Brain on Fire

brainonfireI finally finished reading Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan. I say “finally finished” not because it was a bad book, or boring, or anything like that. Quite the opposite. It was such an intense story, so dense in detail and facts and emotion, that I could only read it for so long at a time to absorb it properly. It is the story of a fast-tracking journalist in NYC who all of a sudden starts experiencing some strange behaviors outside of her control, visions, and other sensory hallucinations. She is a young woman, in the prime of life, who has everything going for her who descends into a hell she cannot understand or control. Imagine scenes from The Exorcist, but it’s real life. Quoting The Washington Post: “This story has a happy ending, but take heed: It is a powerfully scary book.” The inspiration in the book comes from her family’s steadfast belief that she will get well again, despite the diagnosis of experts. What is truly frightening is the fact that these experts had no idea what was wrong with her with misdiagnoses ranging from alcohol poisoning to various forms of schizophrenia. Through it all, Susannah experienced seizures, canonic states, total memory loss, manic behavior, and all manner of terrifying, uncontrolled behavior and memory loss. When a doctor–himself a miracle case who beat the odds–finally diagnosed her with anti-NMDA-receptor auto-immune encephalitis, Susannah starts down a very long road to recovery. Brain on Fire is more than a medical mystery–it is the story of an incredible woman’s fight to save her identity.

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Truth Versus Reality

Three Truths and a Lie by Brent Harbinger is a Young Adult novel that examines the nature of truth, lies, and in a greater context, our view of reality. The story opens in a tattoo parlor where four kids have decided to get matching tattoos, except something happens just as the last kid, our narrator, is about to sit down for his. The four teens decide to escape to a remote cabin in the deep in the forest for a weekend of fun. As you can imagine, fun quickly turns to trouble as the towns people act in a hostile manner towards them and little things start happening: their satellite phone, the only link to the outside, goes missing and their car becomes disabled. Just when you think this is like so many other “locked room” mysteries with dead bodies piling up with no plausible explanation as to the culprit, author Harbinger adds another spin to the narrative. Not wanting to spoil the ending, this reader felt it was a bit too contrived and there was insufficient evidence given during the body of the narrative for the reader to have figured any of it out. If you like that sort of “final chapter reveal” you will love this one. This reader, however, in the end was not convinced by the motive given for the violence.

In addition to the plot line, the story also addresses the life, loves, and concerns of a gay teen couple. Harbinger, who founded a LGBT youth support group in his home town of Tacoma, Washington, has the credibility to successfully tackle this subject in a YA novel. I appreciated the scenes that illustrated the boys’ affection for each other and the insight it provided to “outside” readers, but felt some of the more sexually explicit scenes seemed included to make a point more than to flesh out a character or move a plot point. Overall, the writing is engaging, the voice of the narrator is strong, and the plot moves at a brisk pace.

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The King of Lies

HartJohn Hart came highly recommended as a great writer of mysteries with plot twists, angst filled characters, and plenty of page-turning thrills. I chose King of Lies–a tale that revolves around an unhappy lawyer, Jackson Workman Pickens–trapped in a miserable marriage who let the love of his life get away. His world becomes truly unglued, however, when his father–a hate-mongering, abusive, but very rich man–is found dead with two bullets in his head. When the will is revealed and Jackson has only a shaky alibi at best, he becomes a prime suspect. But he has even bigger worries and that is how to protect his troubled sister who he believes is the real murderer. Author John Hart gets full marks for creating the small world of the southern town which quickly turns on Jackson with only the slightest hint of suspicion to go on. He draw the complex relations between Jackson and his wife, his father, his sister, and his lover in rich detail and does put one in mind of Pat Conroy in that regard. Although I liked the story overall, I felt the first half was very slow as Hart draws the relationships and shows us Jackson’s obsession with protecting his sister who he believes with very little to go on that she had the motivation and means to kill their father. I thought that plot line was weak since there would be any number of other business partners or disgruntled clients who would have had means and opportunity to do the deed. The story takes off when the legal/court room scenes take center stage and Hart shows his mastery of legal loopholes and slight of hand. Once Jackson launches his own investigation to find the murder, it becomes much more of a who-done-it and less of a psychological family drama. Would I read another by this author–yes. Many of his main characters are deeply flawed and frankly not very likable at all, but he makes them fully real and human.

