Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

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This sounded like just the thing for an escape from reality: a story about a couple who “met cute,” got married and had a child, went on their first vacation as a family, and then…the husband and pre-school-age boy disappear completely! I  thought it had “beach read” written all over it – not a bad thing! Also, the fact that Lisa Scottoline and Chris Bohjalian (a couple of authors I enjoy) had glowing things to say about it increased my interest, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Almost Missed You from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

We first encounter Violet and Finn, the married couple who are referred to by their friends as “meant to be,” meeting on a beach in the Carolinas. Although they had an instant connection, they didn’t actually meet F2F for some time. In the interim, Finn had a fiancée and Violet was restlessly single. Finn apparently still thinks about Violet and their brief encounter, and of course they end up together. Violet is happy as can be when they head out on their first vacation as a family…and then she finds herself in her worst nightmare. (The revelation of Violet’s dawning realization of the disappearance of her husband and child is particularly well done).

Other characters impact the story, particularly Caitlin, who has been friends with Finn forever, and who comes to be Violet’s BFF. She plays a critical role in the events that happen both before and after Finn and Violet get together.

The full story is told through alternating viewpoints of Finn, Violet and Caitlin, and has strong themes of marital betrayal, the role of fate in a relationship, secrets (both those kept and those revealed), and the relationship between a mother and her child.

Given that Ms. Strawser’s day job is Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, expectations are high for this, her first novel. For a beach read, it’s a five star (not literary fiction, but extremely entertaining, and well written).

 

Everybody Had An Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s LA by Wm McKeen

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I grew up on the beach in Southern California in the 60s (San Clemente High, Class of ’65!!) so I LEAPT at the chance to have an advance copy of Everybody Had an Ocean: Music and Mayhem in 1960s Los Angeles by William McKeen (thanks to Chicago Review Press and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

For starters, I wanted to LOVE this book. Music was one of my best friends in my teenage years, and I retain vivid memories of artists, radio stations, TV shows, and all just hanging on the beach with transistor radios blaring music (unless the Dodgers were playing, in which case it was like a battle of the bands between the music and Vin Scully). Spoiler alert: I DID love it!

Just glancing at the cover made me happy: there were the 1960s images of some of my favorites: the Mamas and the Papas, Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Jan & Dean, Charles Manson – wait, WHAT???  Yep, it’s true: while this book is a detailed history of the 1950s and 19060s and the migration of the music industry to Los Angeles, it also is a fascinating look at the dark side of the time, including Manson, the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., the murder of Bobby Fuller, and more. As McKeen notes “Los Angeles was fecund with corruption. As it became the American capital of crazy, it also became a reliable source of ghastly crimes…Los Angeles was the promised land and a pathetic and brutal place.” And there is acknowledgement that the stories about Manson’s rejection by the music industry may have led directly to the Manson Family murder spree are in fact true. In addition to Manson, the book includes juicy stories about personalities including Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and that very weird Phil Spector.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story of the development of rock music is its relationship to race. “Black America met White America through music…once we were all dancing to the same beat, Jim Crow didn’t have a chance and walls came tumbling down.” Some claim that “rock ‘m roll is just black folks’ music played by white boys,” but the bottom line is that “the musical revolution…led to a social revolution.”

Segregation and bigotry are vividly described, especially in the way “the music industry’s official term for black music was “race” (as in “race records” on the radio)”” ...and for white country music it was “hillbilly”.” The term “rhythm and Blues” gave way to rock ‘n roll. It was Alan Freed who changed things: “Freed liked the way it sounded. “Rhythm and Blues,” the new industry term for black music, still bore the stigma of “race records” and Freed saw it as his sad duty to push his particular boulder uphill, trying to introduce the masses (mostly white kids) to this music he loved.” Once he coined the term “rock ‘n roll” for this new music, it stuck.

This book is absolutely packed with stories about the music and people surrounding the music industry. To be honest, I learned way more about Brian Wilson and Jan & Dean than I needed (or wanted) to know, but nothing in the book feels like it is over the top – the stories about the icons of “surf music” are often wild, but are an essential part of the story McKeen tells. Yes, I did love this book, and I’m pretty sure I won’t listen to Sirius Channel 060 the same way again! Four stars…if the final version has pictures, it would likely be 5.

