The Secret Place by Tana French (Book Review)

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad, #5)The Secret Place by Tana French

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: mystery, detective, psych-thriller, teenage-flashback, mfa-style, coming-of-age, ireland

I think I’ve figured it out, what I do and don’t like about Tana French.

I was disappointed with The Secret Place. It seemed to drag, then picked up about a third in, and the last quarter slogged again. It was bogged down by the same things I didn’t like about The Likeness: the miniscule description of each individual moment, done for moment after moment after moment after, every nuance of feeling and thought and spoken word between each and every character…it was too much. Both books had groups of characters who were close and constantly interacted, so that a two-minute conversation took 30 minutes to read. French’s ability to distill a flash of time into its essence is admirable and her writing is lovely, but I find that more enjoyable in small doses.

I loved the premise for The Likeness even if I found the execution lacking, but I found the gist of The Secret Place to be thin and unbelievable–you get to the solution of the mystery and it’s like, is that all? Somebody killed somebody else for that? If you removed all the flowery atmospheric description and rewriting the same thing from three or four different pov’s, you’d have 200 pages of nothing-much-of-a-mystery. And maybe this is a personal prejudice, but the teen-speak got old after so much of it. I mean, excuse me? It’s just so not totes amazeballs, hello?

In the Woods, Broken Harbor, and Faithful Place are much better bets.

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The Run of His Life: The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin (Book Review)

The Run of His Life : The People versus O.J. SimpsonThe Run of His Life : The People versus O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Mommy, please call me back. I want to know what happened last night. Why did we have to go to the police station? Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer, Mommy. Please answer. ‘Bye.” ~ Eight-year-old Sydney Simpson on her mother’s answering machine the morning after

I like Jeffrey Toobin’s true crime. They are not merely recounts; they are in-depth analysis of entire cases, including enlightening portraits of the principals and with clear and engaging explanations of forensics, legal machinations, and jury dynamics.

Factoid 1: The O.J. Simpson trial was not the first to be live-broadcast as it happened, but it was the one that proved the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, that the very act of observation changes the outcome. Since this trial, judges have been much less inclined to allow the media to turn criminal trials into reality TV. Thankfully.

Factoid 2: This trial was the first big one to include DNA evidence, and the science was new and confusing, perhaps not to be trusted by a jury that, for the most part, was not educated beyond high school. Barry Sheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders of the Innocence Project that has used DNA technology on old physical evidence to prove that hundreds of rape and murder suspects were wrongfully convicted, were the DNA specialists who effectively twisted the DNA science for the Simpson jury. Reading about their work for the Simpson defense cost them several notches on my esteem-o-meter.

Factoid 3: Pat McKenna, the lead private investigator brought in by F. Lee Bailey for the defense, later worked to help acquit Casey Anthony,* and is in fact now living with her. The elite world of criminal defense is a small one.

I found it helpful to supplement this book with interviews given by a couple of the O.J. Simpson jurors. Even without that, though, when you look at it from a point of view of what the sequestered Simpson jury was actually given to work with, without news reports and all the media sensationalism, without the back-and-forth between legal teams and the judge, without the 20/20 vision hindsight gives, then it’s a bit clearer how the verdict came to be.

The “Dream Team” ultimately managed to do what it was paid millions of dollars to do: plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury. But they did it in particularly slimy fashion. It is no longer permitted in criminal courts to slut-shame rape victims, but still almost de rigueur to defend a murderer by trashing the victim, in this case by intimating that Nicole Brown Simpson somehow deserved to be hacked to death on her own front walk with her children sleeping in the house. (And let’s not forget Ron Goldman, who is so often overlooked and whose grieving family has worked so hard to keep a murderer from profiting from his crimes.) The defense, principally Johnnie Cochran, very deliberately turned the “Trial of the Century” into a racial maelstrom. Robert Shapiro later stated, in what to me is a jaw-dropping admission, that they played the race card early, and they “dealt it from the bottom of the deck.” Ignore the veritable mountain of damning physical and circumstantial evidence, folks, and ignore his previous abuse of his ex-wife as well–O.J. Simpson is only sitting at the defendant’s table because he’s black. Was Simpson acquitted partially because his jury was preponderantly black? Almost certainly. But it’s disingenuous to dismiss the importance of race and the weight of entire lives shaped by being on the receiving end of constant and insidious institutionalized racism. A country that insists on marginalizing a good part of its population cannot pretend to be surprised when that population closes ranks to protect its own, particularly when the accused is a celebrity.

