Evidence of Love by John Bloom

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The True Crime genre has been a guilty pleasure of mine since I worked in a public library back in the 1980s and discovered the treasures that awaited me in Dewey # 364.1523. I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy of Evidence of Love by John Bloom in exchange for an honest review (thanks to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media).

Subtitled “A true story of passion and death in the suburbs,” this fascinating story was made into a movie titled “A Killing in a Small Town” starring Barbara Hershey and Brian Dennehy in 1990. Yes, over 25 years ago! TBH, it wasn’t until I was nearly finished with the book that I checked and realized this crime happened in 1980, and the original copyright date is 1983. It isn’t totally clear to me if the book has been updated for the 2016 edition or is just being republished, but it’s a testament to how good it is that it doesn’t seem dated and the story holds up as well as it does.

The story is set in the suburban area in Texas known as the “Silicone Prairie,” and focuses on two families, both headed by men who work in high tech. Pat Montgomery is a successful engineer who is married to Candy. They are friends with the Gores, Allan and Betty. The story opens with Candy telling stories to children at a gathering at the church they all attend. Later that same day, Betty Gore is found murdered, the victim of the classic “axe murderer” that is somewhat a cliché (although apparently not that many murders are committed using an axe).

So, here’s where it gets tricky to review this without spoiling it. Although this was apparently a well-known crime, I was clueless about it when I began to read, and I think if I had known what was coming it might have been a totally different reading experience. (I admit I was creeped out while reading it, and since I always like to look at the photos first when reading true crime and my digital edition  didn’t include photos, I Googled the names and was stunned to read the headlines since I had about 40 pages left to read – it might have made a difference.) I don’t know if the print edition will include photos, but these characters are classic suburban couples with lives that revolve around their family, church, and (for the Dads) their work.

If you enjoy true crime, this is GREAT. If you like suburban drama, same thing. It isn’t a mystery in the sense that we know early on who died and who was responsible, but there is a mystery surrounding the nature of the killer’s defense, and whether it will prove successful. I didn’t find any of the characters to be particularly likable, but that didn’t detract from the fact that this is true crime at its best. FIVE stars.

The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How to Fix It by W. Chris Winter, M.D.

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I’ve always been interested in how to improve sleep…with a lifelong sleep problem, multiple overnight stays in the sleep clinic with electrodes EVERYWHERE, and a million suggestions including everything from improved sleep hygiene to serious drugs, I’m someone who knows quite a bit about sleep but yearns to learn more.

It seems like it’s a topic that is getting more coverage – for example, some major league baseball teams began using sleep rhythms to improve player performance (something that the Multiple-World Series winning SF Giants advocate) over the past few years, and even Arianna Huffington got into it last year with her book The Sleep Revolution (subtitle: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time)!! And she seemed to get it, so when I had the opportunity to receive an advance copy of the new book on sleep written by the man Arianna calls “The Sleep Whisperer,” (in exchange for my honest review), I leapt at the offer from NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group / NAL to review The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken And How to Fix It.

Dr. W. Chris Winter in an M.D. specializing in sleep disorders. A neurologist, one of the areas he has focused on is using sleep techniques as a way of improving athletes’ performance. In this new book, he presents both the background information to help people understand the problems that what I call “bad sleep” can bring as well as steps to take to address them. (NOTE: I don’t like to use the term “solve them” when discussing sleep problems, because I think that gives false hope – at least it did for me, for years, as I scoured popular books and articles as well as medical journals, looking for the answer)

The Sleep Solution is designed to help the reader design a specific program to address their individual issues and lifestyle. Among the topics:

* the ways in which food, light, and other activities might help or hurt our sleep
* why you may achieve your best sleep WITHOUT using sleeping pills
* how to Incorporate both “regular” sleep and napping into your life
*how to better a variety of sleep issues and conditions, including insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg (aka Willis-Ekbom) syndrome and circadian sleep disorders

IMHO, this book is a good combination of fundamental information and current methods. I especially like the way he doesn’t advocate a “one-size-fits-all” approach and believes in giving people information to help them address their specific challenges. Because it is up-to-date, extremely readable, informative without being preachy, and provides hope for the sleep challenged among us, I give it 5 stars (although my sleep specialist advocates the use of the more current term Willis-Ekbom Disease, that than RLS — a minor point, and in truth RLS is probably more “user-friendly”).

