish there had been a little more action or even sight-seeing. However, the fantastic details in Detroit more than made up for what was missing in Sarasota. I have never been to Detroit but I feel like I really understand the culture now, and there were pieces of local history that were seamlessly woven into the narrative. Jaq and Rita’s yoga sessions were interesting and I loved the contrast of Nick’s family home to Rita’s apartment. All the action in Detroit felt solidly built upon a real location.

Pacing is an incredibly important part of a thriller, and the pacing in Triple Cross Killer was perfect. The murders were detailed but still fast-paced, and the character development and progression of relationships in between the murders provided a good balance to the murderers’ heightened emotions. This variation in pacing is what allowed the characters to present themselves and the backstory without taking away the excitement inherent in a thriller.

In all, I would give Triple Cross Killer a 9 out of 10. While not everyone enjoys thrillers, most will enjoy this one: a fast-paced plot and fantastic character development keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Nest

Nest

Leonard was, and this was quite literally how he thought of himself several times a day, a self-made man. It was the organizing principle of his life that money and its concurrent rewards should flow from work, effort, commitment, and routine. At one time, the Plumbs of Eastern Long Island had family money and a decent amount of real estate. Decades of behavioral blunders and ill-conceived marriages and businesses run amok had left next to nothing by the time Leonard was in high school. He’d wangled himself an engineering scholarship to Cornell and then a job with Dow Chemical during a time he referred to reverently as “the dawn of the absorbency revolution”. Leonard had lucked onto a team working with a new substance: synthetic polymers that could absorb three hundred times more liquid than conventional organic absorbents like paper and cotton. As his colleagues set to work identifying potential uses for the new super-absorbers – agriculture, industrial processing, architecture, military applications – Leonard seized on something else: consumer products. According to Leonard’s oft-repeated legend, the business he and his two partners started – advising larger corporations on how to use the new absorbers – was nearly solely responsible for daintier feminine hygiene products (which he never failed to mention in mixed company, mortifying his children), better disposable diapers (his proudest accomplishment – he’d spent a small fortune on a diaper service when the first three were babies), and the quilted square of revolting plastic that still sits beneath every piece of slaughtered meat or poultry in the supermarket. He was not above rooting through the garbage at a dinner party and hoisting the discarded square triumphantly, saying “Mine!”

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest is a novel about four adult siblings – Leo, Jack, Melody, and Beatrice – who have been eagerly awaiting the distribution of a trust left them by their deceased father, when Leo’s drunken car crash costs the family nearly all of their $2 million funds. Each sibling had depended on the trust to save them from their own poor financial decisions, and after Leo’s troubles with drugs and alcohol lead to a wreck that damages his reputation, injures a young woman, and threatens to embarrass the siblings’ mother and stepfather, the family finds themselves with a dramatically less fund than they had expected. The story follows each sibling as they come to terms with their new realities, and the relationships that grow and dissolve following the accident.

This novel is undoubtedly a character-driven novel, rather than relying heavily on plot, and in that way it performs spectacularly. Leo is someone two-dimensional: he lives for himself, making poor decisions when it suits him, and cares little about the consequences as long as he feels he can escape them. In this way, however, he serves as somewhat of a foil for the rest of the characters. Melody, the mother of twin teenage girls, wants mostly to build a legacy for herself and her children, but also clearly longs for a deep relationship with her daughters. Beatrice is the youngest of the siblings, in her thirties still, and after publishing a number of successful short stories in her youth, feels as though her inspiration has dried, as she tries to write a novel worth selling. Jack is by far the most dynamic of the siblings: he finds himself sandwiched between Leo and the rest. After a number of unsuccessful years with his antiques business, Jack has borrowed money against he and his husband’s beach house, and he has desperately tried to keep this secret from his husband, but without the nest, he knows that his secret will come out. Jack makes poor decisions frequently and tries to protect himself, but unlike Leo, Jack still wants what is best for others. He wants to protect his husband, he cares deeply for his siblings and is far more willing to stop and try to help them, and unlike Leo, Jack is deeply aware of his own faults. He considers himself to be “Leo light”, and hates his growing failures, but by the end of the novel, Jack shows a willingness to give up the things that are holding him back.

