A Mixed Review for the New Release, The Innocence Game By Michael Harvey
May 7. 2013
What does the discovery of a mysterious envelope, a bloody piece of material, and a murder conviction in a decades old case, have in common? If someone could assemble the proper components of this Rubik’s Cube, they would solve the mystery that is The Innocence Game.
The secrets of The Innocence Game begin to unravel within a classroom inside the prestigious Medhill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. Three particularly bright students are invited to participate in an unusual graduate seminar that reopens and investigates cold cases where there exists the potential of a wrongful conviction.
Ian, Jake, and Sarah are the chosen student triad serving as the truth seekers in these mysterious cases. Their illustrious professor Judy Zombrowski is a Pulitzer Prize winner who prefers to be referred to simply as “Z.”
The success of the project is evident in myriad overturned wrongful convictions for inmates on death row. The three idealistic student participants are committed to righting potential wrongs within the Chicago justice system, one with a history of corruption.
But none of these bright minds have any clue about horrors that are in store for them as they pursue the truth. Professor Z has several handpicked cases for the students to work on but Jake has a particular case he brings to the table for consideration.
The twists and shocking facts that emerge in this case will mystify most readers as they try to assimilate the true darkness that exists within the higher echelons of those who are sworn “to protect and serve” the citizens of Chicago. One begins to wonder whether the good guys are really the bad guys or vice versa. At times the depth of this web of deceit is very unnerving, to say the least. Almost nothing is as it appears.
Sorting out the truth and the relationships between characters in The Innocence Game is often a difficult task for the average reader. But one cannot deny the desire to keep reading until the very end.
Those readers who are knowledgeable about this type of project may be reminded of the real-life Innocence Project cofounded by two famous lawyers from the O. J. Simpson “Dream Team” for the defense. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield began the project to help exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates through the use of DNA.
The concept of author Harvey’s The Innocence Game is both intriguing and quite original. He weaves a web of deceit that involves a twisted sense of power by a group of despicable officials. Many of the ingredients necessary for a great read are present.
Yet the execution of the plot is uneven, bordering on convoluted at various points. The characters, though interesting, are not fully developed to the point that a reader becomes fully invested in them nor cares about their fates.
Although the aforementioned flaws exist, many mystery lovers will still find a story worth pursuing. The Innocence Game definitely has the potential of holding the attention of ardent fans of this genre.
Nine Lives: A Chef's Journey from Chaos to Control
By Brandon Baltzley
May 3, 2013
“. . . a memoir both touching and mortifying.”
When it comes to addiction, people often ask, “How could someone use a substance to the point of destroying everything and everyone around them?” The misconception still exists that addiction is somehow a moral weakness, but the evidence proves otherwise.
Even the American Medical Association has recognized for years that addiction is a disease. The insidious nature of this illness causes irreparable harm to those who are afflicted with it, but for many that first drink or drug is the beginning of a slow descent into hell.
If a reader of Nine Lives can comprehend this concept one would surely understand the life and death struggle depicted by author Brandon Baltzley. This powerfully gripping memoir gently convinces the reader that no one would consciously choose this struggle for all the riches in the world. Though the battle is his alone, there are millions who are fighting this battle while horrified loved ones witness firsthand the insatiable desire of the one afflicted.
Nine Lives is unique among other memoirs of this ilk in its characterization of the inevitable downward spiral of drug addiction. Contrary to others in this category, it is not the typical “drunkalogue” (an endless repetition of horror stories, morbid binges, and hangovers) that have flooded the marketplace in recent years.
Did Mr. Baltzley lie, cheat, and con others in his quest to fulfill his desperate need for drugs? Of course this is part of his story. But equally important is his passion for creating beauty and love toward others through his first love: that of preparing the most original gastronomic delights known to many across the country.
As a child of a single mother who opened a small café, young Brandon was put to work beside her in the kitchen. According to Mr. Baltzley, “Cooking held my attention like nothing had before, and from the first moment, I was hooked.” Mom not only diverted his short attention span toward something useful to her, but she introduced him to the “joy of experimentation.”
He became a master at mixing unusual ingredients and taste testing them until he discovered that magical combination that could melt the heart of the most skeptical customers. He quickly became enthralled with sharing his passion for food to those he loved as well as strangers searching for new and tantalizing dishes that would inevitably delight the most discriminating palate.