Still, in my view, the biggest factors in Simpson’s acquittal were the prosecution and the LAPD itself. Not only did the LAPD bungle some of the physical evidence–and their entry onto O.J. Simpson’s property amounted to a Fourth Amendment violation–they had spent decades engaged in a concentrated war against the people of color in Los Angeles. Without these factors, perhaps the defense would not have been able to weaponize them so effectively. As to the prosecution, it was outmatched in the talent department and often painfully bumbling, clearly unsuited for this particular trial. Marcia Clark was hot-headed and arrogant and convinced that black women on juries loved her despite a professional jury consultant telling her they actually thought she was an uppity white bitch. Chris Darden, who could have been particularly effective as a black prosecutor convinced of Simpson’s guilt, was too easily baited and given to childish outbursts and sulking. Prosecutors worthy of the name should have been able to demonstrate how, despite what a flaming bigot Mark Fuhrman actually was (and he was), he could not have planted O.J.’s right glove and smeared the victims’ blood around O.J.’s home and Bronco without being both a precog and a teleporter. Calmer heads more inclined to cool-headed strategy, damage deflection, and, you know, actual trial and witness preparation may have prevailed here. We’ll never know.

All of this is not to say O.J. was innocent. He was absolutely positively one hundred percent guilty, and if you still doubt it, read his memoir If I Did It, if you can stomach it. (Factoid 4: If I Did It was ghostwritten by Pablo Fenjves, who lived sixty yards from the Simpson murder scene and heard the mournful barking of Nicole’s dog that night.) But reading this book has helped me understand the verdict a bit better. But only a bit. When you can see the evidence and hear the testimony,** all of the various factors pale. “Not guilty” heard twice in that courtroom was abominable.

An eye-opening, highly informative read.

*I was in the small minority who, even without hindsight, believed the Casey Anthony verdict was correct. It was ludicrous for the prosecution to expect a jury to convict and impose a death sentence when they couldn’t even show exactly what crime was committed, when whatever-the-crime-was was committed, where whatever-the-crime-was was committed,  how whatever-the-crime-was was committed, and had virtually no physical evidence to support any thesis at all.

** I did not watch the FX dramatization based on this book. I’m not a TV watcher anyway, and I’ve seen several reviews of the book pointing out that the book is more accurate and complete. Hollywood liberties are the reason I read instead of watching.

Bookshelves: true-crime, in-the-news, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, misogyny -rules, racism, as-seen-on-tv, social-commentary, controversial, non-fiction

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The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin (Book Review)

The Boys from BrazilThe Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.” ~ Yakov Liebermann, “The Boys From Brazil”

Eerie words to read from 1976, quite relevant in 2018’s Trumpmerica. This is not a book about the Holocaust per se. It is the story of a Jewish Nazi-hunter who stumbles upon a Kameradenwerk plot to kill 94 men, all around 65 years old, humble civil servants, in various parts of the world. His investigation leads him to an ongoing experiment by the fugitive Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death.”

This is a headlong, pull-you-in tale that stands the test of time. For some reason I had this marked as “read” even though I hadn’t, so I amended that. I recall I hadn’t liked Rosemary’s Baby all that much, am not much spooked by satanists (the ones I’ve run across have no idea what religion they’re perverting or how to do it correctly and their wannabe-ness really just cracks me up), but I loved The Stepford Wives when rereading it recently. I must now read the rest of Ira Levin’s books.

In reality, Mengele met his end in 1979 when he had a stroke and drowned while swimming in South America, where he’d successfully eluded capture by various Nazi hunters for thirty years. Rather anticlimactic, especially since the world didn’t even learn of his death until 1985. I promise you, you’ll like the ending of the book much better.

Bookshelves: thriller, nazi-hate, intrigue

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Property Value (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

“But I don’t want to sell my house,” Michelle says.

“Property values are up,” Caroline presses. “Now’s your chance to make a killing.”

“Just move for no reason? I like my house.”

“Roll it into a bigger house, with land.” Duh, says Caroline’s tone.

“Uh-huh,” says Michelle, “with an even bigger mortgage, double the payment.”

“Not if you buy farther out, get ahead of the next gentrification rush.”

“Yeah, so then my commute is two hours one way instead of one. No thanks.”

