Saul Black thrillers: Not for the faint of heart

book blog thrillers

Fans of Gillian Flynn and Karin Slaughter: Get to know Saul Black.

Dark, gruesome, creative, twisty, his two novels — “The Killing Lessons” (2015) and “LoveMurder” (2017) — won’t disappoint.

“The Killing Lessons” introduces us to Detective Valerie Hart, who, like most interesting characters, is flawed and complicated and often unlikable. Two psychopathic predators (one haunted by the abusive Mama Jean, the other a poseur tagalong who wants a friend) leave a trail of bodies — most of them abducted, tortured women left with objects inside of them — and a lone survivor: A 10-year-old girl who holds the key to finding them. There’s a rhyme and reason for the murdering pair’s madness and as Hart slowly unravels the mystery, it’s a race against time.

Hart returns in “LoveMurder.” Six years have passed since Hart helped put the mesmerizingly smart and beautiful Katherine Glass in prison for a series of gruesome torture murders. But her partner in crime was never found and now he’s back — his style tweaked a bit — and he’s letting Hart know it. The detective, struggling to commit to a future not tainted by the worst of mankind, knows the only way to solve the cryptic puzzles the killer sends her in the mail is to go toe-to-toe with Glass.

Hart and Glass are drawn to each other, which scares the detective and amuses the convict. The verbal interplay between the two is great. Hart — and her colleagues and family — fear the collaboration spells nothing but trouble.

Valerie thought of her grandfather, the last member of her family for whom the Devil was a real entity. What had he said? First the Devil lets you know there are terrible things. Then he tells you which room they’re in. Then he invites you in to look. And before you know it you can’t find the door to get out. Before you know it you’re one of the terrible things. 

There is witty repartee between Glass and Hart. Glass cajoles, flirts, ridicules, condescends and verges too close for comfort.

“I’m not saying we’re the same,” Katherine said. “I’m saying we’re close. You see the world for what it is and do everything you can to make it otherwise. I see the same world and do everything I can to make it work for me. We’ve both looking at the same blank canvas. It’s just what we paint on it that’s different.”

The killer’s MO is personal for Hart, but she wonders if survival would be worth it to the victim:

Weren’t there things you’d rather not survive? Weren’t there things that someone could do to you that would leave you so changed, so unrecognizable, and so immune to love that you’d wish you hadn’t survived?

It’s a story of love and betrayal, God and the devil, truth and lies, life and death. Just like Glass and her Man in the Mask, from whom hope “was their aphrodisiacal drug of choice,” pleasure and pain are intertwined.

The best part: Huge twists that I didn’t see coming (and I’m usually really good at predicting whodunit).

The writing is clever and creative, the crimes brutal and unnerving. An abducted woman, thinking back to what Bede, a monk in 8th-Century England said about life:

A little bird … flying through the night flies in one window, through the bright hall, and out the window at the other end. It takes no time at all, just a second. That’s your life. You’re the bird and the world is the feasting hall. You have to make sure you see everything. All of it, as much as you can. You’ve got a moment, that’s all.

 

 

 

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The lost girls: ‘Marlena’ and ‘The Girls’

Julie Buntin and Emma Cline immerse the reader in the female teenager psyche. I highly recommend these debut novels.

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“We all want to be seen. ”
― Emma Cline, The Girls”


Female friendship is fraught with opposites: loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, envy and sympathy, ego and insecurity, and power and submission.

Two recent books dig deep into girls and their need to belong. “Marlena” by Julie Buntin takes place in the not-so-distant past in a fictional town based on Petoskey in northern Michigan. Buntin nails the us vs. them, the mansion vs. trailer undercurrent. “The Girls” by Emma Cline, a favorite from 2016, is stunning in its imagining of just what would lure girls to a Manson-like cult in the late ’60s.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. The writing, the characters, the immersion into the female teenage psyche.

Both Catherine (trying to reinvent herself as the more risky Cat after moving away from all she knew in Pontiac) in “Marlena” and Evie in “The Girls”  are lost. They are children of divorce whose parents are absent — physically, economically, emotionally or all three. The girls’ mothers are struggling to find themselves, Cat’s mom in a dead-end town with few options and Evie’s stylish mom trying to break out with a career when women were just starting to look beyond the home. The fathers are on the fringes.