From small establishments to elite restaurants with an ensemble of professional cooking staff, he made his way to the bright city lights of Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Even with accolades from critics as well as restaurant owners, his addiction continued to haunt him wherever he went.
He repeated the cycle of going to 12-step meetings, staying clean for a few months, and then a relapse, getting fired and starting the process all over again. He would have manic binges where he would spend thousands in a week on cocaine.
At the end of his rope he felt that death was the only solution to his problem. After a short stint at Bellevue in New York, he was more willing to dedicate himself to the recovery process. And once again he was back in the kitchen creating dishes such as turnip confit, creamed Swiss chard, and polenta with mushrooms. In a pinch, a simple brownie with ginger ice cream would do.
Ultimately, he founded his own restaurant called Crux and put to use the many lessons learned from his many endings and new beginnings. He became acutely aware that like a cat he had survived at least nine lives.
Any reader of Nine Lives could be mesmerized by the enmeshment of beautifully adorned food coupled with the complexities and dark sides of the human condition. True foodies will glean much from witnessing the magic and art of creating a culinary masterpiece. And addicts, recovering or otherwise, will recognize a familiar spirit in a memoir both touching and mortifying.
Book Review: Resolve by J. J. Hensley
March 15, 2013
“. . . the uneven execution of the plot prevents Resolve from achieving its full potential.”
Author J. J. Hensley’s expertise in law enforcement combined with his avid passion for long distance running lends gravitas to more than one element in the whodunit Resolve. Author Hensley is both accurate and insightful about the details involved in committing a crime and its aftermath, including the thought processes of both prosecutors and detectives.
Mr. Hensley’s secrets to success in running a marathon are apparent as he takes the reader on a journey through each mile of the Pittsburgh marathon including the mindset of the runner and the physical ramifications on the body during those challenging 26 miles. In fact, all of the chapters introduce each subsequent mile in the title with the concomitant progressive numbers as the heading.
The plot of Resolve is centered in academia at Three Rivers University in Pittsburgh. Amid the hallowed halls of this intellectual and cozy little university, there lurks many a secret. While the reader gathers more interest in these secrets, more is revealed bit by bit.
The main character in Resolved is Dr. Cyprus Keller a well respected Professor of Criminology with expertise in criminal behavior and victimology. His wife Kaitlyn is the consummate professional psychologist, successful in her own right and both supportive and loving. And when they are together, life appears healthy and happy.
Unfortunately all is not happy at work for Dr. Keller when he learns about some of his colleagues and their involvement in both a murder and a coverup. The intrigue begins after one of his students is murdered. The crime takes place shortly after her visit to Dr. Keller, inevitably drawing him into a web of conspiracy.
As the murders continue and Dr. Keller becomes an unwitting target, he is ready and willing to both investigate and commit murder himself.
While the murders are taking place and suspense is building, runners in the marathon—including Dr. Keller—are both training and competing. While the roar of the crowd continues, both prey and predator are battling to the death . . . literally and figuratively.
Although the story idea delineated in Resolve is an intriguing one, the execution of the plot is uneven and sometimes confusing. First, because there are so many antagonists whose characters are not fully developed and whose motives are not always clear. Consequently it’s sometimes difficult to tell who the bad guys really are and who did what to whom.
Second, and even more important, is that the transitions from the actual marathon and the execution of the murders are sometimes uneven. The two plots intertwine in such a way that a reader could get lost in the web of either or both.
Though mystery aficionados may find this book a unique and tantalizing idea, in the end the uneven execution of the plot prevents Resolve from achieving its full potential.
New Book Review
Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer
February 6, 2013
“. . . the dark side of genius was not a pretty sight.”
“Pouring out liquor is like burning books.” —William Faulkner
“It is difficult to differentiate, with any sureness,
between insanity and eccentricity.” —Dylan Thomas
“It is necessary to be always a little drunk.” —Charles Baudelaire
These are but a few of the infamous quips attributed to the ensemble cast of the most revered elite poets and writers of all time. Each chapter of Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors begins with either a witty or provocative quote that introduces the literary giants of each century.
Sexually transmitted diseases, tempestuous relationships, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and suicide are but a few of the issues that plagued writers throughout time. Author Shaffer brilliantly chronicles both the excesses and triumphs of some of the most talented and notorious of them all.
A double-edged sword has hung over the lives of the most creative geniuses. The dichotomy is that these extraordinarily gifted writers explored the heights and depth of emotion, allowing them to express those feelings in magnificent poetry and prose. Yet this same exploration of the gamut of pleasure and pain often led to a slow and painful path of self destruction.
