A Convenient Suspect: a Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman by Tammy Mal

What a sad story! I am something of a true crime junkie (my guilty pleasure) and was grateful to receive a copy of A Convenient Suspect from Chicago Review Press and NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.

Because I am a hard-core true crime junkie and a podcast aficionado (and don’t even get me started on my favorite true crime podcasts!), I have increasingly become aware of the many outrageous examples of prosecutorial misconduct and evidence tampering that have been brought to light by journalists, investigators, and just plain folks looking for truth and justice. Well, this book is another example of what seems to a case of settling on a suspect then tailoring the actions of the police and prosecutors to fit.

Here’s the situation: Shortly before Christmas in 1994, a young mother named Joann Katrinak and her three-month-old son, Alex, disappeared from their home in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Their bodies weren’t found for four months, when they were found in nearby woods. The police investigated for three years before arresting another young mother named Patricia Rorrer. Although Patricia was the ex-girlfriend of Joann’s husband, she had never met either Joann or Alex.

The prosecution’s theory was that Patricia brutally beat Joann, shot her and left her and her baby for dead in the woods, and Patricia Rorrer was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Fast-forward to Rorrer filing for FBI records under the Freedom of Information Act, and finding a document stating that hairs that were looked at by the FBI did not have a hair root. This was the critical piece of evidence used at Rorrer’s trial, and her attorney is working to re-examine what he sees as a totally flawed forensic investigation.

He is adamant that once state police started to focus on Rorrer as a potential suspect, they went to North Carolina where she was living and they obtained a sample of her hair to compare to the ones found at the scene. He asks a good question: “… whether the hairs that were actually tested were in fact hairs taken from the seatback or were they part of that general pile of hairs that were taken from Patricia Rorrer in North Carolina?”

In writing this book, Mal uses information that was not previously made public, gathered from more than 10,000 official documents, including Pennsylvania State Police reports, FBI Files, forensic lab results, and the 6,500-page trial transcript.

The case has been covered by the usual sources that have popularized true crimes, including People magazine, Dateline, and Investigation Discovery but none of them have the depth of this book. It was well done, and sufficiently provoked enough outrage in me to cause me to read further about this case. Yes, the deaths of Joann and Alex were very sad, but a thirst for resolution that results in a rushed conviction based on sloppy forensic work is not only sad, it’s unjust. The subtitle wraps it up nicely: A double murder, a flawed investigation, and the railroading of an innocent woman. I’m giving this one 5 stars — for its genre, it’s OUTSTANDING.

Deadly Obsessions: Three True Crime Sagas by Joan Barthel

What a deal for true crime junkies!!! Three books in one, and all of them fascinating!

The first story, A Death in California, is way more interesting than its generic title might suggest. More than thirty years ago, a beautiful Beverly Hills socialite named Hope Masters fell in love with Bill Ashlock, a handsome advertising executive in Los Angeles. She had been married an divorced twice, but she thought her life was finally turning around – and then this bizarro story: she and Bill went to her family’s ranch in Central California, and were joined by a new acquaintance of Bill’s for a weekend getaway and supposedly a photo shoot. The next day, Hope wakes up with a gun in her mouth and her Bill dead in the next room. Then, after a weekend of rape and torture, Hope began to fall in love with Taylor Wright, the killer.

There is more family dysfunction than you can imagine, and I don’t think anyone will ever know what really happened…but this is another case set in Los Angeles, where you can definitely get all the justice money can buy.

The second book is A Death in Canaan. When eighteen-year-old Peter Reilly arrived home to find his mother naked on the floor with her throat slashed, he was immediately the prime suspect. local police made him their prime suspect. After eight hours of interrogation and a polygraph test, Peter confessed following many hours of harsh interrogation and a lie detector test. But the people in Canaan, CT couldn’t believe he did it, and they began a campaign to seek justice. It reminded me of Adnan Syed, where the police first decide on a suspect, then look for evidence (and, ideally, a confession) to point to that suspect as the killer, without looking anywhere else. Scary stuff.