 

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

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I’ve been curious about Jonestown since the 1970s, finding myself fascinated in general about cults and repelled by the horror of Jonestown. I lived in Humboldt County, not all that far from Jones’s settlement in Ukiah, and we heard bits and pieces about the group (sort of like when we moved to Santa Cruz, hearing about the “red people”) – then the astonishing news when it all turned to hell in Guyana. So I was happy to receive an advance copy of The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The book went WAY more in depth into the early years of “Jimmy” Jones, and TBH he creeped me out all the way back in Chapter 4 (of 52) when little Jimmy, not yet ten years old, was holding animal funeral services and exhibiting a serious fascination with the Nazis: “…he was fascinated with the Nazis, enamored of their pageantry, mesmerized by obedient hordes of fighting men goose-stepping in unison.” He “Studied Adolf Hitler intently, how he stood in front of adoring crowds for hours…” 

In Jimmy’s hometown of Lynn, Indiana, a new Apostolic church opened up, featuring people speaking in tongues and “rolling around, babbling gibberish. It was wonderful entertainment.” Jimmy was always drawn to religions, and became a pastor at Community Unity church, a storefront operation that he worked hard to link with an established church. As years went by, Jim Jones became more and more a showman in his services, enlisting help from accomplices to demonstrate the miracles he could perform: as he “cured” a cancer of an audience member, his assistant would be in the audience “brandishing a bloody, foul-smelling lump clutched in a white cloth or napkin. Jones would declare that her was the cancer,” and encourage people to examine it (but not too closely, as it was extremely infectious. “Jones often engaged in the laying on of hands, commanding aches or tremors or chills to be gone—and usually, but not always, sufferers experienced instant relief.”

The name Peoples Temple came about after Community Unity bought property left when a Jewish congregation vacated it. “…the word “Temple” was carved in stone outside the building, and so Jones decided that the name of his curacy would reflect both its philosophy and the carving: Peoples Temple, not People’s, because the apostrophe symbolized ownership.” And Jones totally discouraged ownership of material possessions by his parishioners, urging them to give everything to the church.

One scam—rather, moneymaking operation, which Jones incorporated into building his empire, was that they “took over management of several nursing homes. These provided jobs for Peoples Temple congregants, and the money needed not only to pay for outreach programs, but also to promote them. Jones was able to purchase daily time on a local radio station,” and began expanding his outreach using media.

He paid close attention to Father Divine, and he “intended not only to emulate Divine’s ministry, but also to inherit his followers after the old man died.” Hoping to unite his Peoples Temple with Divine’s Peace Mission, he worked long and hard on the plan, but it never happened.

Throughout his rise from poor preacher to powerful leader of a huge congregation, we learn way more than we probably ever wanted to know about Jones’s peccadilloes and we see him at first veer off the path in his personal life, then flagrantly violate various Commandments as his life spiraled into a corrupt, vile mess filled with sex, drugs and real estate when he bought the property in Guyana. The Church incorporated physical punishment to keep followers in line, and he circumvented rules with situational ethics, as he “preached, and his followers believed, that the U.S. criminal justice system was corrupt, as well as rife with racism.”

He tried to establish his ultimate church in Los Angeles, but city politics and the geography of sprawling Southern California kept him from realizing his dream. Focusing his efforts on the San Francisco Bay Area, he offered grim sermons to his devoted followers, habitually using obscenities. “Temple members loved it – Father was talking like a real person, not acting prissy like so many pastors.” (at this point, I was reminded of the current political situation, and how a tyrant can easily dupe people into becoming blind followers – but that’s another story).

His paranoia, fueled by drug addiction, grew and spiraled further and further into madness. As events led up to the final confrontation with Congressman Ryan’s group in Guyana, it felt like there was no hope (of course, knowing how things would turn out, this was no surprise). “On that afternoon in Jonestown, when he told his followers that there was no other way, he believed it. As far as Jones was concerned, if he had come to some place that hope ran out, then so had they.” It was chilling to read about the times Jones told his followers they were drinking poison, and they DID IT, only to be told it was just an exercise. I imagine many of them thought it was just another exercise when they drank that poison on the final day.

Seriously, this book was upsetting. If I had not been committed to read and review it, I might have given up because the detail and relentless presentation of his horrific behavior began to feel overwhelming.

It is very extensively researched, and includes notes documenting sources. For anyone who really wants to know IN EXTREME DETAIL what happened to little Jimmy Jones to make him turn into the monster responsible for the deaths of so many who worshipped him, this is the book. It’s unsettling, no question, and I was relieved when I finished it – but I have to give it 4 stars just for the enormous work that went into it.

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

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I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for many years, so when I had the opportunity to receive an advance copy of his latest novel, The Sleepwalker, from NetGalley and Doubleday Books in exchange for my honest review, I jumped on it!

The story is told looking back at the year 2000, and revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Annalee Ahlberg late one night. Her two daughters (21-year-old college student Lianna, who is home for her break, and 12-year-old Paige) both sleep through the night with no awareness of why their mother is gone when they wake up. Their father, an English professor at a nearby college, is away at a poetry conference the night Annalee goes missing, so although the police always look first at the spouse, he seems to have a rock solid alibi.