The timing of the plot of the novel felt a little stretched to me, and I suppose that would be my biggest complaint. It takes place over a year and a half, but it was easy to lose track of how much time had passed, and I often was surprised by the time jumps between sections and chapters. By the end of the novel I certainly understood why so much time had to pass for the plot to resolve, but it still sometimes took me out of the reading when I realized that months passed in the characters’ lives with very little happening.

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed initially when I found out that The Nest takes place in New York – so many novels do, these days, and I was afraid it would feel artificial. This novel, though, absolutely did not. Given the subject matter, a good deal of attention was paid to neighborhoods and homes and mortgages, and I loved the focus this placed on real estate and setting. New York especially has such an interesting history, and I really enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the neighborhoods, as we saw some of them progress from “lower class” to “upper class”.

In all, I would rate The Nest an 8 out of 10. The characterization was fantastic and I really enjoyed the details given in the setting. I feel like readers of most genres would enjoy this relatively quick read.

Interview with Triple Cross Killer’s Rosemarie Aquilina

Hello, all! Can you believe it is almost Christmas? This year I have something extra special for you all: I was able to get an advance copy of Rosemarie Aquilina’s new book Triple Cross Killer, and interview her about her writing. My review of Triple Cross Killer will be posted on Christmas Day, so check back then!

Rosemarie Aquilina is the mother of five children. Elected as a 30th Circuit Court Judge serving in the General Trial Division, after having served as a 55th District Court Judge in Mason, Michigan, she takes pride in public serve.

In 1986, Judge Aquilina became the first female JAG Officer in the history of the Michigan Army National Guard, she retired in 2006 with twenty years Honorable Service. She is an adjunct law professor at both Western Michigan University—Thomas M. Cooley Law School and Michigan State University College of Law and has earned teaching awards at both institutions. Judge Aquilina is the former owner of Aquilina Law Firm, PLC, and former host of a syndicated radio talk show called Ask the Family Lawyer.


TripleCrossKiller RosemarieAquilina

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


You seem to have a busy schedule with your family and your career as a judge. When do you find time to write?
I do have a very busy life and demanding career. I rarely have time to take vacations so I have learned to build in time for myself and for my writing. Writing is my way of relieving stress and taking a daily vacation. I began writing during my lunch hours at work which led to writing in the evening and early morning hours when I had characters who needed my attention. On weekends, I write with my first cup of coffee when the house is quiet and any other quiet time I can steal. I write everyday—for me it creates endorphins, like athletes talk about when they regularly exercise. Besides spending time with my family, writing fiction is the best part of my day. This creative outlet helps me concentrate on serious matters.

Has writing always been a part of your life in some fashion, or have you recently started writing?
Since the time I could speak, I recall wanting to be a writer and telling tales to anyone who would listen. Because we were a family with limited financial means, there was a shortage of toys and books. The few books I had I read so many times I could recite them—and I don’t usually memorize anything easily. My brother Joe, eleven months younger, begged me from the time we were toddlers, to read to him. I pretended to read the back of cereal boxes, newspapers, the church bulletin, and virtually anything with writing. Left to my creative devices, I invented stories, added onto characters plights I had read about, and invented new chapters and backstories. I entertained my brother for hours as I made up stories. I treasured his attention, laughter and the sheer glee on his face at my stories. I vividly recall his inquisitive entertained boyish face. I still hear our laughter and feel the sheer thrill of the emerging story—one I hadn’t planned but one that simply emerged and developed as I told it. This developed the “panster-writer” in me. I don’t plan. I listen to my characters. And, I type forward.

Absolutely the first thing that drew me to Triple Cross Killer was the idea of a murderer responding to children’s letters to Santa Claus. It is both chilling and compelling. Where did you get the idea?
Nick Archer is a figment of my imagination. However, the storyline was developed as a result of a question my son asked me: “Mom, what happens if Santa’s letters get into the wrong hands?” Immediately, I saw the story and two hours later, chapter one was in my computer. The evil in Nick and his controlling nature are a result of people I know and crimes I have had before me as a judge.
Interestingly, while I was editing the story, one of my law students (I teach at two law schools), who was doing an externship under my supervision read an early draft. About a year later, when he returned home to New York, he sent me a newspaper article about a postal worker who answered letters written to Santa as part of a postal program to make children happy. The New York Post office stopped that program because a “criminally-minded” postal worker used the letters to track children. My student was amazed that I had written a story about Santa letters and something similar had happened in real life! I was amazed my student recalled my story and was thoughtful enough to send it to me. This encouraged me to move forward with Triple Cross Killer.