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Famous or Infamous?

FamousWomenDoes your bookclub select reading material based on a theme? Mine does on occasion and now I think we should have picked this gem to honor International Women’s Day (March 8th). The book I’m taking about is Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise. This volume contains a collection of stories about women who may have been more infamous than famous or were condemned to hide their talents in the shadow of their more famous relatives.

Bergman expertly takes us into the lives of women such as Standard Oil heiress “Joe” Carstairs, a cross-dressing speed boat racer and master of her own island; Allegra, the cast-off willful, illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron; “Tiny” Davis, an outspoken jazz trumpeter and vocalist in the first mixed-race female swing band touring the Jim Crow south; Butterfly McQueen, the maid in Gone With the Wind who wants to leave her body to science; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s equally talented and fiercely loyal sister, Norma, just to name a few. Bergman gives us a glimpse into their lives, usually not in their voice, but through the observations of a close friend, loved one, or care-giver, which provides a unique view. The vignettes range in length from a lengthy short story to just a few pages, but each is packed with heartbreaking detail and insight.

Some of the stories feel complete, some feel as if we were allowed a peek through a window for just a moment in their lives. Each one, however, sent me running to the computer to read much more about these fascinating and tragic women.

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The Twist Feels More Like a Trick

LeavingTimeJodi Picoult’s novel Leaving Time tells the story of teenager Jenna Metcalfe’s decades long search for her mother who disappeared–a dedicated scientist who was studying grief in elephants. When Jenna was a baby, something horrible happened one night at the elephant sanctuary where her family lived. A caretaker was found trampled to death and Jenna’s mother was taken to the hospital, only to disappear hours later and never return. If she was still alive, why hadn’t she returned for Jenna? The daughter’s search for her mother and the search for the truth about what happened that night leads her to accept help from two unlikely characters. The first is Serenity Jones–a famous psychic specializing in lost children who has lost her powers and knows she’s a fraud–the second, an out-of-work private eye, Virgil Stanhope, a former detective who investigated the case years ago and ignored critical evidence. All Jenna has to go by is a pile of her mother’s journals wherein she makes observations about the nature of grief in elephants and tracks their behavior. It isn’t long, however, before the mother’s writings and the events playing out start to dovetail. Eventually, hard questions the characters ask of themselves arrive with difficult questions they have to face.

Picoult draws some quirky and intriguing characters in this work and tells the story in the point of view of four main ones: Jenna, Serenity, Virgil, and Alice (through her journals.) I think this approach works, although other readers have found it jarring and disruptive to the flow of the story. I particularly enjoyed the amount of description about elephant behavior via the character of the mother, although, again, other readers criticized the level of detail, claiming it slowed the pace of the story. I did not, however, connect with the “main” character, Jenna, and felt she was too precocious, too smart and confident for her age and circumstances, and lacking certain dimension. More important, I was very let down with the ending. I felt as if the author had not prepared us for the twist at all and it had the feeling of being forced and very contrived. When an author holds back critical information from the reader to execute a big reveal, it always runs the risk of making the reader feel cheated–as if the author held back information just to trick you. The ending did not satisfy, as I said, and short of going back and re-reading the story, I’m convinced there were some continuity problems that would have made the events impossible. ((Hard to describe without spoilers)).

On the positive side, Picoult’s prose as always is luscious and rich, her dialog sharp. As mentioned, I drank in the scenes describing the elephants and wanted to research more about them. Ultimately, however, I would describe the book as “The Secret Life of Bees” meets “The Sixth Sense.”

