"I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer", by Michelle McNamara - Book Review

McNamara, comedian Patton Oswalt’s late wife, was obsessed with the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed The Golden State Killer. And when I say obsessed, I mean all encompassing, decades long, detective like obsessed. This book is the result of her obsession and to show just how much it affected her personally, at one point, she casually states, “There’s a scream permanently lodged in my throat now.”

Because what she was obsessed with was terrifying.

The book is a murder mystery of epic proportion and frustration. At the time of McNamara’s death, the book had not yet been published nor had the mystery been solved. She died without seeing her monstrous (pun intended) efforts in print and not knowing just how close officials were to getting her man. She died not knowing what we all know now. In April of this year, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., was arrested and is being held without bail as the Golden State Killer.

The acronym McNamara used throughout the book, and one used by official types, was EAR-ONS: East Side Rapist/Original Night Stalker. This guy carried on a reign of terror and destruction from the late 70s through the mid 80s and he simply could not be caught. This, despite the fact that once he escaped a crime scene on a stolen ten-speed with officers in cars hot on his tail. As McNamara’s title indicates, he was a master of the dark.

To say that McNamara’s research is extensive, is to understate it grievously. She even became a contact for detectives along the way who took her theories and suggestions as seriously as they would from other law enforcement. But she writes a methodically researched subject like a novel. Interspersed with the facts, she adds anecdotal stories of her own life that shine a light into her as well as giving some softness to a book that is both brutal and clinical in its facts and details.

After McNamara’s tragic death in April 2016, her lead investigator and a well-schooled investigative journalist put all of her diligent work together into what resulted in this book. Their task must have been overwhelming and, if McNamara hadn’t made such an important impression on them, there is no way they would have undertaken it. Her husband, Patton, lovingly writes the afterword and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame wrote the foreword.

McNamara’s obsession with the Golden State Killer drove her to some dangerously dark places. After her death was ruled an accidental overdose of a lethal combination of prescription drugs, it isn’t hard to imagine that she may have used medicine to dull the edges of her gruesome hobby.

And, who could blame her? As of her death, the killer was still on the loose and constantly on her mind. Oh, how I hope her spirit knows that her real-life demon has been caught and that she’s finally able to lie peacefully at rest.   

Published: 2018
Publisher: Harper

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Murderous London in "Death in the Air", by Kate Winkler Dawson - Book Review

Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.

It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.  

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Cultural Psyche at the End of the 60's in "The White Album", by Joan Didion - Book Review

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This has to be one of the great opening lines. As you continue through The White Album, you’ll find many profound lines throughout. Joan Didion’s collection of essays encompasses a ten year period of writing; a supplement to her reporting that is deeply personal and revealing, with keen insights into her own psyche and that of the time. 

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Dark and Moody: "The Blind Assassin", by Margaret Atwood - Book Review

It’s dark and moody. It’s a puzzle with a few missing pieces, and that last piece stays missing until you’re just about ready to throw in the towel. But then that moment of realization finally happens, and you think, really, it was there all along. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin ferries us along multiple streams - stories within a story - and brings them all together somehow.

The Blind Assassin: A Novel
By Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is the sub-story to a greater narrative. There are two sisters, Iris and Laura, growing up wealthy, but sheltered and naive. Their mother dies early, their father struggles in business and relationships, and the girls are raised by the hired help. The sisters struggle through a series of tutors, small-town events, and their father’s dying button factory with a war and depression as the backdrop. While not worldly, older sister, Iris is practical. Laura, on the other hand is idealistic, very literal, and resists social norms for the sake of decorum.

At a young age, Iris is married off by her struggling father to an older, ’new money’ industrialist to seal a business deal. Young Laura struggles to find her place in her new environment with Iris and her husband, and both sisters have ideas of their places in the world and agendas of their own.

Within this emotional travail, another thread runs through the book, where we track two lovers meeting in secret, weaving their own story of The Blind Assassin, a science fiction adventure. Who are these paramours? And from whom are they hiding? What is the significance of this alien planet and warring creatures they’ve created?

Relaying the tale is Iris in her later years. We learn a lot from Iris about her life, her sister’s, and the events that led to her sister’s death. “It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning…” There is no one in the book who does not carry some burden of guilt of some sort. Which I suppose is real enough. Yes, it’s all rather depressing.

Atwood’s ability to undulate between the stories is expert and creative. But the book is also long and tedious at times. My feelings are mixed about it overall, but I’m curious enough to give Atwood another try since she has a long list of awards and recognition. Perhaps my expectations were too high on this one.

Published: 2000
Publisher: Anchor Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

"The Mortifications", by Derek Palacio - Book Review

It’s 1980, and if you’re familiar at all with Florida, you remember well the Mariel boatlift, or at least the aftermath.  In case you’re not acquainted, it was an outpouring of over 100,000 Cuban refugees to Florida via harrowing seafaring voyages - dangerous and horrifying for those braving the conditions. But perhaps it was less so than remaining under the Castro regime in Cuba.