“But property values–”

Michelle holds her hand up: stop. “There’s a big difference between value and worth.”

scholty1970
Photo: Scholty1970

Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about property values. Perhaps its a home, business or pencil museum. What makes them go up or down? Go where the prompt leads.”

Cover Her Face by P.D. James (Book Review)

Cover Her Face (Adam Dalgliesh #1)Cover Her Face by P.D. James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is a to-the-manor-born family to do? Look at this housemaid, a charity case, an unwed mother, oh the scandal, the little strumpet! We took her in, gave her a job, gave her a chance to be respectable, and what do we get in return? She’s sly and manipulative and uppity with her betters, actually thinks she’s going to marry into this family! What are we to do?

Drug her cocoa and strangle her, of course. That’ll teach her.

Of course there is a tangle of suspects and motives and opportunities (not to mention a mystery baby daddy), but never fear. Inspector Dalgliesh will get to the bottom of it.

I read several, or perhaps all, of P.D. James’ mystery novels twenty years ago or more, and I remember that I absolutely loved Children of Men, but twenty years is long enough for them to read like new. I had forgotten how intricately plotted and well-written these books are. P.D. James is one of Britain’s four Queens of Crime for a reason. If you like period English mysteries — post-war, in this case — they are not to be missed.

Bookshelves: brit-lit, cozy-mystery, period-mystery, detective, mystery

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The Charisma of Cranes (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

Fresh to the city from her small hometown, she’d tilt her head back and get vertigo from the skyscrapers. First time she’d felt fear of heights looking up.

And the cranes. At first, she’d wondered when the buildings would be finished and she could get a pretty skyline photo without those unsightly cranes. Never, she eventually realized. The building never stops. She’d never thought of that, that cities are never finished. Bigger, better, faster, more.

She’s grown to appreciate having a skyline, but she surely does miss a horizon.

Although cranes strung with Christmas lights are kind of pretty.

webandi crane
Photo: webandi

Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts the Rough Writers and Friends flash fiction challenge. This week’s prompt: “In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story defining ‘the charisma of cranes.’ For centuries, cranes have inspired art and philosophy. You can write a crane story or create something new out of the phrase. Go where the prompt leads.”

Echo (Jane Doe Six Sentence Stories)

“I hate my plain-Jane name,” Jane says.

“Well, I think Jane is a lovely name,” says Mikki, “but if you could choose your name, what would it be?”

“Echo.”

“What?”

ECHO, ECHO, echo, echo,” Jane laughs. “See, that got your attention!”

Echo 3271136
Photo: 3271136

Every week, Girlie on the Edge hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup and blog hop. This week’s cue was “echo.” Fun sixes from other writers are at the link. Join us! It’s fun!

All-American Murder by James Patterson (Book Review)

All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers' RowAll-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez, the Superstar Whose Life Ended on Murderers’ Row by James Patterson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: biography, gangsta, in-the-news, party-like-a-rock-star, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, sports, non-fiction, true-crime, show-your-work, sports

This account of the shooting-star NFL player Aaron Hernandez is a lot like shallow whitewater; it pulls you right along, swirls and eddies and churns and is exciting enough, but it’s not all that deep. To be fair, In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter have already been done. Spoiler alert: There may be some in this review, but if you followed the headlines as events played out, then not really.

The book follows Aaron’s football career, from high school through his years with the Florida Gators and his signing by the New England Patriots. This is paralleled by his off-the-field life, with stops for various shootings and bar brawls, a couple of murder trials, and ultimately his death in 2017. There are a lot of major and minor players, and events spill over into each other, so things are occasionally hard to keep straight. But for all the detail included, there is much missing. Aaron’s fiancee doesn’t appear until he is signed with the Patriots, although they had reportedly been a couple for some years, and there’s next to nothing on the relationship that included her disposing of murder weapons and committing perjury on his behalf. There’s nothing on the investigative and legal teams beyond the tidbit that one defense lawyer was the one who got Casey Anthony acquitted.