Don’t Tell a Soul by M. William Phelps

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For some unknown reason, my guilty pleasure reading is True Crime. I’ve read a fair amount of crappy books in this genre, and also the “higher quality” titles from authors such as M. William Phelps, which are generally fairly well written. So I was happy to read an advance copy a Don’t Tell a Soul (provided by Kensington Books/Pinnacle and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I had never heard of this case, so I wasn’t aware of killer’s identity when I began the book, although of course as soon as I read that a woman named Cherry Walker was missing, I knew who the victim was!  Cherry was a devoted and trusting young woman who happily took over the regular role of babysitter when a friend (who had previously been the babysitter) asked her if she wanted to babysit to earn some money. As the story unfolds, we learn that the little boy’s mother often left him at Cherry’s apartment for days on end, and he was generally hungry and dressed in ragged clothes. Cherry, at age 39,  spent hours (days, actually) with the little boy, playing with him like she was his playmate rather than a responsible adult.  We learn that she had only recently moved out of her parents’ house to live on her own, because she was “mentally retarded” (their term, not mine) and functioned at the level of a 6- to 9-year old.

Red flags!!! Seriously, what kind of mother would leave her young child in the care of someone with such limitations? It turns out that boy’s mother, Kim Cargill, was the WORST kind of mother. She had four children (with 4 different fathers) and she was abusive and cruel to all of them. Her ex-husbands tried to get custody to save their kids, but somehow Kim generally managed to avoid losing custody. Finally, as the court date nears for the custody hearing for the child Cherry babysits, Kim is horrified that Cherry has been asked testify in court against the child’s abusive mother. Sadly, Cherry never got the chance. On the Saturday before the scheduled Wednesday hearing, Cherry’s body was found on the side of a road, after being doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.

The book has the expected narrative style of a book by M. William Phelps, and pulls the reader along on a path of increasing horror as Kim’s behavior toward her children and their fathers is revealed. If you don’t know the story (as was the case for me), it may be difficult to read, although there is a straight retelling of the facts of the case, rather than a gratuitously violent recitation of  the horrible events. If you DO know the story, I expect there will be quite a bit of “aha” moments, that somewhat explain how this woman came to be the monster who killed Cherry Walker. I truly hated Kim by the end of the book.

I did appreciate the fact that I didn’t know that Kim was white and Cherry was African-American until I saw the photos at the end of the book, because race was not relevant – Kim was equally cruel and vicious regardless of race. I also appreciated that Phelps went to some lengths to elaborate on the opportunities he had given Kim or her family to present her version of the story.

Fans of the true crime genre in general and Phelps in particular will want to read this. Four stars.

 

 

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

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I had read one of Ian Rankin’s books a couple of years ago, but somehow I had overlooked the fact that there were TWENTY of his books featuring John Rebus, a detective in Scotland (Rather Be the Devil is #21). Thanks to Little, Brown and Co. and NetGalley, I had the opportunity to review the latest in this series, and  I LOVED it.

Without giving too much away, John Rebus is retired as this one opens. He seems sort of settled down, with a dog and a relationship and an attempt to give up smoking. The one thing he can’t seem to give up is his attachment to detective work and he begins looking at a cold case that happens to put him in contact with a couple of recurring characters from the series: Detective Inspectors Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox, who has been assigned to the Scottish Crime Division.

As the story develops, various plotlines are swirling around Rebus’s new life and two other characters from the Rebus series  (Big Ger Cafferty and Daryl Christie) and money laundering/fraud. In some ways, this seems like it might be a retread – which some authors have done enough to drive me crazy, as they drag out the protagonist and tell the same story over and over with minor variations. But there is real character development as Rebus faces his changing status as both a retiree from being a detective and moving toward being a senior citizen.

As the story wraps up, there are a couple of lingering questions, which bodes well for fans hoping for #22 in the series. I plan to find several of the titles in the series and read them, as there is nothing quite as satisfying as discovering an author you like and finding out they have a boatload of titles – like hitting the bibliographic jackpot! Four stars.