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Harnessing Big Magic

BigMagicThere are millions of books out there on writing. They range from the technical how-to type to inspirational tomes aimed at increasing your productivity. Elizabeth Gilbert’s  (Eat Pray Love) work, Big Magic, is something entirely different. In a conversational tone which makes you feel as if Gilbert is a good friend or wise older sister imparting her experience, she spins out her observations about Creativity and the life of being a creative person (not just writers!) The subtitle of the book, Creative Living Beyond Fear, says it all. She offers her perspective on the creative experience in anecdotes which lead to pragmatic conclusions. And her advice is not just a dismissive “don’t worry,” but rather she takes the reader by the hand and lets you see how to avoid needless suffering.  The topics are addressed in sections  entitled: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. In each, she encourages us to shake off the seriousness, perfectionism, self-loathing, and other destructive tendencies of the martyr-artist in order to invite creativity and inspiration into one’s life. Indeed, Gilbert maintains that art, creativity or whatever you want to call it, seeks a home in us in order to find expression. That’s the Big Magic. It  will find the right person through whom it can accomplish this, or it will move on, our choice. So it is our job to keep the channels open and inviting to unearth the “jewels” which lie within us. I have to confess, all that spiritualism aside, I felt I’d been given a “get-out-of-jail-free” card while reading this work. It gives one permission to not take art so seriously, to let go of failures and move on, and to use curiosity to seek out and attract fresh ideas. In the end, she points out the mysterious contradiction that is creativity: “What we make matters and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.” I may have to buy my own copy of this book so I can go back, re-read, and highlight certain passages when necessary–to keep it all in perspective. Oh, and by the way, Creativity if you’re out there–I’m ready to invite you in any time.

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‘Gone Missing’ Doesn’t Miss

GoneMissingIt’s comforting to settle in with a book featuring a character you’ve come to know and love. That’s the case with R. Lanier Clemons’ second title, Gone Missing, featuring novice detective Jonelle Sweet. In this second book, Sweet is assigned not one but two quirky cases. One involves a widow who claims her dead husband visits at night to steal her jewels and the other a missing transgender actress who has left a trail of broken hearts and suspicious characters in her wake.

Intrepid Jonelle Sweet is not only dedicated to her work in solving the case, but also to helping the victims and clients. She becomes emotionally invested in the cases and brings all to bear–to include facing her claustrophobia or going into dangerous places or crashing walking into clubs where she is strikingly out of place. In this new tale, we are re-acquainted with a few characters from the first novel, but Clemons introduces some new ones. One such new character is the fluff but wise homeless man, Luther, which I suspect we will see more of in subsequent works.

The plot of Gone Missing is more complex than Clemons’ first work, providing more twists and turns to the keep the reader guessing. As always, the author’s voice is fresh, brash and funny, the setting is gritty, and the plot engaging. Clemons’ Jonelle Sweet is a sweet new treat on the mystery reader’s plate.

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A Visit to Shetland Without Leaving Home

ThinAirAward winning mystery writer Ann Cleeves creates a picturesque tour of the north Shetland islands in her book Thin Air, providing much atmosphere to the story of a ghostly little girl and a woman who goes missing. The plot centers around a group of “southerners” from London who arrive to celebrate the recent marriage of one of their university friends to a local fellow. The group of old friends are vastly diverse, ranging from an outgoing film producer to a neurotic, insecure librarian. Their first night on the island, Eleanor, a bold and sensual woman who is suffering from the recent loss of a baby, disappears and is later found dead along the water’s edge. Her death is complicated by the fact that she was researching the similar death of a 10-year old girl in 1930 whose ghostly sightings either presage pregnancy (or death). Hometown detective Jimmy Perez is brought on to the case along with lead investigator, Willow Reeves. This is problematic for those of us who have not read Ann Cleeves’ previous works featuring these characters, because she devotes a lot of attention to Perez’s grief over losing his lover and caring for her child. She also alludes to a budding attraction between Willow and Jimmy that never really gets off the ground. I found it hard to care about any of these characters and their internal sufferings since I did not know them well and felt all this background just dragged down the pace of the story. On the positive side, I enjoyed Cleeves’ descriptions of the countryside and the people, and found myself looking up a lot of words from the local lingo (peerie, hamefarin, and names of numerous shore birds). I liked the premise of the story–part historical ghost story, part murder mystery–but the plot did not deliver for me. After the first body is found (yes, there is always a second murder) the pace of the investigation was slow and wandered off course into the lives and angst of too many characters: all of the university chums, their spouses, some local innkeepers, parents of the home town boy and on and on. Some of these characters became significant to the story and some were perhaps included as red herrings, but on the whole it had the feel of a first draft in need of more stringent editing. A lot of the investigation was talking to people while other matters, such as the autopsy results, were brought up and then dropped. The ending (no spoilers) felt rushed and was merely dropped in the reader’s lap in the form of a big confession, tying up all the threads quickly with various explanations. It was too convenient, after dangling all these enticing tidbits and clues in front of the reader for over 300 slow pages. I understand Cleeves has an enormous following and that this was perhaps not the best book to start with, so I will have to give her mysteries another chance.

