Tag Archives: Viking

Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

Review: The Burning Air by Erin Kelly

18th March 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Pamela Dorman Books in exchange for an honest review.

Of course it was my love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgment. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realized the extent of the consequences, it was too late….

Motherhood was my only excuse. I was trying to do right by my son and it made me momentarily blind to the interior laws I have always tried to live by. We all want the best for our children, but I crossed the line between protection and offense.

Lydia MacBride has kept a diary every year, commemorating events large and small, noting her thoughts, her dreams, her confessions. The Burning Air begins with one of her greatest confessions: she is dying, and she has not told her family, but there is an even larger secret she must keep from them.

Close-knit and supportive, the MacBrides must move on after the death of Lydia. She was a force to be reckoned with, but the privilege of their lives – private school, family, a lovely home – has created unknown enemies. On an annual trip to Far Barn, a family residence in the secluded English countryside, one enemy in particular has waited for this moment, has crafted its circumstances, and will threaten the MacBrides and their memories.

A tale of obsession and misguided hatred, The Burning Air by Erin Kelly is a great thriller with an oddly intoxicating villain. Though the narrative shifts between characters to build suspense and divulge only what is known to each, the unreliable narrator is by far the most interesting. The megalomania is fascinating to consider but terrifying to behold.

However, the culmination of years of planning was too rushed and didn’t seem fitting of a truly obsessive enemy. I am being intentionally vague here because there were moments in The Burning Air where I gasped with recognition and knowledge of who the villain was and how it would all play out. A single-sitting read, The Burning Air by Erin Kelly was a fast and electric read with only a mildly disappointing ending.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

30th April 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Viking in exchange for an honest review.

In the autumn of 1941, Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, hastily sends her daughter, Ella, alone on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night – a desperate measure that proves calamitous when the child encounters two drifters and is left for dead on the side of the road.

Ella awakens in the homestead of Willie Mae Cotton, a root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, tucked deep in the Takatoka Forest. As Ella heals, the secrets of her lineage are revealed. (Blurb, cover jacket Glow)

Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli is reminiscent of Edward P. Jones, The Known World, in that it is a patchwork of the lives of many that intertwine in ways both obvious and surprising. Ella, also known in the novel as E.F. McGee, really acts as a plot device, pulling the stories of the past from Mary-Mary and Willie Mae and evoking haints that expand the stories of the characters introduced along the way.

For that reason, the blurb above is truthful but limiting, as the novel spans time, place, and generations, eventually making its rounds of a large and complex family tree provided in the opening pages. E.F. McGee’s narrative is woven throughout and reveals details about the other narrators that make for a fuller, richer story, but it doesn’t necessarily elucidate Ella’s own character or that of her mother, Amelia. Instead, there is a whole cast of characters, some Native American, others slaves, others white men who tangle these lines when and where they choose, and the narrative changes as a different character picks up a chapter, allowing for earlier stories to gradually come together and make up a whole.

Glow is beautifully written, and particularly since this is a debut novel, the research, dialogue and plot are incredibly well delivered. At times, though, Tuccelli seems to become even more conscious of the language she uses, which results in some clunky metaphors and similes:

Her hair is wild. It is a flock of muddy goats flowing down a mountainside.

This sort of description is not particularly evocative of the image Tuccelli is trying to relate. This too:

The cascade gurgled like a newborn baby while damselflies hovered above and blue skinks slithered under prism-flecked stones.

And this:

Above, the sky is filled with bright pinpricks where the heavens show through. I like to think they are God’s windows and the twinkling is angels covered in glossy feathers walking by and looking in.

After a while, these descriptions clutter the true beauty of this story: the characters.

Mary-Mary and Willie Mae are endearing. Willie Mae has an aura about her, one that Mary-Mary immediately sees when Willie Mae uncovers her head one day to wash her hair. Both slaves as young girls, the two grow up together and love one another, eventually living together like an old married couple after enduring years of hardship as slaves. When they find E.F. McGee unconscious with her dog Brando, they take her in and nurse her to health, and while recovering, Ella asks, “Willie Mae, why do you glow?” And Willie Mae answers:

“Do I still glow?” she says, with a funny sadness in her voice. “That nice to know,” she says. “It ain’t something I can explain, but it’s there, protective and fierce – like mother love for a child.”

And mother love is central to the novel, as the mothers again and again defy expectations of women in the South during their respective time frames. However, these are also women of color – Cherokee and slave – women who carry the traditions, stories, and superstitions of their ancestors, and as one character says about his mother,

With her death had come the most disturbing sound to befall my ears: nay, not my father’s racking sobs, but the hardened clumps of clay rapping against her coffin as he shoveled her and her stories away.

Glow is a really impressive novel, one that will mystify at the same time it enlightens. By encompassing all these lives and their individual stories, Tuccelli gives voice to not only the cruelty of the South and its history but also to the mystery and elusiveness it retains.

Have you read Glow? I think it would be a really excellent book club novel because it is so sprawling and covers so much territory.