Finally, in Love or Honor, a police officer named Chris Anastos, who was happily married and busily working on the NYPD’s anti-crime unit, was assigned to go undercover in order to investigate possible links between the Italian mob and a Greek criminal network in Queens. Anastos did this for five years, going back and forth between his comfortable home life and a criminal underground world of “wise guys, pimps, and thieves.” Then he fell in love with the daughter of a Long Island gangster…what could POSSIBLY go wrong?!?!

Excellently written, and sure to be enjoyed by fans of true crime. Four stars and thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my review.

 

The Death of An Heir by Phillip Jett

I admit, when it comes to my reading habits, my guilty pleasure is true crime. So a title like The Death of An Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty leaps out at me! That title turned out to be a spoiler for me, because I admit I had no awareness of this notorious crime – no idea that the CEO of the Coors family beer empire had been kidnapped and murdered at the age of 44 as he was on his way to work one morning in Golden, Colorado. (Of course, I was 12 when it happened, so I claim adolescence as my excuse!)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Coors name represented the dynasty that ruled over business and society in Colorado. Emerging stories about possible unionization of workers at the family business were seen as a threat by the patriarch, Adolph Coors, Jr., who drew a hard line against organized labor. His view was that the family had worked hard for what they had, so they could decide how to run the business and no one had a right to direct their activity. This led the authorities to suspect possible retaliation from one or more disgruntled workers when they began to investigate the disappearance of Adolph Coors III.

In February 1960, Adolph “Ad” Coors III, got into his car and left for work at the brewery, located twelve miles away. He saw a car stopped by a bridge, with the hood up, so he stopped to offer assistance. There he encountered a convicted murderer who had escaped from prison in California several years earlier, who thought if he made one big score by holding Ad for ransom, he would be set for life. Unfortunately, Ad was never seen alive again, and the search for his killer was exhaustive and included turf wars between the FBI and local law enforcement officials.

The search for Ad was the largest manhunt in the U.S. since the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped. Everyone in the FBI up to and including the director J. Edgar Hoover worked on the attempt to locate the kidnapper(s?) and the victim. For months, Ad’s wife and four children waited and hoped for a miracle.

The Death of an Heir is a fascinating look at the incredibly detailed manhunt that resulted in the conviction of the kidnapper/murderer. The amount of tedious investigation that was required to be done manually before the Internet and the dedication of the FBI agents to “always get their man” is astonishing, although it turned out to be a Canadian officer who successfully located the suspect. The dislike between the federal and local authorities is emphasized by the way the showboat Colorado Sheriff (who later resigned in disgrace rather than be prosecuted on corruption charges) happily went to escort the suspect and escort him back to Colorado early one morning, only to be told that the suspect had been flown out of Canada in the dead of night by the FBI.

It’s an interesting story, particularly the detail on the manhunt and the impact of the tragedy on the family members, both in Ad’s immediate family and the larger Coors family empire. Very well researched and sourced, and an entertaining read. With thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four stars.

 

Fatal Deceptions by Joe Sharkey

WHAT?!?! Khalessi as a murder victim? Daenerys Targarian a wife whose husband cheats on her? OK, now that I have your attention, Joe Sharkey’s book Fatal Deceptions is a collection of three previously published true crime books, one of which has been made into a movie starring Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame, set for 2017 release. And, thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for my honest review.

The first story, Above Suspicion, is the one that is “soon to be a major motion picture.” A well-written story, this is the true account of Mark Putnam, the only FBI agent ever to confess to murder. In his first posting, he was assigned to Pikeville, Kentucky, he was a real go-getter as he cultivated paid informants, broke up drug rings, and captured bank robbers. He was a rising star in the Bureau, but he became too close to one informant (played by Emilia Clarke). When she fell in love with the Bureau’s rising star, things spiraled so far out of control you could just FEEL the inevitable train wreck coming.