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The Hidden World of Women as Told by a Man

MidwifeCoverThe Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas is the story of a seventeenth century gentlewoman, Bridget Hodgson, played out against the backdrop of York, England, during the siege in 1644. Even in a city under bombardment and swarming with hostile soldiers, she carries out her honor-bound duties as a midwife, helping the destitute as well as the wealthy to be delivered from their labor. The descriptions of the customs and medicine surrounding the then mysteries of childbirth were fascinating, but the story goes beyond this cultural history–it is wrapped around a mystery. Lady Hodgson’s friend is accused of murdering her husband with poison and is hastily sentenced to burn after a sham trial. Bridget, convinced of her friend’s innocence, sets out to find the real murderer. To this end, she joins up with a feisty servant girl, Martha Hawkins, who mysteriously turned up on her doorstep and also has a rather shady past. Along the way, we are treated to wonderful descriptions of that era’s taverns and prisons as well as the fine homes and luxuries. Author Thomas weaves in a good dose of the political backdrop of that time as well. Although the mystery was compelling and following Bridget through her investigations which led us from infanticide to drunken labor rooms, all full of interesting places and characters, the plot felt rushed at the end when it was all wrapped up with a long eleventh hour “confession” and re-cap. I also found the very casual relationship between a Lady and her newly acquired servant girl unbelievable at times, but they make a dynamic investigatory team. Would I read another historical mystery by Thomas? Yes. I also found it interesting that a university history professor would choose a woman confined to a female-dominated world by virtue of her profession to be his main character.  I felt he provided an even-handed portrayal of women–weak and strong, evil and magnanimous, and everything in between.

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Historical Mystery Satisfies on Only One Front

BluedeathI recently read A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch, his debut novel introducing Charles Lenox, an amateur detective, Victorian gentleman, and armchair explorer. The novel was described as “equal parts Sherlock Holmes…and P.G. Wodehouse” (flyleaf, St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2007). The plot revolved around the murder of a housemaid from an exotic, expensive poison. Based on this, the novel held great promise for me, but failed to deliver. Although Finch provided interesting historical details about early 19C London and lovingly described Victorian society, lavish balls, and multi-course dinners, the plot that was to hold it all together was thin and the resolution of the murder felt contrived and unconvincing. Much of the investigation and uncovering of clues comes in the form of a secondary character reporting his findings to Lenox so we do not see the action. When Lenox is on the case himself, most of his work entails accusing various suspects of the murder and questioning them. Although I am quite satisfied to read a mystery that is not all action packed but rather slowly unfolds based on various conversations as a means of uncovering the culprit, I want those talks to reveal a tense, psychological cat and mouse game. I also want the story to be to be tightly plotted with a “never saw it coming” ending to the investigation. None of this is evident in Blue Death. Although the mystery felt flat to me, I very much enjoyed the character of Charles Lenox with all his idiosyncrasies, and the constellation of friends and helpers. Finch has gone on to write several more adventures of Charles Lenox and is recognized as a successful historical mystery writer. Perhaps this was just not his best novel.

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