And the dark side of genius was not a pretty sight.
Decadence, debauchery, and scandal appeared to be inevitable outcomes of dancing dangerously close to the edge.
There seemed to be a folie à deux (shared hallucination) among the writers highlighted by Mr. Shaffer. Most of them lived life with such abandon that behavioral and physical consequences did not appear a consideration. Yet while seemingly enjoying life to the fullest, their dark moods, hopeless drug addiction, and suicidal thoughts continued to plague them. This enigma is difficult for people to comprehend since most writers (as well as people in general) deeply desire to achieve status and recognition.
There are so many intriguing examples of writers gone awry in Literary Rogues it is difficult to enumerate them all. It would be very helpful if the reader had some knowledge of famous literary works in order to understand the breadth and complexity of these geniuses.
One of the most public examples of a genius gone awry is the poet Lord Byron whom some consider one of the most prolific poets of all time. In 2008 a British paper called the Sun ran a story about Byron with the title “Lord Byron’s Life of Bling, Booze and Groupie Sex.” As author Shaffer explains, “Byron’s macabre habits such as firing pistols indoors, drinking wine from his ancestors’ skulls did little to alleviate his depression.”
Even as Byron achieved fame his tendency toward melancholy did not abate. In fact, he is noted for saying, “Fame is but like all other pursuits, ending in disappointment—its worthlessness only discovered when attained.”
His frequent sexual trysts—like those of many other writers—held little lasting enjoyment. During his first year of marriage, he dabbled with both men and women, but the love of life was his half-sister who became pregnant at some point. He was so taken with her that he carried a lock of her hair with him. In a startling decision he invited his half-sister on his honeymoon—though she chose not to go.
Born into an aristocratic family, The Marquis De Sade will never be forgotten for his bizarre behavior. In fact it wasn’t until he received a life sentence for poisoning and sodomy that he began to write novels. His books contained the topics of “sexual violence, torture, rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality and cannibalism.”
At some point after his early release he was deemed to be ill with “sexual obsession” and sent to an institution. The word “sadism” (originally sadisme in French) was coined to describe a person who feels pleasure only by inflicting pain on others.
There are so many lives of famous writers to digest in Literary Rogues, it becomes almost impossible to delineate all of the sordid but fascinating details. The lifestyles and perils of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, and Faulkner also receive due homage. A reader can quickly become captivated by these complex, real-life characters.
The various poets and writers chosen by Mr. Shaffer to highlight include both the extremely famous to the more unknown to the average person. Their fascinating lives and timeless work will likely continue to be discussed for years to come, making the Literary Rogues a relevant examination of the creative personality.
In addition, Andrew Shaffer offers a unique brand of humor celebrating these enigmatic writers who seemingly possessed no boundaries in their quest to live life to the fullest, perhaps forgetting that consequences inevitably follow each decision or choice.
New Book Review: The List: A Novel by Karin Tanabe
February 5, 2013
“When word gets around about The List, readers will clamor for their copy and devour this book.”
Juxtapose the madness of a frenetic newsroom, its various in sundry reporters and their desire for acclaim against the backdrop of political scandal, intrigue, and lurid sexual encounters, and you have The List. As a result of this combustible combination, readers get their money’s worth.
Not a moment is wasted in the plot of The List.
The roller coaster ride endemic in the world of sensation journalism is the backdrop for this novel. The characters mimic real life ambition with their risk-taking behavior to achieve power and unearthing skeletons their owners would rather remain permanently in the closet. But when the story adds the additional exploration of people in political power who have no behavioral boundaries, the plot quickly thickens.
The main character Adrienne Brown is a brilliant graduate in her late twenties from a prestigious college. She also has a plum job at Town and Country magazine that comes with myriad perks. She takes quite a risk by leaving her job to work for The Capitalist, an up and coming website and print publication in Washington, D.C. She is willing to accept a big pay cut to do so.
Adrienne is thrilled by the thought of working for a publication that may allow her to rise to the top in her field. After all, even the Washington Post writers are clamoring to work at The Capitalist. But to her dismay she is assigned to be the Style Reporter whose main task is tracking and interviewing celebrities.
Working unbearably long hours with little reward, Adrienne describes her feelings about her job by stating, “I convinced myself with a deep commitment to kissing political ass and a complete annihilation of my personal life, I could succeed at The List.”