The second story was made into a movie (“Goodnight, Sweet Wife”) in the 1990s. Deadly Greed tells the story of Charles Stuart who called to report to the police that he and his wife, Carol, were in a car and had been robbed and shot by a black male on the streets of Boston. By the time police arrived, Carol was dead, and the baby, delivered at 7 months, died soon after. There was a media frenzy as politicians and police administrators jumped on the story. Charles, a really disgusting creep, then identified a suspect and the media frenzy continued. But the only killer was Charles himself. This story resonated with me for the parallels with stories about the police today who first identify a suspect and then gather their evidence to support that story. Ugh.

In the final story, Death Sentence the vice president of a Jersey City bank moved his mother, wife, and three teenage children into a nineteen-room mansion in Westfield, New Jersey. Then he lost his job and everything changed. So fearful of what this and the changing social mores as the 1960s became the 1970s would do to his children, his solution was to shoot the entire family then disappear, taking on a new identity.

Summing up, three well-written books in the true crime genre all in one package. By the time you finish these, your concerns about police may be deepened, and you will likely think something along the lines of “What the ^&*% was he thinking?”  Four stars.

 

The Big Heist by Anthony DeStefano

COVER Destefano The Big Heist

Early on in The Big Heist, it refers to “a crime that he and the rest of America would never forget.” Well, I had forgotten. But that’s the thing: this book assumes a lot of prior knowledge. It IS extremely comprehensive, and provides a rich history of this crime, the Mafia (particularly New York-based), and the bizarre role of the law enforcement community in the investigation. But I think those with more prior knowledge of the subject than I have might appreciate it a bit more (another star!)

For anyone who doesn’t remember the crime itself, suffice it to say that this crime was the basis of the movie Goodfellas and, using recent evidence from the 2015 trial of eighty-year-old Mafia don Vincent Asaro, tells the true story of his long-rumored role in the Lufthansa heist.

The book is divided into three sections. In the firs six chapters, the world of the New York Mafia is explored in depth, including the reach of the Five Families at the height of their power. The second section, chapters 7-12, looks at how this heist happened, and how the mastermind of the crime relied on accomplices who were not too bright, which resulted in a boatload of murders. The final section covers the famous betrayal of Asaro by Valenti at the trial (which resulted in a shocking acquittal).

It’s quite an accomplishment, and would be appreciated by true crime fans in general, organized crime story buffs, and anyone who is curious about the extent of the power held by the mob a few short decades ago. Four stars!

 

A Clockwork Murder by Steve Jackson

 

COVER Jackson Clockwork Murder

Another dive into true crime…and having read and reviewed Steve Jackson’s Rough Trade, I anticipated a well-written exploration of something creepy In fact, I recall being surprised by the quality of Rough Trade (reviewed at https://littorallibrarian.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/rough-trade-by-steve-jackson/). So I was happy to receive an advance copy of Mr. Jackson’s “A Clockwork Murder” from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson’s approach differs from that of many TC authors, as he explained in the foreword to Rough Trade: “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.”

And wow, does he have a lot of material to work with in this exploration of two of the creepiest murderers ever, George Woldt and Lucas Salmon. These two friends shared a fascination with the movie A Clockwork Orange (hence the title), a movie from the 19070s that explores the theme of violence and ‘ultra-violence’, as it follows the actions of some guys who take joy in terrorizing others. Seen as an extreme example to those who are outcasts and do not feel self-empowered, it often reinforces the idea that people can do whatever they please, without regard to the repercussions. 

These two weirdos met as teenagers. In high school, Woldt didn’t really stand out, being just another somewhat troubled teenager in a rough high school. He possessed the skill to be a charmer, especially face-to-face with females, although behind their backs he was known for saying they were all bitches good for only one thing: sex. Known for the screaming matches he would get into with his Korean mother, he was widely regarded by friends and associates as someone obsessed with very strange ideas fantasies, including the desire to commit rape and assault…which most saw who knew him saw as bluster. At one point he was married to Becky, who “tried to get him to go to counseling to deal with his anger, but he wouldn’t. Instead, she learned to do what he said or suffer the consequences. He was a master manipulator…”

Lucas Salmon was also an odd guy, although from a more traditional family. Lucas was seen by many to be the victim of George’s control, and he “…envied George Woldt and wanted to be like him—have sex with women and not care what other people thought of him. And he especially wanted George to quit teasing him about being a virgin.”