It appears that things brought out in the investigations and trials were recreated in a narrative biography form that reads more like fiction, although I can’t say that definitely because no sources are listed. But that is not my preferred style for true crime. I prefer the more standard format of (1) crime (2) in-depth account of the investigation, and (3) solid showing of how all the evidence and testimony played out (or was disallowed) in the courts. I dislike the assumption of omniscience on the writer’s part, with little or no reference to where the information came from. It doesn’t give me what I want, which is to be a fly on the wall for the detective work, forensics, and legal maneuvering. I want to see and hear what the cops and the juries saw and heard, or why they didn’t see or hear it. That’s the reckoning. I want to know where the “facts” came from so I can reach my own conclusions. So ultimately, I don’t have much opinion on the verdicts, as I was left with a poor idea of what the different juries were actually given to work with. (I can say I don’t understand how Aaron’s agent and attorney could refuse to believe he committed suicide. The only reasonable alternative is murder, but the description of his death scene is the classic locked-room scenario.)

There’s enough actual football here for devotees, but not too much for non-fans. There is good backstory on Aaron himself, and I appreciate that every little detail of his childhood was not laid out; it’s tough to make anyone else’s toddler stage interesting to me. Aaron’s emotional chaos from the sudden and shattering death of his father and idol is reflected well, along with his long-term substance abuse and his associations with society’s bottom-feeders. But his advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain degeneration resulting from repeated blows to the head) and how it may have worked with those other factors to produce his erratic, paranoid, and violent behavior is brought up almost an afterthought.

Whether intentionally or not, the book does serve as an indictment of the culture of the athlete in America, with the win-at-any-cost business model, exorbitant salaries, celebrity status, entitled attitudes, and tolerance, if not cover-ups, of domestic violence, drug use, drunk driving, sexual assault, and generally shitty and unsportsmanlike behavior off the field. Not all athletes, certainly not–but for every one that makes the news, how many don’t?

So, it’s not the best true crime I’ve ever read, but it’s still a page-turner. Patterson’s style is headlong, with little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and the chapters are so short that it’s easy to read just one more and just one more and just one more… I started reading on a Saturday night and couldn’t stop, fell asleep over it with the light on about 3 a.m. and finished it the next morning. For all its churned-out feel, it’s still an engrossing read.

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Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain (Book Review)

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist ChurchBanished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the memoir of Lauren Drain’s years in the Westboro Baptist Church, from being forced into it as a teenager by her parents up until her banishment by both “church” and parents seven years later. I’m not even sure why I picked this book up, other than I love being a fly on the wall and I wanted to see what spiritual message could possibly support the vitriol they spew. I did not like the book, more for the content than the writing; the content was so nasty that I skimmed probably half of it. Still, I know more than when I started.

THE PREMISE: Doctrinally speaking, it’s masturbatory. Like Calvinism, the WBC believes only a select few are chosen for salvation before birth, and nothing can change that. No amount of faith, of love, of good works, of repentance, of atonement, nothing. If you are not pre-selected, you will burn in hell. Of course you can see the same thing I did, the tidy little paradox that renders the message and the “church” itself pointless. (Although it’s certainly arguable that living with faith in God and love of God is its own reward, that’s a dogmatic discussion for another time and in any case does not apply to the WBC.) And–but you saw this coming–the entire Phelps family is chosen. God talks directly, and only, to WBC “elders.”

THE MESSAGE: Hate. That’s it. Just hate. The “Thank God for dead soldiers” shit is explained by the cult’s hysterical homophobia: Any military that allows “fags” to serve, and which safeguards a country that “enables” homosexuality, is cursed. When I read, “Our primary motivation was to let people know God hated them,” I got sick of feeling sick and started skimming. Tragedies like 9/11 and Sandy Hook and hurricanes are all God saying he hates everybody except the WBC, but especially “fags.” Of course there is no reason for this message because even if God kinda sorta liked some of the rest of us, we still have only about a one in 110-billion chance of being one of God’s chosen few, but who cares about logic? We don’t need no stinking logic!

(Since hypocrisy and irony abound with these people, I have to wonder if the writer’s banishment and the defections of various Phelps family members opened up any spots on that Great Reservation List in the Sky.)

THE GODLY HUMILITY: Absent. “When prophets like us, who spoke only for God, were persecuted, our country was doomed.” She complains about feeling disrespected and misunderstood by the public. Sorry, sweetheart, but when you’re spewing venom into the faces of grieving families, you are not being misunderstood. At. All. At other points she wrote that she was “still confused,” or that she “just felt doomed,” which says her conscience and intuition hadn’t completely deserted her, but when you know you’d better cover up your picketing signs to board a plane, when your “church” is officially designated as a hate group, those are reliable hints you’re on the despicable side of humanity.