He works to keep his wife’s status in front of the public to help in the search for her, as he is well aware that people move on: “People survive by being callous, not kind, he sometimes taught his students, not trying to be dismissive of the species, but realistic. How, he lectured, could we ever face the morning if we did not grow inured to the monstrosities that marked the world daily: tsunamis and plane crashes and terrorism and war?”

As the story unfolds, we learn that all was not always smooth sailing in the marriage, although things usually LOOKED calm. Lianna sees beyond the surface: “Usually when they fought, they fought rather quietly, their barbs sharpened on whetstones of condescension and sarcasm.”

We learn that Annalee had a history of sleepwalking, although she never had an “event” if her husband was home. We also learn that they had been through multiple miscarriages between Lianna’s birth and Paige’s, and there was town gossip about Paige’s paternity. Lianna finds herself attracted to Gavin Rikert, the police detective who takes the lead on the investigation – and keeps their growing relationship secret from her father and sister. Things get complicated when she learns that Gavin is also a sleepwalker, had met her mother at the sleep clinic, and that they had an ongoing friendship (which no one in the Ahlberg family knew ANYTHING  about).

This is way too challenging to discuss without spoiling the mystery. As I read on my Kindle and realized I was 95% through the book, I was wondering how the BLEEP the story would be resolved in the few remaining pages. And once I finished it, I found myself wanting to go back and re-read it, armed with my new knowledge!

I learned a ton about sleep disorders, which I appreciated, having been a sleepwalker as a child and, as an adult, having spent a few nights covered with electrodes at the sleep clinic (although my disorder was not and is not at all similar to Anna lee’s).

It’s well written, the mystery was not revealed until the very end (although I am one of those mystery readers who rarely figures things out before the big reveal), the characters were very well drawn, and I learned some things! I give it five stars.

Infamy by Robert Tannenbaum

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I’ve read most of Robert Tanenbaum’s books featuring Manhattan District Attorney Butch Karp and his wife, Marlene Ciampi, so I was happy to receive an advance copy of Infamy from NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for my honest review. The story is basically this: a former Army veteran murders a colonel in New York, then claims that he was being manipulated as part of mind control experiments. A hotshot criminal defense lawyer (with ties to the White House), decides to defend the killer, and uses the veteran’s apparent post-traumatic stress from his tours in Afghanistan as his defense.

DA “Butch” Karp works with an old friend (frenemy?), investigative reporter Ariadne Stupenagel. She suspects that one of her victims in the shooting was a source she was using for a story on high-level government corruption, and argues that the shooting event was a hired killing, contracted by people at the highest levels of government, rather than some random violent event.

It’s a fast-paced thriller, and Karp feels that not only he, but also his family and friends are in danger if he goes ahead with the prosecution.

At times, it seems the story was created with a movie in mind, and for me it wasn’t up to the level of some earlier books in the series. Or perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps disillusionment with government ethics following the election of 2016 affected my enjoyment of this thriller that was political as well as legal. I found Butch to be a bit too right of center for me to really love his actions. (“Really, Mr. Tanenbaum, it’s not you – it’s me!!”)

In any case, fans of Tannenbaum’s will enjoy it for sure. Four stars.

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac

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The Cutaway by Christina Kovac is described as being “perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn,” so as a fan of those two books, I was happy to receive an advance copy from Atria Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I tend to enjoy books about the inner workings of media when they are written by someone with actual real world experience – and Ms. Kovac has seventeen years of experience in broadcast news, so I figured this was drawn for stories and people with whom she had worked in the past, and for me it rang true.

The story is set in Washington, D.C., and includes elements from news, politics and crime as it follows Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer, who receives an unsettling notice about a young attorney who is missing. The woman was last seen leaving a fancy restaurant after a domestic dispute, and Virginia finds herself investigating the disappearance on her own as her skeptical colleagues aren’t on board with her suspicions.

The pace is fast, the characters well-drawn, and the corruption among the police, the politicians and the press are pervasive…and creepy as we enter into an era marked with unsettling links between business and government following the recent election.

Described as a “psychological thriller,” it will appeal to fans of stories such as Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and Missing, Presumed.

My husband found a few details that, for him, disturbed the flow of the narrative – things along the lines of  “wait, if she had lost her wallet, how did she…” so I felt I couldn’t give it five stars, but those didn’t really bother me, and I hope this is the first in a series of stories involving Virginia Knightly!

Four stars.

The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

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Several years ago, I stumbled upon Owen Laukkanen’s book The Professionals, featuring the crime-fighting team of Kirk Stevens (with the Minnesota BCA) and Carla Windermere (FBI). It was great! Since then I have enjoyed the exploits of these partners (in Criminal Enterprise, Kill Fee, The Stolen Ones, and The Watcher in the Wall), so I was happy to get an advance copy of The Missing Girls (to be published in March 2017), thanks to Penguin Group Putnam / G.P. Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley.