The book goes into gruesome detail about the night these two finally made their long-discussed fantasy come true, as they randomly chose a woman (a beautiful young athlete named Jacine), abducted her (in view of numerous witnesses), raped and tortured her, and murdered her, leaving her corpse under a van in a school parking lot. Being complete lunatics, they kept the bloody knife and the victim’s bloody sweatshirt in the car they used for the crime, parking it in front of their apartment (which they shared with George’s wife Bonnie) until the police showed up shortly after the witnesses had called in the license plate number of the car.

I kept shaking my head at the crazy that leapt off every page. These two were bad enough, but Bonnie was also wacko: “Bonnie said she couldn’t understand why her husband didn’t come to her if he wanted to rape someone. She would have been more than willing to act out the fantasy…Bonnie had pouted that she thought she was prettier than Jacine and complained, “Why her and not me?”” Holy hell.

There is a boatload of detail about the trials and the effect of the crime on the victim’s families, particularly Jacine’s mother and stepfather. There was so much that completely reinforced my already negative view of our system of “justice,” in this case emphasizing the way the system focuses on the plight of those on trial and ignores the victim(s). The reliance on “expert witnesses” was another source for my disgust, as various psychologists and psychiatrists trotted out theories and justifications, including “dependent personality disorder” for Lucas and the truly mind-boggling idea that as he was raping Jacine, George actually had the mindset that HE was the victim of sexual assault! (yeah, I told you – crazy).

It is possibly the most horrific crime book I’ve read, partly due to the fact that the two perpetrators were totally matter-of-fact about the way they picked their victim completely at random (so perhaps it COULD happen to anyone), and how they confessed in great detail, down to the fact of their high-fiving one another after Jacine was finally dead. Ugh.

Lots to ponder here, about the judicial system, death penalty, whether it is right for defense attorneys to do ANYTHING to avoid conviction, the rights of victims, etc.

 

As I said about Rough Trade, this isn’t literature, nor is it meant to be. What it IS is quality True Crime, well written and researched. It’s definitely five star true crime, but be warned — it is HORRIFIC.

Rough Trade by Steve Jackson

cover jackson rough trade

Hmmm. Where to start with this one? I’ve often thought that, contrary to traditional theories, you frequently CAN tell a book by its cover – not so for Rough Trade by Steve Jackson.  A close-up of the face of the creepy perv – I mean bad guy – shown above dominates the cover along with the lurid subtitle: “ A shocking true story of prostitution, murder and redemption.” Frankly, its appearance is that of a trashy story that was rushed into print for maximum shock value. And that was totally not the case with the copy of this title that I received from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson includes an extensive foreword that provides insight into what makes him a different true-crime author. He tells us “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.” He establishes that the story of the murder of Anita Jones by itself was not enough to build a story around: “her short sad life could not carry a book.” But a fellow prostitute named Joanne Cordova, who had known Anita briefly, was “the flawed heroine seeking redemption.” Joanne Cordova was a former police officer whose life went to hell as she became a crack addict in Denver, during which time she encountered Robert Riggan, the murderer, and subsequently made the difficult choice to do the right thing and work with the police in search of justice for Anita. She did this even though it meant she would be labeled a snitch, thereby putting her own life in danger. (After all, she knew from personal experience as a police officer that “snitches end up in ditches.”)