In what ways has your experience in the courtroom helped the writing of Triple Cross Killer?
It has given me a guide to real police/detective work and testimony, testimony of all types of experts, to include but not limited to forensics, ballistics, fingerprint and DNA analysis, and polygraphs. Sometimes as I hear victim testimony or other witness testimony and see the evidence, I visualize my characters and plot connections become very clear.

Many mystery novels are written by authors who have very little experience in the courtroom. While I am sure that your experience helped you ground your action in reality, were there any times when you found the reality behind your experience to be a roadblock instead?
Yes. I sometimes write too much information and my editor will have to say to me: “People don’t want to know that.” Or, I get too technical and my editor will say to me: “Us lay people don’t understand that. Please explain…”
As a result, I write a first draft without looking back, and then I revise it at least two more times. Then, I send it to my editor and revise another couple of times. After about six good edits, my manuscript is usually ready to send to my Agent. And, yes, it still gets edited another three times with the editor assigned to me by my publisher. But, I love the process as it really helps me connect with my characters so they can properly connect with my readers.

Were there any particular parts of Triple Cross Killer that were particularly difficult or particularly easy for you to write?
As a Circuit Judge in the General Trial Division I have a felony docket and hear heinous crimes including murders with gruesome details. This allowed me to easily write about the murders and the forensic and evidentiary issues that followed.
The most difficult part of writing was interjecting timeline properly into the storyline. Once I had the story idea, my mind saw it unfold very clearly, but I had trouble with conveying a working timeline. I had to rework the timeline a few times, so what I saw was clear to the reader. Timelines for me, because of the way I write, as a “panster,” are a killer.

I loved the relationship between Jaq and Rita – the honesty between them really resonated with me as a reader. In what ways has friendship been a force in your own life?
I have very few real friends and those bonds I have are “forever-friendships” which I hold close and know I can count on. My forever-friends are often the sounding board to dilemmas I encounter, and, are the first—sometimes the only—ones to acknowledge good things that happen in my life. I appreciate these friends and consider them family. Rita and Jaq have that forever-friendship. I modelled their relationship after my own and truly enjoyed being part of their friendship as I wrote. I felt myself joining them as they participated in yoga, jogging, and, sharing of coffee and conflicts. And men.

I particularly liked the development of Nick as a character – the early scenes between Nick and Rita reminded me of power struggles I have had with men before. Have you experienced a similar attempt at steamrolling?
Yes. Nick is modelled in large part after a man I had a relationship with years ago. I was fortunate in that with my strong will, determination, and common sense I was able to leave that relationship with myself mentally and physically intact. I had a revelation at one point in our relationship that I had truly encountered the devil, and I successfully planned the demise of our relationship. But as a lawyer I had clients, and as a judge I have heard from many victims who weren’t as fortunate, sustaining mental and/or physical abuse, stalking behavior, unlawful imprisonment, torture, and sadly even loss of life.
Although this is fiction, I hope it is an important story as a reminder that an accomplished person can be an abuser or be abused. I hope this storyline also serves as a reminder that speaking out, being smart about your surroundings and/or suspicious behavior, is always appropriate. It also recognizes that we always need to speak out on behalf of children, but not take the law in our own hands.

All the scenes in the novel were grounded in a detailed setting. How do you create your settings – do you base them off of real locations, imagine them on your own, or are they constructed for the purpose of the scene?
I write about what I know. I grew up in my early childhood in Detroit where my grandparents lived after the emigrated from Malta. I also worked for almost a decade in Detroit after I graduated from law school. I have spent many years in Detroit, living, working, attending functions. I also have spent many weeks of my life in Sarasota, Siesta Key and the condominium Nick owns across from the public beach is modelled after our family condominium.
Therefore, as much as they are not exactly accurate, for purposes of creating the fiction story, they are real and accurate—if that makes sense. I know and love both Detroit and Sarasota. It was entertaining to me placing the story in two cities I enjoy and then marrying up the characters into one story. When I developed the scenes I visualized the places I know and the story wrote itself.