I wasn’t more than a paragraph or two into the Prologue before a scary premise was revealed: young women are hopping freight trains and meeting creepy guys. Given the title, I knew this wasn’t going to end well for more than one of them. And the line from the Prologue, repeated early on in the book, sent a chilling message: You don’t ever surf trains on the High Line.(seriously, it creeps me out just to write the words.)

Seems there is a serial killer targeting women, all of whom tend to fall into the categories that are unlikely to be missed: runaways, freight hoppers, barmaids, prostitutes, etc., many of them Native Americans – and many who disappear into a snowbank, not to be found until the spring thaw. He chose women the mountains wouldn’t miss, women who died easy. Women who nobody saw, anyway.

It takes awhile for the identity of the killer to be revealed, and Laukkanen is extremely skilled at building tension and describing the atmosphere. So good, in fact, that I kept having to get under a heated blanket as I followed Stevens and Windermere while they worked the case in horrific winter conditions in the North (Montana and into Canada).

Both the atmosphere and the killer are incredibly COLD: “…put that girl’s death down to natural causes, whether it was cold that killed her or a man. It’s all the same thing on this side of the mountain.”

Earlier titles in this series seemed to focus a bit more on the relationship between Stevens and Windermere, which is clearly now only a professional partnership. But they work well together and share a commitment to following through on the search for the killer, because they both clearly care about the women, regardless of their social class, history or current living situation.

Not so much a who-done-it mystery as a character study for the reader but there is a puzzle for them to solve in order to identify the killer, and there is some nifty Internet/Cloud technology as they follow the trail. And OMG, the scenes as the victims and the authorities plow through near-blizzard conditions! These chapters are incredibly tense and build to the ending (not perfect for all the characters by any means).

A great weekend of escapist fiction reading, and another winner from Owen Laukkanen. Five stars.

Out of Bounds by Val McDermid

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I’m not sure why I haven’t read Val McDermid before, or why I wanted to read this one, but I am so glad it happened, and I thank Atlantic Monthly Press and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of Out of Bounds in exchange for my honest review!

McDermid fans may already be familiar with Chief Inspector Karen Pirie of Police Scotland, as Out of Bounds is #4 in a series with this feisty female protagonist. I plan to read the first three in the series (The Distant Echo, A Darker Domain, and The Skeleton Road), but this story doesn’t require any prior knowledge, and functions as a standalone novel (although I am fairly sure that some of the facts of Karen’s life and relationships as told in Out of Bounds involved people who were featured in earlier novels but are “no longer around” — no spoilers!!)

The story opens with what seems like three disjointed chapters telling separate stories involving a teenager and his buddies stealing a car and getting involved in a fatal crash, a young man drinking in a pub who wanders off into a very bad situation, and an insomniac who walks for hours in a nightly effort to quell her demons. Being somewhat linear, my initial reaction was along the lines of “huh?” but somehow I knew these things would come together…and the definitely did.

The insomniac is the protagonist, policewoman Karen Pirie. She is called in to investigate following the car crash, and her rule-bending investigation of an apparent terrorist bombing twenty years ago leads her to the pub patron. I can’t give much detail without spoiling the incredibly well-crafted story (or stories), but everything works! The stories come together, Karen becomes someone the reader just KNOWS, and there are some intriguing subplots and asides (including mentions of Nicola Stugeon, comments about Trump, and a thought-provoking look at some Syrian refugees).

I love Karen Pirie. “She was good at making people relax into revelation. She thought it was something to do with her apparent lack of sophistication. A few extra pounds (less than there used to be, but still…); a wardrobe that always looked slightly rumpled; a haircut that never qite delivered what it had promised in the salon. Women never felt threatened by her and men treated her like a wee sister or a favourite auntie.” Fans of Elizabeth George’s Lynley series may find her reminiscent of Barbara Havers – another fictional female detective I happen to love.

In addition to being educational about Scottish culture and justice (e.g., when adoptees in Scotland reach adulthood, they can learn the facts of their birth parents), the book uses language that transports the non-Scottish reader to another country: “He’d been sitting at the bar in his usual seat, blethering to another one of the locals about some political stooshie in South East Asia.”

Maybe all of McDermid’s books are this well crafted. I hope so, as I plan to begin to work my way through them, starting with the earlier titles in the Pirie series, then exploring either the Kate Brannigan or the Lindsay ordon books (there are six in each series), or the nine books in the Tony Hill-Carol Jordan stories. The publication dates of the Lindsay Gordon books go from 1987 to 2003, te Brannigan from 1992 to 1998, and the Hill-Jordan books from 1995 to 2015. Val McDermid has been a busy woman, and I love finding an new (to me) author!

Five stars.