Evie says of her mother: “There are ways I made sense of my mother later. How fifteen years with my father had left great blanks in her life that she was learning to fill, like those stroke victims relearning the words for car and table and pencil. The shy way she looked for herself in the oracle of the mirror, as critical and hopeful as an adolescent. Sucking in her stomach to zip her new jeans.”

Cat and Evie are desperate to fit in, to feel the pull and security of a friend. They have drifted from their other friends. They are easy targets for girls they wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Both become accomplices to girls who are worse off than they are — underfed, without direction, neglected, victims of sexual abuse. But to each girl, they are stronger together.

In “Marlena”:  “Together, we had power.… Nothing could hurt us, as long as we weren’t alone.”

“I felt a grateful wonder at the fated-ness of our friendship.”

Cat and Evie are prey to girls eager to feel power and influence. Suzanne, a motherly figure and favorite of Russell (think Charles Manson), knows just how to lure Evie in.

“Girls are the only ones who can really give each other close attention, the kind we equate with being loved. They noticed what we want noticed.”

The attention doesn’t go unnoticed by Evie: “I was already starting to understand that other people’s admiration asked something of you. That you had to shape yourself around it.”

Evie and Cat are on the edges of violence. Close but never consumed. They are leery but thrilled by the danger.

Both writers craft beautiful sentences and infuse their characters with empathy. For example, Buntin writes of the cold winter sky: “The sky had turned hard and nickel gray, a color that, if you knocked on it, would make a tinny sound.”

One thing I loved about “Marlena” was the imagery of houses and home. Marlena stores her drugs in a little pin shaped like a house. When her lost pin is returned to her, damaged but repaired, it’s the beginning of the end. It’s the only home she’s been able to count on. While Cat believes her rundown trailer is “unutterably pathetic, the sum total of my family’s failures,” the motherless Marlena finds solace in it and in Cat’s mother. Marlena’s barn of a house reeks of rot and decay and the malevolence forged by her violent father who runs a meth lab in the woods.

The NY Times review calls Marlena and Cat’s friendship “a collaborative work of imagination.”

Marlena romanticizes Cat’s life in some ways because it’s something she’s never known. In her reminiscing, Cat wonders if her memory is accurate or romanticized by Marlena’s death and Cat’s regret:

“Why do I keep doing this? Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal. She could be such a bitch. She could sense what you hated about yourself, and if you pissed her off she’d throw it back at your face, she’d make sure you knew she thought it, too. Sometimes I feel like she is my invention. Like the more I say, the further from the truth of her I get. I’m trying to hold palmfuls of sand but I squeeze harder, I tighten my fists, and the quicker it all escapes.”

Both Cat and Evie return to the past that they can’t quite leave behind by the emergence of people who remind them of what was and could have been.

Suzanne keeps Evie from being swept up in Russell’s actions (as if she knows Evie isn’t of that world and was just tagging along) and the latter spends decades wondering what she would have done if she would have joined the others. She’s adrift and stunted.

“Only after the trial did things come into focus, that night taking on the now familiar arc. Every detail and blip made public. There are times I try to guess what part I might have played. What amount would belong to me. It’s easiest to think I wouldn’t have done anything, like I would have stopped them, my presence the mooring that kept Suzanne in the human realm. That was the wish, the cogent parable. But there was another possibility that slouched along, insistent and unseen. The bogeyman under the bed, the snake at the bottom of the stairs: maybe I would have done something, too. Maybe it would have been easy.”

Both are unmoored by the sense that they were left behind. Cat says: “I made it out, just like I wanted, and not once have I stopped looking back.”

After Marlena dies (no spoiler here), Cat struggles for decades with her grief and sense of guilt, that she didn’t notice or heed what she should have. She refuses to let herself off the hook:

“I’ve never believed in the idea of an innocent bystander. The act of watching changes what happens. Just because you don’t touch anything doesn’t mean you are exempt. You might be tempted to forgive me for being fifteen, in over my head, for not knowing what to do, for not understanding, yet, the way even the tiniest choices domino, until you’re irretrievably grown up, the person you were always going to be. Or in Marlena’s case, the person you’ll never have a chance to be.  … Let the record show that I was smarter than I looked. And anyway, I touched.”