What has been the most rewarding part of novel writing for you?
The pleasure of watching the story emerge and fit together and readers enjoying and understanding the thrill of the story. There is nothing more rewarding than entertaining people with my work. My mother always asks me when I write: “What if no one reads it? What if your books never sell? Will you quit writing?” My answer over the years has never changed: “I write for the joy of it. If no one else reads what I write, if my books never sell, I’ve enjoyed the journey and that is enough.” But, I really enjoy sharing it with people.

I saw that this may be the first novel in a series. What hopes do you have for the novels to follow?
I am near completion with the next book in the series. Currently book two is named “Circumstantial Justice” and features the four detectives who have been joined together by the Governor of Michigan as the State Detective Special Forces Team. I envision the detectives solving cases that get them recognized on a national level causing them to be in demand by other states. In this way the series will continue to grow into an unlimited number of volumes, and readers and I will have an opportunity to watch the team solve multiple unique crimes, sometimes with returning characters, and always with a cast of new ones.

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What Book Should I Give? A heroine for every zodiac sign

Are you all ready for Christmas? I love – love – this time of year, but one of the best and undoubtedly most difficult parts is picking out presents for my family and friends. I always want to find the perfect match to their personality, and my husband and I are into astrology in a huge way, so we talk a lot about the zodiac signs. So I have compiled a list of books with heroines that I feel will mesh particularly well with each zodiac sign. If you end up gifting any of these novels (or even just buying them for yourself) I would love to hear about it in the comments!

 

 

Aquarius: On The Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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My life is full of Aquarius folk (my father and my sister, to name a few important ones), so I have lots of experience with this one! Aquariuses seem to see the world as grand, and usually like the big struggles. That’s why On The Edge of Gone seems so perfect: the world is about to be struck by a comet, and Denise just wants to get herself, her mother, and her sister to a safe place where they have a chance of surviving. But by the end of the novel, Denise realizes that the struggle to survive is a human struggle, and perhaps she should be looking at the bigger picture – is there something she can do about the rest of the world, too?

Pisces: The Haunting of Maddy Claire by Simone St. James

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Pisces readers will find themselves highly invested in the main character, Sarah, as well as the heart-wrenching plot of The Haunting of Maddy Claire. Sarah is hired as temp worker to record the ghost investigations of a wealthy young man who is looking for evidence of ghosts, but Sarah’s empathetic personality is soon sucked into the heart of the story itself, as she learns more about Maddy Claire, a mysterious young servant who hung herself after a tragic encounter. In life, however, Maddy could never speak of the event to her employers, so Sarah must discover the facts of Maddy’s strange past to finally put Maddy’s spirit to rest. See my review here.

Ares: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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My best friend happens to be an Ares, and like most, she has a little rage burning in her all the time, which reminds me so much of Rahel and Esthappen, the twins at the center of The God of Small Things. During the major action of the novel, Rahel and Esthappen are young children, but they often see the injustice of the world around them, and they rage at that injustice. This is such a beautiful novel with some fantastic, fiery characters that will resonate with Ares readers out there.

Taurus: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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Lucky for you all, I happen to be a Taurus! So I am particularly suited for this one. Tauruses usually like those plucky heroes who refuse to give up on their dreams no matter what obstacles they face. And I would absolutely describe Celia from The Night Circus as plucky and resilient. Throughout the novel, Celia shows a stubborn determination to have it all: the wild success, the close-knit group of friends and family, and the love of her life, and just like a true Taurus, she is willing to cheat the system to get her happy ending.

Gemini: Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro

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Geminis will resonate perfectly with Maeve, the heroine of Rare Objects. Maeve is a woman split by who she is and who she wants to be, and that is seen in every aspect of her life, from her personal struggles with drinking, to the rewarding job she works that requires her to hide her lack of education, to her carefully crafted backstory of a wealthy family that has left her with the free time to work, rather than the desperate need for money. Maeve is a character that is full of contradictions, and if nothing else, Geminis are full of contradictions! They will enjoy rooting for Maeve as her spirit (of which Geminis abound) is tested. See my review here.

