Lying Blind by Dianne Emley

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I’m kind of partial to procedurals with “plucky” heroines (think Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, French’s Antoinette Conway or Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone. So, when I read that Dianne Emley had a new book, Lying Blind, featuring the recurring character Detective Nan Vining (a character I had never encountered) and that the new book was described as a “hard-edged thriller for fans of Patricia Cornwell, Tana French, and Lisa Gardner,” I was ready to meet Nan!

How have I missed this series? Emley’s previous Nan Vining books include The First Cut, Cut to the Quick, The Deepest Cut, Love Kills, and Killing Secrets. In this latest in the series, Pasadena, CA’s Homicide detective Nan Vining gets involved in a murder case and arrives at a mansion where a beautiful young woman is floating face down in the infinity pool. Nan is curious as to why her boyfriend, Sergeant Jim Kissick has arrived on the scene first. Why did the homeowner contact Jim first (via text), before placing the 911 call that brought Nan to the scene?

Jim’s explanation is that he is old friends with the homeowners, Teddy and Rebecca Sexton. Nan begins to investigate, and becomes certain that the three of them are all hiding something. Meanwhile, in Lake Nacimiento (near Paso Robles, CA) a body is discovered, and that investigation brings detectives from that jurisdiction south. Soon the two crimes are intertwined and Nan feels like her relationship with Jim is falling apart.

Nan is a great character, the story is well plotted, and I enjoyed it a great deal. While there are some references to past experiences for Nan and Jim, I didn’t feel like I should have read the previous books in order to follow this one (although I plan to read earlier books in this series and hope I won’t get the “oh crap, I should have read this one first! Now I know what happens to these people!” feeling). There was a slight convenience to the resolution, meaning a tiny bit less of a rating, but overall I really enjoyed this!

Other fans of plucky heroines will enjoy this, as will people who enjoyed T. Jefferson Parker’s earlier books set in Southern California. (Everyone who has lived in Orange County seems to enjoy Parker’s early novels). Both Parker and Emley do a great job capturing the feel of SoCal, and I look forward to reading more by this author. Four enthusiastic stars, and thanks to Random House/Alibi and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Failure of Justice: A Brutal Murder, An Obsessed Cop, Six Wrongful Convictions by John Ferak

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Failure of Justice by John Ferak is a true crime book that will make fans of “Making a Murderer” absolutely freak out. (Note: a forthcoming book, Avery, by the prosecutor in the Steven Avery case, is reviewed here).  In Failure of Justice, John Ferak covers the murder, subsequent investigation, the trial, conviction and eventual exoneration of the Beatrice 6.

The crime occurred in 1985 in a small town in Beatrice, a small town located in Gage County, Nebraska (about 50 miles south of Lincoln, the state capitol). Beatrice (pronounced “bee-AT-rues”), not a hotbed of crime, was mostly white, with a population lower than average in education and income. So when Helen Wilson, a 68-year old widow, was brutally raped and murdered, beaten to death in her downtown apartment, the place went crazy with fear, anger, and lots of people clamoring for justice.

The crime scene was “eerily ritualistic,” and despite the efforts of law enforcement, the trail went cold for four years. Then, the case was apparently miraculously solved with the arrests of six social misfits who, at the time of their arrests, were living in various places including Alabama, North Carolina and Colorado. WTF? Why had they as a group been involved in murdering a kindly, quiet widow?

All six (Joseph White, Ada JoAnn Taylor, James Dean, Thomas Winslow, Kathleen Gonzalez and Debra Shelden) were eventually convicted of the crime and sent to prison, with all of them but White admitting guilt. The folks in Beatrice, particularly Helen Wilson’s family, were convinced that justice had finally been done. They were especially grateful to Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, Deputy Burdette Searcey and Reserve Deputy/psychiatrist Wayne Price, who had been instrumental in obtaining confessions/plea deals and bringing closure.

Nearly twenty years later, White’s protestations of innocence were proven correct when DNA testing of crime scene evidence showed that another man, Bruce Allen Smith, had actually been the murderer. The six, now known as “the Beatrice 6,” were exonerated and later sued Gage County, The case, which went to trial in U.S. District Court in 2014, ended in a mistrial. A new trial, ordered by the 8th Circuit Court, took place in 2016, and ended with the jury awarding the six a combined $28.1 million, plus attorneys’ fees and other costs.

I have long been fascinated with wrongful convictions, particularly those that turn out to be the result of coerced testimony and confessions. As the Beatrice 6 sat in jail, they had all been constantly reminded of their possible fate in Nebraska’s barbaric electric chair. The lengths to which the “authorities” went to get a conviction are stunning, and remind us that our criminal justice system is a mess, particularly when overzealous (sometimes called wacko) policing and prosecution efforts are involved.