 

Jane and her Mr. Rochester

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know them sooner.

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Reader, I’m sorry to say it’s taken me this long into adulthood to read “Jane Eyre.”  If I had known what a fabulous story this was, I would have gotten around to it much sooner. I had just figured it was dated, gothic, dreary and a long slog.

I was so wrong.

Jane Eyre is a heroine worthy of being called such. She stays true to herself, no matter her trials and tribulations. And her Mr. Rochester? Well, he’s a brooding, complicated, adoring man. They get their fairy-tale ending, although it is tempered by tragedy.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte has it all: an orphan and a neglected heir, both terribly misunderstood; an English family manse steeped in history; a crazy woman hidden away; superstitions and the supernatural; witty dialogue; beautiful descriptions of the moody, isolated moors, and, of course, the love story.

I read the recent “Mr. Rochester” by Sarah Shoemaker first, and I think it made me love “Jane Eyre” even more. Shoemaker tells the story from Rochester’s point of view, fleshing out his story, the root of his misfortune, and the abandonment and loss he endured as a child and young adult. Just like Jane, he wonders why he has to face such misery and challenge. While he comes from money, he is no less alone in many ways.

An unlikely pair, the businessman and the governess/schoolteacher meet their match in each other. They weather each other’s flaws, flirt, cajole and play hard to get. When it appears Rochester is going to marry, Jane knows the beautiful, money-hungry Miss Ingram is not the best for him:

“I saw he was going to marry her, for family, perhaps political reasons; because her rank and connexions suited him; I felt he had not given her his love, and that her qualifications were ill adapted to win from him that treasure. This was the point — this was where the nerve was touched and teazed — this was where the fever was sustained and fed: she could not charm him.”

(Reader, be prepared for punctuation the likes you don’t often see outside of 19th-Century literature.)

Both the reader and Mr. Rochester know just who is capable of charming him.

Just as it appears that the two will live happily ever after despite the misgivings of others, Rochester’s past comes to light in a shocking chapel betrayal. Jane could have acquiesced to a life of contentment but that would cost her dignity and honor, so she turns from happiness:

“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?”

Both Shoemaker and Bronte give their characters depth and nuance. Together, the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester is much fuller. Written more than a century after Bronte’s story, Shoemaker adheres to the former’s voice and vision while fleshing out Rochester’s past.

A very poignant part of “Jane Eyre” finds Rochester bemoaning his fate and feeling unworthy: “I am no better than the old lightning-struck chestnut-tree in Thornfield orchard. And what right would that ruin have to bid a budding woodbine cover its decay with freshness?”

Jane’s response: “You are no ruin, sir — no lightning-struck tree: you are green and vigorous. Plants will grow about your roots, whether you ask them or not; because they take delight in your bountiful shadow; and as they grow they will lean towards you, and wind round you, because your strength offers them so safe a prop.”

In each other, they find home and companionship and refuge.

 

‘Hillbilly Elegy’: Love trumps circumstances

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“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” has been trumpeted as a book about why poor white folks voted for Donald Trump. To me, that’s a trumped-up pronouncement.

If you’ve read “The Glass Castle,” a stellar memoir by Jeannette Walls, this will be familiar. Children struggle to escape the poverty and the quagmire of generations of underachievers. There is dysfunction, drug abuse, domestic violence, joblessness, aimlessness, a overwhelming sense of stagnation. Like Ms. Walls, Mr. Vance rose above his circumstances, beat the odds and grew up to be more than the sum of his parts. Vance then looked deeper into just why he — and not others — was able to do so.

In a nutshell? His grandmother loved him, nurtured him, pushed him to succeed and filled in the gaps and it made all the difference. She made him see the possibilities.

“Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.”

Eloquent, she’s not. But she believes in her grandson and provided him with some stability and encouragement to be his best.

Vance writes: “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes of my life.”