Cancer: The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

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My husband and my daughter both happen to be Cancers, so I am quite familiar with Cancers’ deep love of home and family. I think Cancers will be drawn to The House at the Edge of Night, a historical fiction novel about how a family grows through the years in response to the changing world around them. Not to mention Maria-Grazzia – the true heroine of the novel, who from the moment of her birth, fights for her family. Bonus: the novel is full of beautiful scenery and rich, dynamic language. See my review here.

Leo: Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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Leos are the kings and queens of their families, and let me tell you, Kelsea from Queen of the Tearling is THE QUEEN. She has lived her entire life awaiting the day that she will inherit her mother’s throne, and this first novel of a trilogy is about Kelsea’s ascension to the throne. Leos will love Kelsea’s strong personality, firm confidence in her own morals, and the swift actions she takes as a new ruler (and they will secretly love Kelsea’s self-doubt, but of course she is always right in the end).

Virgo: The Hundredth Queen by Emily R. King

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Virgos are the bleeding hearts of the Earth signs, which makes an interesting combination: practical, with a deep-rooted kindness. I am sure that Kalinda of The Hundredth Queen is a Virgo, because she has that kind, gentle nature, but has the determination to, say, overthrow a kingdom. Virgos will love Kalinda: she is young and inexperienced but still kicks butt, is incessantly creative with her problem-solving, and not only does she see the problems with the world around her, she also has the drive to fix the problems that she sees. See my review here.

Libra: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

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Libras are concerned first and foremost with the inherent fairness of the world around them, and they will love cheering on Across the Universe‘s Amy as she tackles injustice after she wakes mid-flight on the generation ship that was meant to take herself and her parents to the first human colony on a foreign planet. This is a great science fiction with an interesting mystery: why was Amy woken early, and what happened on this ship to cause the deep rifts between in the society that has developed on board?

Scorpio: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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I love, love, love the fight in The Bone Clocks‘s Holly Sykes, and Scorpios will, too. Holly is living in a world that just does not make sense to her, but still she has the bravery to try to live a normal life, and that fight for simplicity amidst the madness is what Scorpios will love. Holly has psychic abilities, but not enough to actually fight in the war that is taking place around her, which means that her life is full of long stretches of normal, occasionally interrupted by violent outbursts of magic. Scorpios will love watching this quirky young woman grow into a matriarch who is just trying to protect her family. See my review here.

Sagittarius: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

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As Sagittariuses are the travelers of the zodiac, I absolutely can think of no better recommendation than Outlander, a historical fiction/science fiction about Claire Randall, a nurse from the 1940s who finds herself transported to 18th century Scotland. Claire is brilliant and fearless and kind, and Sagittariuses will love to read about her adventures in the Scottish Highlands.

Capricorn: The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

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My son is a Capricorn, so I have already started to see the infamous dogged determination of Capricorns when they have set their mind to something. Capricorns will see this same stubbornness, for better or for worse, in The Ghost Bride‘s Li Lan. In The Ghost Bride, Li Lan is sucked into the ghost world by the restless spirit of a young man who may have been murdered. Li Lan begins an investigation of the young man’s death, believing that solving the mystery will set her free. Her determination serves her well as she uncovers more than one mystery in the spirit world, and in the end, Li Lan has to ask herself what she truly wants her future to look like. See my review here.

My Thanksgiving Read: Flight of the Sparrow

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James finally stops teasing her and hands her the piece of liver, which Mary quickly spits on a stick and sets at the edge of the fire to roast. She is near fainting as the sweet odor fills her nostrils. As she closes her eyes for a moment to savor it, a girl runs up and snatches it out of the fire. Mary screams and grabs it but the girl doesn’t let go, and the liver rips in two chunks. The girl runs off and Mary stands holding the torn piece in both hands. For an instant she wonders if she should finish roasting it, then realizes she will likely lose what’s left if she does. She eats the half-raw liver like an animal; blood runs from the sides of her mouth and dribbles onto her apron. Her mouth and chin are smeared with grease and blood.
She is so absorbed in eating, she doesn’t see James return. When she finally looks up, he is standing a few feet away, watching her. He smiles. “‘Tis as I thought,” he says. “You have become Indian.”
Mary feels a wave of shame. “Nay,” she says, shaking her head and wiping her hands vigorously on her apron. “I am an Englishwoman still.”
His smile disappears, and he bends to speak into her ear. “Do not fear this. he says “It is your path to safety. You are strong and clever. If you can bring yourself to discard some of your English notions, you will flourish, I have no doubt.”