The editors and other higher-ups pay no attention to the Style Reporters unless they make a mistake or fail to complete the ridiculously high number of stories per day that must be cranked out by each of them. By all accounts, The Capitalist newsroom is a pressure cooker with an extraordinary amount of discomfort in a high-stakes game of competition to be the first to break a hot story.
Adrienne is forced by her new lower salary to live in the barn of her parents’ country house outside of D.C., placing her far from the action going on in the city. Yet there is some comfort at times being with her family—except her sister who is clearly the star of the family. Not much love is lost between Adrienne and Payton, but ultimately they become allies in a caper that could make or break Adrienne’s career.
Through a complex set of circumstances, Adrienne pieces together a convoluted puzzle, capturing the attention of everyone at The Capitalist. Suffice to say that this huge story involves exposing a long-standing love affair between a powerful and married senator—and one of Adrienne’s most despised colleagues.
The excitement and intrigue runs high as Adrienne tracks, spies on, and breaks the big news that will give her the accolades she greatly desires. Although at times she questions the ethics of potentially ruining the careers of these two respected individuals, the story is something she is nonetheless driven to pursue.
Author Tanabe has written a contemporary, politically astute novel that is both wickedly humorous and enticing. She weaves references to current political figures such as Diane Feinstein of California, Hillary Clinton, and others within the story, adding realism to the plot centered on the higher echelons in D.C.
An interesting facet located at the end of the book is a section entitled “A Readers Club Guide” that explores topics and questions raised in the book. This section serves as an enhancement for those who desire to discuss the book in further detail with others.
The List has every element necessary in a great book: complex characters, an intriguing plot, and brilliant execution. When word gets around about The List, readers will clamor for their copy and devour this book.
A Fabulous New Book Release
Scent of Darkness: A Novel by Margot Berwin
February 2, 2013
“Scent of Darkness is thoroughly engrossing.”
“I held the vial in my hand and glazed at its ruby red color so full of the promise of change. With the stopper removed a mist rose up so fast it was as if it had been pressing up against the tiny glass waiting forever to be released. The mist had a strange scent, dual in nature. If I had to say, it was dark like death by fire and very light, like sunshine and freedom.”
Such profound thoughts are deeply explored by the protagonist Evangeline (aka Eva) in Scent of Darkness. She becomes an unwitting partner in a mysterious web of secrets with her revered Grandmother Louise.
Critical to the story is that Louise is “an aromata, a master in the creation of scent.” She reminds Eva, “Those who make perfume consider themselves magicians of the highest order. They believe the scents they make possess the power to turn hate into love and neutrality into desire.
While staying in the mysterious stone house with an iron gate and long hallways belonging to Louise, Eva begins sensing the energy of alchemy in this abode. Although Louise’s physical body begins to fail her and she passes away, the power and influence over Eva’s thoughts last forever.
After Louise’s death, Eva nervously releases the powerful scent in a hidden vial carefully concocted by Louise. Eva constantly hears her grandmother’s voice describing the power of a perfume to induce outcomes in our lives. Throughout her life, she often recalls her grandmother’s wisdom and lessons about both the dark and light nature of people and the synchronicity of events in the universe.
One of Louise’s strongest beliefs was that “change can be sudden or slow, like a dream” and “in the battle between holding on and letting go, change will win every time.” This lesson will be a difficult one for Eva to truly absorb and will cause her much anguish along her fascinating journey.
Eva is completely powerless over the all-consuming influence this odiferous potion has on anyone that comes in contact with her. Anyone in her vicinity is immediately attracted to her. And she has important choices to make as to what type of person she will, in turn, be attracted to.
There is one man who loves her deeply. He is also gentle and kind. The second man to appear in her life is greedy with the darkest of motives—yet he is also compelling.
Which path will Eva choose and with what outcome? Will the powerful scent be used for evil or good?
To answer this question would be to give away the twists and turns in Scent of Darkness—and that would certainly be unfair, for Scent of Darkness is thoroughly engrossing.
Book Review: Maya Angelou:
A Biography of an Award-Winning Poet and Civil Rights Activist by Donna Brown Agins
January 6, 2013
“. . . a life worth knowing and appreciating.”
There are few contemporary American writers and activists who have become literary icons. Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson) is that rare combination of talent and integrity and internationally beloved.
Marguerite was born in Missouri in 1928 during a time when African Americans were segregated and barred from having the same rights as white Americans. She was known as “Mya sister” by her older brother, which ultimately evolved into the name Maya.