He raises many questions, but he doesn’t offer many answers as to how this can be prevented. Government aid and intervention help, but they aren’t enough. The real solution, he believes, involves vast cultural change. That segment of the population has to change its outlook and belief that there are few possibilities for its citizens. That means walking the walk (not just preaching responsibility but actually being responsible), trying harder, self-reliance and not self-pity.

As the New York Times said in its review, Vance offers “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Vance writes of the underclass among whom he grew up (an underclass found not just in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, but throughout the country): “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”

He says: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society of the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. … the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”

Sounds like rhetoric from the 2016 presidential campaign, doesn’t it?

Vance didn’t write this book as a political statement. He wrote it to try to understand his success and his ties to his family and community. As an adult, he straddles two worlds. He takes a deep dive into his psyche and his fear that maybe he can’t completely escape the dysfunction and struggles that marked his early years.

It’s an eye-opening read from a political standpoint in the aftermath of the presidential election and a look inside hillbilly culture many of us only know through stereotypes. It’s a story of betrayal and loyalty, of struggle and crisis and of both loving and despising where you come from.

Pamela Paul beat me to it

 

IMG_2372Since 1997, I have kept a log of the books I’ve read. I’ve forgotten what inspired me to do this.  My love of books and reading, sure. But I think it also was to document growth and changing tastes. Plus, each year there is an instinctual challenge to try to beat the previous year’s numbers.

It turns out I’m not the only one to do this. If only I had thought that others would be interested in seeing what I’ve read.

Pamela Paul beat me to it. Paul, whose already enviable life includes living abroad in her 20s as well as working as the New York Times Book Review editor (dream job!), is the author of the new “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues.” Bob stands for Book of Books and it is her record of all she’s read since she was 17.

For 28 years, she has documented her reading history (and her life). It’s not just a list of books. A news release says: “It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.”

I think I may have to get this book. Reason 1: I can relate to this.  I can track what was going on in my life, to some extent, by what I read. Reason 2: I love hearing what other people are reading and how books have shaped their lives. It’s a bit voyeuristic, but in a civilized way.

I think of my reading log as a personal document. A living document.

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I find keeping track to be soothing in a way, leaving proof of something I’ve accomplished. A historical document, if you will. I can tell you by the selection of books each year where I was in my life.  I would love to think of myself as a bibliophile, but really I’m just finding my way. Still. I like historical fiction, thrillers, best-sellers. I wish I liked nonfiction more. I dislike chick lit.

Another writer who loves keep tracking is Jenny Rosenstrach. She’s documented every dinner she’s had since 1998.

This tally morphed into a blog and a series of cookbooks, starting with “Dinner a Love Story: It All Begins at the Family Table.” Her cookbooks and blog are about food, family, struggling for a work/life balance and reading.

Both Rosenstrach and Paul are journalists, with a history in magazines and newspapers. Both were able to craft careers documenting issues of importance in their personal lives, whether it’s marriage (Paul’s “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” or her research on childrearing, “Parenting, Inc.: How the Billion-Dollar Baby Business Has Changed the Way We Raise Our Children”) or Rosenstrach’s desire to keep the traditional family dinner alive despite picky children and crazy schedules.

I have all of Rosenstrach’s books and cook from them regularly. (Solid recipes, great writing.) I think it’s commendable when people commit to something, whether it’s logging in hours at the gym, documenting the food you put on the table for your family or noting which books you’ve read.

Perhaps you’ll find some favorites among the book selections pictured in my journal. I think reading about what others like to read is so insightful. Paul is also responsible for the “By the Book” series in the New York Times, a favorite of mine. It takes “What book would you take with you on a deserted island?” a step further. (Can her life be any better?!)

A terrifyingly good book, ‘It’ leaves a lasting impression

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My very well-worn copy of “It.”

The summer I was 16, I read “It” by Stephen King twice in a row despite the fact that it’s terrifying. It’s also terrifyingly good.

(By the way, the only book I’ve ever found to be scarier is the excellent “Helter Skelter.” I couldn’t even read that one indoors and certainly not at night. I still get freaked out just looking at it.)