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Flight of the Sparrow is a re-telling about Mary Rowlandson, a woman who was kidnapped by a local Native American tribe in 1675 and, upon her ransom to the English, wrote a narrative of her time in captivity. In Flight of the Sparrow, Mary’s life from her kidnapping to her second marriage is re-imagined.

I should preface this review by saying first that while I had read Mary Rowlandson’s narrative in high school, I did not recognize the name when I chose Flight of the Sparrow or when I started reading, so while I knew the basics of the story from the summary, I did not know many of the details, and I had to go back and re-read the original narrative to feel like I had a proper understanding of the true story. While I do not feel as though the source material has to be referenced for the reading of Amy Belding Brown’s novel, I do think it helps enlighten her perspective, as this perspective was my biggest struggle with the book. It is written in the first person past tense, speaking to the reader directly from Mary Rowlandson’s words. I normally do not have trouble with this perspective, but as the author does her very best to keep Mary’s perspective true to her time, I feel as though this novel likely alienates many readers. Mary Rowlandson was a New England Puritan in the 1600s, and as such, the character in the novel expresses strong opinions about God and faith and, most significantly, the Native Americans with whom she stays for three months. I have to admit that while I understand the goal of the author is to give us Mary Rowlandson’s thoughts directly in her words, I feel that the message of the novel – delivered to us through Mary’s realization that Native Americans are no different from her and in many ways have less constraining, more loving relationships – would have been easier to receive if there had been a narrator to distance the reader from Mary’s ignorance. Of course, the racism and ignorance of the Puritans is nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but the most cringe-worthy moment for me was towards the end: Mary describes a tribe as having been destroyed, with nearly all its members killed. Not only is this distinctly untrue (there are still living tribe members), but it is directly harmful to Native Americans today. Many assume that Native Americans are primarily a thing of the past, which minimizes native culture as well as native struggles, making it more difficult for tribes to flourish in today’s society. Mary’s aside later that “perhaps they can rise from the ashes” does not actually help that case – it just reiterates that she believes them all to be defeated.

That being said, I wanted to read a story about life in America in the 1600s, and this book is certainly that. While the deeply ingrained racism of the novel’s characters is unacceptable for our time, it was quite normal for theirs, and the setting and characters were nothing if not realistic. And let me reiterate that the message of the novel was condemnation of this racism. In addition, the novel spends a good deal of time describing the suffering of New England tribes, as well as the unforgivable violence done to them, and while I knew some of the generalities, I did not know details. I definitely feel that for a Thanksgiving read, this novel is honest and may open some eyes. Many still believe in the popular American narrative of pilgrims and “Indian braves” feasting together to welcome the pilgrims to America, but this novel tells the truth of it: there was a great deal of murder and theft of food and persons. Native Americans and pilgrims both were captured and sold into slavery, and Mary Rowlandson was, frankly, fortunate to have been returned to her family in such a short time (only three months!) with so little injury. James the Printer, who actually is named in the real Mary Rowlandson narrative, is also allowed to frankly speak for the local tribes, and his opinions are not idealized. By the end of the novel, he condemns Mary, and expresses displeasure at the work he must do, wishing to return to his children but knowing that his wish is improbable. The image we receive of James is that of a man who has been cast out of the comfortable life he lived, and dwells among a people that will not accept him. He describes himself as neither English nor native, and this question of identity, echoed in Mary’s own discomfort after her return to Puritan life, is definitely an interesting question that the book attempts to address.

In all, I would rate Flight of the Sparrow a 6 out of 10. The plot was engaging enough to hold my attention, but the racist perspective of the main character tied with the slow ending made it difficult to reach the meaning of the book itself. Still, readers that enjoy historical fiction might enjoy the realism of the setting and the plot, and anyone that has read the initial Mary Rowlandson narrative might enjoy this re-telling.