What is also fascinating is that Gage County, with a population of just over 20,000, is on the hook for the settlement, awarded to the 6 late last year. (Note: the county declared its intention to appeal in October, and after several extensions, its attorneys submitted a 107-page brief in January 2017. These developments occurred too late to be included in the book, and are interesting postscripts to a story that really explores how people who are misfits, sometimes with limited capacity to understand the situation, can be railroaded in the frenzied, not always well-intentioned, search for “justice.”

With thanks to WildBlue Press and NetGalley, I appreciate the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in return for my honest review. It isn’t literature, it’s true crime. And I have read a LOT of true crime, certainly enough to recognize a quality effort in the genre. With that said, this is true crime that is worthy of 5 stars.

 

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

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Having both watched him for a few years on MSNBC and having read his work in The Nation, I love Chris Hayes, His earlier book Twilight of the Elites (called “a stunning polemic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), emphasized how out of touch America’s political leaders were with those they were elected to govern (and this was in 2012!). In his new book, he takes the experiences he has had reporting from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore and combines it with his outstanding knowledge of U.S. history and concludes that our country has broken into two distinct factions: the Colony and the Nation.

As he examines the issues and events in Ferguson, West Baltimore and other places where racially-motivated crime and violence have been in the news in recent years, he contends that the conditions in these cities and towns mirror those that sparked the American Revolution. Along the way, he examines the political, economic and social conditions in both eras.

He explains that despite our wish to live in a “post-racial” world, the situation that exists in “the Colony” looks very much like a police state, where aggressive policing makes the police look like an occupying force and fear is paramount.

He points out that our country imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other county, except the archipelago of Seychelles, with “nearly one out of four prisoners in the world …an American,” although we have only 5% of the world’s population. And “American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Ouch!!

He examines the end of Jim Crow and the change that happened in the 1960s is a time when some believe “it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarcerations” – for me, this was unsettling to read. In Ferguson, Hayes believes “…the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in the St. Louis suburb.” Further, he says our “post-civil-rights social order …gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.””

To his credit, he in unflinching as he presents his self-analysis of his own privilege as he lives the “the Nation,” and explains “None of this came about by accident. It was the result of accumulation of policy, from federal housing guidelines and realtor practices to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essential drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other,” And, as in the case of Sandra Bland, “In the Colony, violence looms, and failure to comply can be fatal.” And he points out that this is not so in The Nation.

Many of us are currently pondering how the hell our country got to the point where it is today. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is eye-opening, well researched, easy to read and comprehend, and reveals Hayes’s intelligence as well as his compassion and desire for change. It comes at a good time for anyone wanting to have some awareness of how we got to where we are, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.

Avery: The Case Against Steven Avery and What “Making a Murderer” Gets Wrong by Ken Kratz

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OK, True Crime IS my guilty pleasure genre. And I am particularly fascinated by stories of “justice gone wrong,” and am a strong advocate for fairness in the justice system and a believer in the need for judicial reform. So, the whole phenomenon around Steven Avery and the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” would seem to be right up my alley. After all, I was obsessed worth Serial, so a story about a wrongful conviction should be my thing, right?

But here is the thing: it’s easy to advocate for justice for an intelligent, articulate young man (Serial’s Adnan Syed). It’s a lot harder when the accused murderer is a man like Steven Avery: a crude, uneducated man whose family business is an auto salvage yard where he lives in a trailer among rusted out wrecked cars and indulges himself fathering children, harassing people, and torturing animals. Truly.

Some years ago, Avery was accused and convicted of raping a woman, and sent to prison where he stayed until the case was overturned, as his innocence was proven. Just when his case against the County was moving toward what looked like a huge cash award for wrongful imprisonment, he was accused of murdering a young female photographer who came to the salvage yard to take photos for Auto Trader.

Making a Murderer presented a compelling argument for what looked like at best inept police work and at worst a totally corrupt judicial system that went after him because his case for the prior improper conviction was about to bankrupt the County. He settled for $400,000, which he used for his defense in the murder trial.

I admit, I couldn’t watch all of Making a Murderer. They actually lost me fairly early on with the animal torture, and while I thought there had likely been some significant errors in the prosecution of the case (especially the way Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey was used), I wasn’t convinced he was innocent.

This book, written by the prosecutor, reinforced my opinion that Avery is a disgusting creep. It also gave me a TON of facts that were not part of Making a Murderer. It’s well written, and Kratz is open with his own story and the mistakes he made along the way (unrelated to Avery’s case). Anyone who watched the series and thinks Avery is innocent should really read this book, and it would be a good choice for true crime fans, especially if they can handle reading about a disgusting man.