Now, Stephen King and horror are not usually on my to-read list. However, I beg of you to please read the 1986 book before you see the upcoming movie. The trailer, which is floating around the internet like so many of Pennywise’s balloons, captures all the unease and creepiness and terror I remember. Just watching the trailer scares me, but I’m already planning to see the movie, which stars Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.

In perusing the book now — many, many years later — it is clear that King is a master at setting a scene, at crafting a sense of dread and impending doom, at the quick scare. He’s not particularly gory. He’s incredibly wordy. He also intuits the fears that hide in the recesses of our minds. The bogeyman, dark basements, cellars, shadowy figures, the sinister underpinnings of small towns. And with Pennywise and John Wayne Gacy, I think clowns will always be a fear.

Interestingly enough, this came to my attention: 200 Superb Books Everyone Should Read at Least Once: http://bit.ly/2pwnuSF

The list put together by the BBC is unusual in that it features not only classics (Dickens, Austen, Hemingway), but children’s books and more modern novels. It is a tad heavy on British authors. (An aside: Just who is Jacqueline Wilson, who has multiple mentions on the list?)

But guess what also makes the list? “It” by Stephen King.

According to Wikipedia,  ” ‘It’ deals with themes that eventually became King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood, the ugliness lurking behind a façade of small-town quaintness, and overcoming evil through mutual trust and sacrifice. Publishers Weekly listed ‘It as the best-selling book in the United States in 1986.”

“It” also topped the New York Times Fiction Best Sellers list for 12 weeks in 1986 and another two heading into 1987. The novel has high ratings on goodreads.com, too.

So I urge you to not just take my word for it, but please, please read the novel before you see the movie. It’s long (more than 1,000 pages), but it’s critically acclaimed and stands the test of time. And you’ll never look at storm drains the same way again.

The weight of expectations

Expectations are powerful. They can inspire, propel, intimidate, crush. In these books, they play a key role in the trajectory of characters’ lives.

These three books are among my all-time favorites. Their common theme is one that weighs heavily on me as I’ve always worried I won’t live up to expectations, especially my own.

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The unforgettable “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a staggeringly poignant story of expectations on children. In this case, it leads to tragedy, but that’s no spoiler because within the first sentence we know the teenage Lydia is dead. The novel is much like the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri (whose books I would highly recommend, especially “The Namesake” and “Unaccustomed Earth”) that involve immigrant experiences and the pressures children face to do more, be more and prove more. Ng’s book focuses on Marilyn and James Lee’s dreams — dashed by parenthood, racism and thwarted attempts at happiness — that end up being inherited by their favorite child. Lydia hopes that by relentlessly trying to be all her parents hope for that she can maintain the tenuous happiness and delicate balance in her family structure.

Assumptions chip away at relationships. Just how well do the Lees know their children? How well do Lydia and her siblings really know each other? How well does Lydia know Jack, the object of her affection?

Lydia struggles under the burden of being a disappointment. But just as she resolves to be her own best self, to stand up for who she is, free from the goals others have placed upon her and the sacrifices she puts upon herself, tragedy strikes.

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In “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, Mike Schwartz sees a bright future for his college baseball team when he’s able to help recruit fielding phenom Henry Skrimshander. He takes Henry under his wing and puts his own best interests aside. When Henry’s confidence tanks, Schwartzy realizes he has sacrificed his future for Henry’s and the team’s. And the expectations the team and college place on Henry may not match his own. Several characters have to figure out how to live their lives on their own terms.

Edith Wharton skewers the pettiness and cruelty of 19th-Century New York high society (of which she was a member) in “The House of Mirth.” Lily Bart is a once-wealthy beauty whose currency, both literally and figuratively, is in decline. She expects to inherit from an aunt, but also knows she must marry to secure her future. The fly in the ointment is that she wants it all — money, love and a place in society — on her own terms. Missteps, delays, misinterpretations, malevolent maneuverings by supposed friends and desperate attempts to maintain her status keep her from her happy ending.

“… she had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without perceiving the right one to take until it was too late.”

Wharton paints Lily as a sympathetic character, one burdened by the circumstances of her birth and a victim of her own choices. In hesitation, a fate is determined.

“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”

It’s a beautiful novel, full of emotion and a chilliness within the opulent, manner-driven confines of a bygone society.