Her parents divorced when she was three. Unable to care for their children, the parents placed Maya and her brother Bailey on a train to Stamps, Arkansas, to be raised by their grandmother. Maya’s childhood was very difficult living in the Deep South. She witnessed the torment of black men by the Ku Klux Klan, and the memories of these incidents along with the concomitant fear and anger she felt stayed with her forever
After years of not seeing her mother, Marguerite moved in with mom and her new boyfriend. When she was just eight years old the boyfriend molested her, causing her untold physical and emotional pain. Under the threat of her brother getting killed if she told anyone, she remained silent. Her pain was exhibited by an unwillingness to eat. Marguerite’s mother had an inkling of what had taken place and immediately took her to the hospital.
The police were called and she testified at the trial, but the pedophile received only one year or so for this brutal crime. While he was given some time to settle his affairs, he was murdered. Marguerite felt guilty for his death, and she feared “that if she spoke, her words would cause harm.” From that moment on she chose not to speak to anyone but her brother. And she did not speak for over five years.
Lo and behold, she met a very elegant, genteel, and well-read woman who became Marguerite’s mentor and friend. From literature to poetry with delightful conversations in between, Marguerite came alive again. This lovely woman read to her and encouraged reciting poetry aloud in order to cultivate her voice. And over the ensuing months she gained the confidence to write her own poems. This dramatically changed her outlook on life.
But the abruptness of her life continued. She was once again uprooted by her mom and new stepfather. Now in a strange city, she felt a bit lost and began losing interest in school. At the age of 17, she had a brief rendezvous with a boy in the neighborhood and found out she was pregnant. Her son Clyde was born and she wandered from job to job in order to support him.
But her life was just beginning to flourish. Starting as a cocktail waitress, she began performing on stage and was given voice and dance coaches. After she signed her first contract, it was then that she began calling herself Maya to add a dramatic flair to her stage presence. In the midst of her budding career, she began to compose music from her poems—a practice that became an integral part of her life to this day.
As part of her work she traveled to Europe and Africa. Along her journey she was given a part in the famous play “Porgy and Bess.” But she was pained by the fact that she couldn’t take her son Clyde with her. He suffered tremendously in his mother’s absence. She returned, but it was difficult for Clyde to flourish from then on.
Her acclaim and talent brought her accolades and attention from civil rights activists, and she was quite eager to join the cause of freedom for African Americans. She immersed herself in the movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During this tumultuous time, riots exploded in American cities.
In the midst of this chaos, Maya, her husband at the time, and Clyde were visiting Ghana and other African countries where “there was no discrimination based on skin color.” Involved with a community of like-minded people, Maya finally felt comfortable and accepted a job teaching drama and dance at the University of Ghana. But she was torn and felt the pull of the American civil rights movement.
Her desire to return and help came to fruition when she met and was offered a job working with Malcolm X. But Malcolm X was assassinated in short order, and soon Maya decided to curb her political activism.
She threw herself into various jobs, but her heart was reborn through poetry and writing plays. Her career was in full swing. She wrote and directed a series on television and became the first African American woman to write a successful Hollywood screenplay. But one of her greatest achievements came at the age of 42 when her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings became the first by an African American woman to make the nonfiction bestseller list.
Maya’s fame and popularity continued to rise. As a result of her magnificent work she was asked to read her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning”at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. How could it get any better than that? But her creative life continues as she helps others to find their voice as well.
Author Agins has done an excellent job in both chronicling and marking the milestones in the life of Maya Angelou. Though this biography is geared to a younger audience in order to educate them, it is absolutely worth reading for adults as well.
Few of us know the intricate pieces of a person’s life. But as we grow and evolve it becomes a wonderful journey to explore what transpires in a life so full of talent and grace. This book delves into a life worth knowing and appreciating.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
November 13, 2012
“. . . thoroughly engrossing.”
“My arms suddenly whipped straight out in front of me like a mummy, as my eyes rolled back and my body stiffened. I was gasping for air. This was the start of the dark period of my illness as I began an existence in purgatory between the real world and a cloudy fictitious realm made up of hallucinations and paranoia.”
In author Susannah Cahalan’s words above, she describes her nightmarish ordeal in both a visual and visceral manner that sets a dramatic stage for her descent into the abyss.
In this surreal true story, a brilliant account of Ms. Cahalan’s experience is painstakingly pieced together resulting in a powerful book entitled Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.