Really, if I hadn’t committed to review it, I might not have finished it. I knew the status of the legal case, and I felt like I didn’t care if he had been wrongly convicted. Saying that goes against my personal beliefs, and I do think there are huge problems with our system of “justice” – but this man should be locked away forever, IMHO.

Four stars. I still hate Avery, and am not a big fan of Kratz, but the book is well done.

Richie by Thomas Thompson

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Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate America Tragedy, originally published in 1973, tells the story of an event that occurred in Nassau County (Long Island, NY) in1972. I was not familiar with the case, and True Crime is my “guilty pleasure” genre, so I was please to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley!)

If you are familiar with this story, either from news accounts, the earlier edition of this book, or the TV Movie (spoiler alert!) The Death of Richie, your experience reading this will be different from mine. I was not familiar with the events, so for me it was both a true crime narrative and a thriller, because I had no idea what would happen in the end.

The story involves George Diener, who was a “salt of the earth” kind of guy: World War II veteran and traveling salesman, he is the epitome of the stereotypical member of the “older generation” who found themselves puzzled and appalled by the youth movement of the late 60s and early 70s (drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll). He and his wife, Carol, had old-fashioned values and found pleasure in the simple things, including watching their two sons growing up in a middle-class Long Island suburb.

If you have had a family member or close friend whose life has spiraled out of control due to drugs, the story will be familiar, and you may find yourself mentally shouting at the parents to take some action as their son Richie’s life goes downhill. Richie was a golden child, shy by most standards but close to his parents as a child. But at the age of fifteen, everything changes as he “got in with a bad crowd” and began having incidents related to a deep dive into drug addiction. He turned violent and repeatedly was in trouble for both drug-related and violent crimes, and his parents were increasingly at a loss as to how they could help him.

Sadly, in 1972, their dreams for their son were extinguished by a tragic event in their home.

Thomas Thompson, who also wrote another true crime classic, Blood & Money, is a master at writing true crime and this story captures the incredible gulf between the young and old was at its peak. A good read on several levels, and a must for true crime fans. Five stars.

 

Tell Me No Lies by Lynn Chandler Willis

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Tell Me No Lies: An Ava Logan Mystery by Lynn Chandler Willis is described as “Mystery Thriller General Fiction (Adult)” Knowing that, I settled in for what I hoped would be enough to take my mind off politics :). And, to just get it out of the way, I really really enjoyed this book. The author’s background includes ownership of a small-town newspaper (like her protagonist Ava Logan), and work in television, both of which may have contributed to the way the writing flows nicely while providing a rich visual portrait of both characters and environment.

Another thing to get out of the way is to clarify that it isn’t really possible to say much about the book without spoiling it. Now, about that: I am an avid mystery reader who generally doesn’t figure things out ahead of time, which is fine by me. I prefer being surprised (but only in reading, never in real life!) But there was a mention early on of something about the character that turned out to be the villain that made me say “hmmmm.” So, perhaps other readers may find the ending was telegraphed early on – but I was actually still somewhat surprised AND it didn’t lessen my enjoyment.

So, here is what I CAN say: the protagonist, Ava Logan, is a single mother to amazing children who live deep in Appalachia (and the setting turns out to be a significant aspect of the book’s appeal, as Willis uses both the natural beauty of the region and the appalling poverty to move her story along. Ava’s past is referenced (she tells us “…I had always been the girl with the mom in prison”).

Ava has made a good life for herself and is the publisher of the local newspaper. In her role as publisher/writer, she encounters some stories related to the upcoming local election about a rash of ginseng thieves (really? Who knew? Well, not me). Then on a day when Ava is watching a toddler belonging to her friend (another single mom), the friend is murdered and Ava finds herself in the middle of that case, the thievery, and a side plot about her multiple male friends, who are both prominent in the town.

When I write it down it sounds so cliché and like it might not be that much fun to read, but seriously, you just need to trust me. If you enjoy a clever mystery, mostly likeable characters (including a “plucky heroine”), you will like this.

With thanks to Henery Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give it four stars. Only negative for me was the fact that the clue to the mystery may have been too obvious which I know turns off some mystery readers. Again, for me, that was not an issue and I will definitely recommend this one.

Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry by Marcus Thompson

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Marcus Thompson II covered the Warriors for ten years, so he has seen the franchise emerge from the bottom of the heap to an incredibly popular, highly marketable and incredibly fun to watch team – and the centerpiece of their success is Wardell Stephen Curry, also known as Steph.