Buy this from Indiebound or for your Nook.

Blue Monday by Nicci French

5th March 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Pamela Dorman Books/Viking in exchange for an honest review.

Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist, walks the streets of London at night. It’s not her patients or their stories she’s trying to escape, however. She just can’t sleep and finds the quiet of the city at night comforting before facing the day. When her former mentor becomes unreliable, she takes one of his patients, Alan Dekker. Alan can’t have children but has vivid dreams of a child, a redheaded boy who calls him Daddy and plays on the playground. When Frieda sees the news and discovers a redheaded boy has disappeared, she wonders. Could Alan be the culprit? He remembers feeling the same way 20 years earlier, when a young girl was abducted near a candy store. Are Alan’s latent desires expressing themselves in horrific ways? Frieda, unsure of her duty, goes to the police, and embarks on a fraught-filled journey to discover the depths and limitations of the mind.

The husband-wife writing duo Nicci French have written several novels together, but Blue Monday is the first in a series (in which each book will be named after a day of the week) following Frieda Klein. Frieda is complicated. She isn’t close to her family and has few friends, practically none outside her work. She lives alone in a dark flat, and her life is quiet and ordered. Her mentor is struggling, and Frieda’s confidence in him is tempered by her need to get him back on his feet and in the clinic, a need that seems to be personal as much as it is practical. She is unsure how to proceed when she suspects her patient of wrongdoing, and instead of forging boldly ahead, she seeks counsel, even though it’s from her flawed and troubled mentor.

As for the central mystery, once the main twist is revealed, I found it relatively easy to reconstruct the rest. However, after a discussion on Twitter, I think it may be my excessive mystery reading that’s to blame. 😉 In fact, I enjoyed the novel quite a bit. There is a good bit of exposition, but in the first installment of a series, that’s hardly unexpected, and I liked that French doesn’t reveal the details of Frieda’s past life. The ending, though I had anticipated it, was still incredibly chilling and left me with an eerie feeling.

If you’re typically wary of reading books with possible violence to children or with abductions, Blue Monday focused much more on the mind of a kidnapper as opposed to graphic or unnecessary scenes with either child. The aftermath of an abduction on families is difficult to experience, but it also illustrates how differently those faced with such horror react.

Initially, I was concerned that the novel may feel unstable, as I could not recall having read a novel with two writers. The publisher kindly included a Q&A with the pair, and they said, “It’s a question of moving between the two of us. We never decide in advance who’s going to write what chapter, there’s no division….If Sean writes something and I change absolutely nothing about that whole section, but I read it and approve it, then it becomes mine as well. It becomes a kind of Nicci French thing so we both own each word of it.” Interesting. And it worked.

Interested in Blue Monday? Leave me a comment and your email address, and I’ll draw a winner by Friday at midnight.

Blue Monday is out today. Buy your copy from Indiebound or on your Nook.

UPDATE: Giveaway closed. Congrats to Brian Brady for winning a copy of this book!

The Darlings by Cristina Alger

16th February 2012

*This book was sent to me by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking in exchange for an honest review.

Banks are failing. New York City is full of former financial-type men and women looking for work as the American economy takes hit after hit. Paul Ross is (relatively) lucky. After his firm goes under, his father-in-law, the wealthy and influential Carter Darling hires him on as general counsel for his hedge fund, Delphic. Though Paul wishes he didn’t have to rely on the Darling’s generosity, he also knows his wife Merrill is accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and he doesn’t want to disappoint her. However, when the apparent suicide of a close family friend and business associate leads to questions about the Darling’s business practices, Paul and his wife Merrill have to decide between family and freedom.

Financial thriller. The words almost sound like an oxymoron, but The Darlings is a taut, suspenseful telling of the lives of New York City’s elite and the problems in which they find themselves in one of the city’s biggest crises. Alger breaks down one small part of the financial crisis in a Madoff-like tale of greed, sex, and deception. Though the breakdown of the legal and financial problems is extensive, it is certainly not exclusive, and the inclusion of detail is interesting.

That said, the movement of a book that depends on action does naturally have to slow for these explanations, and The Darlings seems to suffer from wanting to explain the intricacies of a pyramid scheme, seek empathy for its characters, and set readers on edge, waiting for the conclusion of the story.

While it certainly kept me up, wanting to figure out who was telling what lies, I also felt as though some of the character lines were unfinished. Sometimes that doesn’t bother me if, for example, the characters are simply extraneous, but Alger’s supporting characters were, at times, more pitiable and intriguing than the main, and to finish the book without hearing from them seemed, much like the main characters’ attitudes, graceless and self serving.

The Darlings is certainly a timely book, and though very different from Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman (a book I loved), novels set in New York and Washington during the financial downturn seem immediate and almost otherworldly.

Have you read The Darlings? I think this is a book that will garner a wealth of different opinions. Is this one you might pick up?

Read an excerpt here. Buy a copy from Indiebound  or on your Nook.