The Mortifications begins with a mother, a son, and a daughter making this trip, leaving behind their rebel father; seeking a better life in America - in Connecticut. Soledad becomes an accomplished stenographer at the county courthouse, rising through the ranks. Twins Ulises and Isabel attend catholic school; Ulises an awkward, bookish type, and Isabel poised and godly.  Soledad begins a long romance with Dutch tobacco farmer, Henri, for whom Ulises eventually works, managing his fields and laborers.

This tale encompasses the mysticism of the Encarnación family: Soledad’s insatiable sex drive during illness; Ulises’ dedication to Latin and farming; and Isabel’s unwavering loyalty to God, which she twists to conform to each unique situation in which she finds herself; and Uxbal, the father still in Cuba. It has all the makings of an epic family drama, including the weighty return to their homeland, with Henri, in search of each other and their father. All of which is where, author Derek Palacio tries to take us.

However, with all the theater and well-written prose, the story seemed lifeless, flat.  There was a third dimension - perhaps emotion - that was missing. I could neither connect with nor suspend my disbelief for each character’s unique supremacy. There were some poignant moments in the book, nonetheless - thoughtful musings at the right moments occasionally surfaced. In the end, I was left disappointed, yearning for the incontrovertible mysticism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or perhaps I’ll try something else altogether. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books / Crown Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 2.5 stars 

“Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire”, by Peter Stark - Book Review

What happened after Lewis and Clark headed west? It was years before the Pacific Northwest became part of America. The region was sought after by the Brits, Canadians, and enterprising Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor. Jefferson had his sights on colonizing it, thus securing the far borders of the still-fledgling country in 1810. Astor was determined to expand his international trade and create a critical outpost for his enterprise.

Author and journalist Peter Stark delivers this fascinating true adventure to us in Astoria, a journey put into motion by Jefferson and Astor. It’s the story of ambition, ego, bravery, madness, and humanity; of humans pushed to their limits both physically and emotionally, and of their survival.

Beginning with fur trading, Astor’s humble yet ambitious initiation into international trade began with New York, Canada, and Europe. With Jefferson’s political backing, Astor funds an endeavor to settle along the Columbia River leading to the Pacific Ocean to promote trade with Russia and China, ultimately creating an international route, exporting goods around the world. Astor embarks on two campaigns to reach the Northwest from New York - an overland expedition to closely follow the path of Lewis and Clark, and another by sea on the Tonquin, which rounded Cape Horn. These advance parties were to establish a settlement and pave the way for others to follow.

Over the course of three years, this incredible journey is filled with violence and hardships. The overland party encounters hostile indian tribes, harsh terrain and weather, and frequent sidetracks. The expedition by sea barely survives storms, attacks, and a tyrannical captain. Stark delves into the personalities of key players within each expedition, as well as the race to the Columbia River not only by the American expeditions, but by competing traders in Canada, and a hostile British fleet.

Astoria is an amazing view into our history and man’s determination to conquer and succeed. Stark is adept in conveying this tale, making it both fully engrossing and in building the reader’s anticipation, even though we already know the ultimate outcome. Not only is it a thrilling tale, it’s a great read.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars 

"The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls", by Anton DiSclafani - Book Review

It's not easy transitioning into adulthood, and certainly not for a 15-year old southern society young lady in 1930. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls introduces us to Theodora "Thea" Atwell, narrator of this coming of age novel. Thea has lived an idyllic, autonomous childhood with her parents and twin brother in rural Florida until she becomes the center of a scandal and is sent off to boarding school. 

Thea is angry with her parents for sending her away, but she takes on the challenge of this new, foreign environment with poise. At times she is a youthful spirit, and at others she is wise beyond her years. She must learn to navigate the social strata of wealthy southern girls in this North Carolina landscape. She is a quick study and soon discovers who her allies and adversaries are. She is most at ease when in the riding ring as she expertly commands her steed, evoking the confidence of her youthful roaming at home in Florida.

Thea is a combination of innocence and shame, and author Anton DiSclafani artfully combines these traits into an authentic character. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a well-written book that gives nothing away. It is filled with suggestion, and gives credit to the reader to reach the correct conclusions.

Published: 2013
Publisher: Riverhead Books

Vickie's rating: 3 stars

Coming of Age in “Brooklyn”, by Colm Tóibín - Book Review

Eilis Lacey is from a small Irish town. Everyone knows everyone; there are few jobs. It’s a beautiful place of family and friends with limitations to earn a living after World War II. Eilis lives with her fragile mother and charismatic sister, taking classes and caring for the home. Her three brothers have moved to London where work is abundant. She is in a comfortable, if not ideal, existence.

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True Story of an American and His Heroic Family in "Avenue of Spies", by Alex Kershaw - Book Review

An American doctor and his family live out Hitler’s destruction during WWII in Paris. Writer Alex Kershaw, a journalist and historical author has conducted a deep inquiry into a particular family’s involvement in the French Resistance in under German occupation.  Avenue of Spies is the completely absorbing result. 

American Sumner Jackson is a surgeon at the American Hospital in Paris and provided medical care during the first world war, so he is no stranger to combat wounds and care. His is married to Swiss-born Toquette, and they have a son, Phillip. They live on a very posh street in Paris - Foch Avenue. The street is an important setting, as many of the homes become the headquarters for Hitler’s SS, the Gestapo - spy hunters and gruesome torturers.

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