THE ORGANIZATION: It is facile to dismiss these people as merely ignorant. This brand of homophobia is not Cooter sitting in his trailer all beered up and hatin’ on the hommaseckshools. They are intelligent, many of them well-educated, with law licenses they use to defend their First Amendment rights all the way to SCOTUS. They are organized and strategic and detail-oriented to a gnat’s fanny. Everywhere they go, they know exactly what they can get away with. Baleful and vitriolic they may be, but stupid they are not. (The tragedy is that this evil narcissism is mostly taught, springing from the WBC founder, Fred Phelps, to his children and grandchildren. Without that upbringing, Phelps’ descendants might have been normal people, although that’s a nature-vs-nurture discussion, also for another time.)

THE INDOCTRINATION: As many memoirs and biographies do, this book suffered from Other People’s Childhoods Syndrome, so I skipped that part. I started reading in earnest when Lauren was thrust into the church by her parents at age 14. The immersion was absolute, including insularity, microrules, tattling and competition for favor, verbal and emotional abuse, isolation, constant monitoring, rote learning, public shaming for perceived wrongdoing–everything required to create a good little automaton. Of course, you also have to have a verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive father and a mother who’s essentially useless beyond giving birth. (Steve and Lucy Drain are utterly horrible people and that’s not open for discussion.)

THE REMEDY: Ignore them. Utterly. They are trying to engage people so they can show off how smart and well-informed they are (a repeated bragging point), and to get headlines and photos. Do not feed the trolls. However, it remains that I adore the Bikers Against Child Abuse and the Patriot Guard Riders, bikers who create a physical wall of protection around funerals so the WBC can’t get close enough to picket effectively. I also loved the approach of the band Panic! at the Disco, who promised a donation to the Human Rights Campaign per WBC picketer at one of their concerts, then increased it and threw in a percentage of their merch sales too. That’s how you fight hate with love.

THE AFTERMATH: Unsatisfying. I did read the final two chapters and the epilogue in their entirety, and was left wanting the rest of the story and some real insight. Life after banishment is glossed over. The homilies and apologies felt canned and impersonal. She feels terrible about the people she hurt, she wants everyone to know God’s love, she now accepts other religions, blah blah blah. “I will never be a political activist for gay rights, but I like gay people and have lots of gay friends, too. I don’t judge them, and I don’t believe anyone else has the right to judge them, either.” Ah, the but I have gay friends! schtick. Hint: If you don’t think the LGBT population should have the same rights you have, you are judging and you are not their friend.

Her experiences about picketing and learning “church” doctrine have a good-old-days feel to them, and I’m not convinced she wouldn’t go back if they’d have her. I realize that could be nostalgia for the family she’s lost–even if they are shits, a part of us still aches for their love. Of course she misses her siblings, who are still trapped victims. I suppose it’s normal to fondly recall performances that earned you feel-goods, even if the script was malevolent. But when recalling her friends from the WBC, she writes merely that her “misgivings are stronger.” Um, what? The writer seems immature, but perhaps that’s to be expected from what is probably a textbook case of arrested development. I’m trying not to see her NOH8 message and her bootylicious pictures all over the internet as nothing more than a great big “Fuck you, Mom and Dad!” That would be understandable, but I want more for her.

I’m trying to be fair. Really. What I read is conversational and matter-of-fact and with the viewpoint of someone who actually believes this poison, which makes sense since it’s what she was living at the time–but man, is it hard to stomach. I like to believe people can change. Lauren Drain suffered horrific abuse during some very formative years and I suspect much deprogramming and healing remained to be done as of the writing of this book. Banishing her is probably the kindest thing her parents ever did for her, but my impression is she’s not in a place to see that yet. I hope she gets there. I’m sorry they hurt her so badly. No child should be treated as she was and I’m glad she’s out. Many blessings as she finds her own path of light.

Disclaimer: No, I am not a Christian. Yes, I have read the Bible, cover to cover, and I still own mine. When I cherry-pick it, I cherry-pick the good stuff, like help people, be kind, act in love, and so forth, because that Jesus dude was pretty chill.

Bookshelves: memoir, somebody-get-the-slime-off-me, couldn’t-really-read-it, religion-sort-of, in-the-news, non-fiction, controversial, just-nasty, unreliable-narrator, well-i-tried

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