Then there is the creepy perv – I mean murderer. Robert Riggan “was no Ted Bundy, whose good looks, charming ways and evil cunning has enthralled true crime readers through multiple books.” He was just a “scared, psychologically stunted” man whose horrific crime seemed all too common. It wasn’t until the story of his childhood emerged that the reader learns the reason for him becoming the person he was. As Jackson notes, “sometimes the monsters in our real-life nightmares are created in the homes and by the people who are supposed to represent safety to a child.” Riggan endured rape, incest and horrific abuse growing up. As a former foster parent who has seen and heard the horrors that are all too common for many children, this was heartbreaking. Jackson presents the details in a straightforward way, never sensationalizing them, yet painting a complete picture of the abuse that contributed to Riggan becoming a monster.

The discovery of  Anita’s body was serendipitous. It was only because a young couple driving to work in the mountains of Colorado just happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a man dragging a body up a secluded trail as they drove past. They had a hard time believing what they were seeing, which turned out to be  Riggan, who was leaving behind a bloody, dying Anita Jones. He fled the scene as  they stopped, but their information and Joanne Cordova’s subsequent efforts resulted in his arrest and conviction.

The story of the crime and its aftermath includes the details of how Joanne Cordova’s choices took her from her life as an outstanding police officer to become a crack-addicted streetwalker.  As part of her life on the streets of Denver, she had herself submitted to violent sex with Riggan in exchange for drugs. When she became aware that her friend Anita had been murdered by that same guy, she had a terrible choice to make. Rather than opt to look the other way, keeping herself safe (which would result in Anita’s killer being free to continue his violent attacks on women), she realized that despite all her mistakes in life, “it is never too late to do the right thing.”  As she endured the humiliating, detailed exploration of her life during Riggan’s trial, she coped as she had learned to do, by putting on a virtual mask. Rather than crack, her mask was now held in place partly by “the pot and alcohol,” and despite the grueling odeal she went on to find her own personal redemption.

This isn’t great literature, nor is it intended to be. But it is well-written and researched, and includes an important  message about the possible results of childhood abuse and bad choices. In addition, it reminds us of  the redemption that can occur when someone does the right thing. Five stars (again, it isn’t 5-star “literature,” but it is definitely 5-star true crime).

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.

 

 

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.

 

A Daughter’s Deadly Deception by Jeremy Grimaldi

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Guilty Pleasure? Most of us have them. Mine is reading in the True Crime genre. Over the years, I have read dozens of books in the genre, and I appreciate a well-researched story of a family gone wrong…but this one was just so, so sad.

This sad story takes place in Toronto, so it was interesting to see the differences in the way the criminal justice and court systems work there in comparison to here…and there was a lot of detail around using cell phone records (more detail than you want, believe me). This began as something I was really into, having spent a lot of time on the details of the Adnan Syed fiasco and the (mis)use of cell phone records during a trial…but to be honest, it just bogged down for me. (Possibly an editing issue that might have been summarized for readers who want the point without the extreme detail?)

In any case, this book tells the story of two hardworking Vietnamese immigrants and their daughter, Jennifer. They raised her with very high standards: winning and being the best at everything was essential. Over the years, their daughter began to realize that she could not meet their high standards, so she started forging report cards. Then, she developed elaborate lies as she claimed to have not only attended college, but graduated – none of which was true!

Finally, she had enough of the lies and the fear that her parents would find out who and what she really was, so she arranged to have people break into their home at night and kill her parents. After listening to her mother being tortured and killed, she heard her father moaning in agony and realized he wasn’t dead yet – so she called out to tell him she was calling 911. She pretended to have been a victim of the invaders herself, and…oh, it is just too awful to go through it again.

There is a lot of interpretation by mental health experts (one in particular, who had not treated Jennifer) claiming she and her parents were “mismatched” (whatever THAT means), and possibly that this was the logical result of the decades of “Tiger Mother” parenting and pressure to perform and succeed. To me, it was a cold, spoiled child who was unwilling to expend effort to achieve things she wanted and who just went down what was seemingly the easiest path. I hated her. The book was well done, but I really hated her and in the end, I do NOT understand her actions. But fans of true crime will likely appreciate this one. I want to only give it three stars because I hated her so much, but I realized the author was very effective if his words had that impact on me, so four stars and thanks to Dundum and NetGalley.