In Golden, Thompson tells the story of Curry’s rise to superstardom, and goes into a significant amount of detail about his years at Davidson, a college not known as a basketball powerhouse. As the son of an NBA player (Dell Curry), Steph was familiar with the trappings of fame and the lifestyle made possible by playing at a high level in the NBA. In fact, Thompson points out in the chapter “Curry Hate” that being the son of an NBA player is one of the marks against him – a reason he is the target of hate. (The two other reasons for the animus toward Curry are his light skin and his wholesome image.

The whole light skinned thing is covered in depth, and Thompson doesn’t shy away from discussing racism and the issue of varying shades of color among NBA players (which I confess I found fascinating). Equally interesting was the detail about what has driven Steph to become the most popular NBA player (with his jersey ranked #1 in sales in multiple years).

As a Bay Area resident, I appreciated Thompson’s in-depth look at how “In a span of a few years, the Warriors went from a cute start-up, the trendy watch for those in the know, to champion, to despised favorite.”

Along the way, Steph’s journey has taken him from the “unathletic” kid who loved the game to be known as the Baby Faced Assassin. “The alter ego that would turn the kindest cutest kid around into a vindictive, explosive predator on the court.”

Despite the “Curry Hate” mentioned above (which I admit I really don’t get), Steph continues to be beloved by parents who want their kids to look up to someone with such a wholesome image. And he treats people well: “He has an uncanny ability to make people walk away from a Curry interaction feeling like they have a new friend who is really good at basketball.”

There is something for everyone in this book: human interest stories about his family, historical perspective on both Steph and the Warriors, and lots and lots of detail about specific games as well as specific details that a true hoops fan will appreciate. In discussing the debate as to whether Steph is a point guard or a shooting guard, we are told that “He is a point guard who can light up the scoreboard with the best of shooting guards. He is a shooting guard with all the skills of a top point guard.”

As both a basketball fan and a Curry fan, I enjoyed the book. Thompson’s long tenure covering the team made him an ideal candidate to write this story, which will be appreciated by the many Warriors fans in general and Steph Curry fans in particular.

The book presumes some knowledge about the league, the team, and Steph himself. Because the book needs some editing to tighten up the organization and make it flow more smoothly from one chapter to the next as well as providing some context for a curious reader who is less knowledgeable, I gave it 3.5 stars (which will show up as only 3, but it’s better than that). And frankly, I’m not sure how to find the balance: if you make it more clear for those unfamiliar with the game/player, the basketball geeks might be bored. In any case, I appreciate the chance to read an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Thanks, Touchstone and NetGalley!

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

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I have loved reading Lisa See’s books, particularly Shanghai Girls, Dragon Bones and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so I was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of her latest, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, thanks to Scribner and NetGalley.

We meet Li-Yan when she is a girl living in a remote village in the mountains of Yunnan province. Life is hard for the families in the ethnic Akha minority as they harvest tea and follow routines and rituals that have been ingrained in their lives for generations. Li-Yan is the only daughter, living in a family compound with her parents and her three brothers and their wives, and she has an aptitude for learning that is fostered by her teacher.

Li-Yan falls in love with San-Pa, who leaves her to make a life for them outside the village. She learns she is pregnant while he is gone and gives birth to a baby girl (which tradition deems a “human reject”). Because she cannot bring herself to kill the baby, she wraps the baby in a blanket (tucking a tea cake alongside her) and walks for miles to a village where she abandons her beloved baby, hoping someone will care for her.

There is an incredible amount of history and detail as the story follows Li-yan’s effort as she grows up to enter the world beyond the gates of her village. It is an amazing journey with memorable characters and more than you will probably ever want to know about tea!

Meanwhile, her daughter is adopted by a loving family in the U.S. and is raised in a life that contrasts sharply with Li-Yan’s. An impressive amount of research was done by See, who grew up in a large Chinese-American family in Los Angeles. Themes of international adoptions, ethnic minorities in China (specifically the Akha people), and the history and cultural significance surrounding tea (farming, production and consumption) all contribute to the story.

As one might expect in a book by Lisa See, the main female characters are strong, clever women whose familial bonds overlay their experiences as individuals. It won’t be a surprise that Li-Yan’s desire to search for the daughter she gave up is recounted in chapters alternating with the story of Haley, the girl adopted by Americans who longs to learn about her roots and birth family.

As noted, there is more than I really wanted to know about tea, but it was an integral part of the story. I appreciate learning about Chinese history and culture in such an entertaining way, and my only critique is that the circumstances which make the resolution of the story feel so positive are (for me) bordering on “too good to be true,” as both Li-Yan and Haley are living ideal lives surrounded by perfect people and circumstances.

It’s a powerful story, well-researched and affecting on many levels. I loved the experience of reading it, but the ending reminded me that it was complete fiction – so four stars.

BTW, Lisa See will be at a Bookshop Santa Cruz event March 23, 2017.