Her story is both shocking and memorable. Her recovery is nothing short of miraculous. She is quite aware that if it hadn’t been for a very special doctor and the support of her family and partner, she may have been left to languish in a mental hospital—or worse.
Out of the blue while working as a successful reporter at the New York Post, Ms. Cahalan was struck with a malady that no one could figure out. Along with delusions, crying uncontrollably, and a series of dramatic seizures, her entire body became her worst enemy.
The symptoms presented as those similar to autism and/or schizophrenia. Not quite aware of what was occurring, she eventually felt a loss of identity, shame, and a fear for her future—if she even had one.
Stumped by the unusual cluster of both physical and mental distress doctors remained in a quandary. Her blood panel—which tested for numerous possibilities including lupus, M.S., Lyme disease, tuberculosis etc.—was negative for all the known possibilities.
In the meantime her family and boyfriend were highly concerned that she would never again be herself. Her short-term memory was nonexistent, and her communication skills were minimal.
Finally, after painstakingly investigating the brain functions as well as examinations of various portions of the brain, a diagnosis of Anti-NMDA encephalitis was announced. But her family wondered what the heck that was and what it would mean for Susannah’s future.
In short, Anti-NMDA encephalitis was first diagnosed in 2007 and Ms. Cahalan was only “the 217th person worldwide to be diagnosed since that time.” It is a rare autoimmune disorder involving the receptors critical for memory, learning, and behavior that also causes inflammation of certain portions of the brain.
She was informed that “even with proper treatment, there is still about a 23% chance that someone with it will be permanently disabled or die.”
As Ms. Cahalan ventured on her journey with treatment, coupled with unwavering support from her family, she slowly became stronger and began to heal. The time soon arrived when she felt well enough to return to work—the single most important factor in regaining her self-esteem.
Her editor asked her to write a first-person article about her illness and she happily plunged into the assignment. As a result of her work she began to seek out and network with people across the country that had the illness or were family members seeking hope for their loved ones.
As she connected with others, she became acutely aware that she was helping both herself and them so that no one had to go through the ordeal alone.
Piecing together her memories of that time was difficult at best but with help from others who were gathered around her, author Cahalan diligently and tirelessly developed and wrote Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.
Readers will be mesmerized by this intriguing memoir. The book delineates both the limitations and the miraculous wonders of medical science. By the end of her treatment, Ms. Cahalan’s medical bills were approximately $1million. She was extremely fortunate to have had both great medical coverage and a brilliant doctor.
While reading Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, one may soon become aware of the benefits of having some knowledge of medical terminology or at least a minimal awareness of the how the brain functions. Nevertheless, a lack of understanding of the basics does not detract from the power and impact of the underlying story, which is thoroughly engrossing.
Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of by Harold Schechter
August 7, 2012
“. . . [a] compelling masterpiece . . .”
Almost everyone has heard the names of world renowned murderers such as Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, and David Berkowitz aka the“Son of Sam.” Many are familiar with their horrific crimes.
But few have heard of killers just as brutal: those considered the most evil in their day, whose names and crimes have evaporated over time.
In his skillful manner, Mr. Schechter relays what he calls “prime examples of the curious workings of infamy—the mysterious forces that bestow near-mythical status on some notorious killers while consigning others to near-total oblivion.”
He explores in great detail the mythology and hype surrounding notorious killers. His assumptions are proven accurate with the thorough explanations of the cultural trends surrounding each incident.
For example when sensational coverage of a crime in the 1920s was maligned, a Daily News publisher in defense of his paper stated, “Murder sells because we are all interested in murder.”
Psycho USA is a well-organized and researched chronicle of historically significant crimes and killers in the U.S. Each true story feels like a reenactment in which the reader goes inside the killer’s mind, his/her background, and motives—as well as those of the victims. Author Schechter is adept at building the details of each crime in both a succinct and yet gripping manner.
He brilliantly interweaves the history of killers and their crimes to the significant role they played in the development of our contemporary vernacular. Terms such as “serial killers” and “murderabelia” (collection of souvenirs and relics of crimes such as a portion of the hangman’s noose) did not always exist.
For example, in the 19th century what we now refer to as serial killers were known as “moral imbeciles” to describe those who used their intelligence to manipulate others and commit unfathomable horrors.
Each chapter is subdivided according to the era in which the crimes were committed. Each crime reflects the culture, morality, and customs during that particular era.
For example, one chapter is entitled “Post Civil War Monsters” (murders committed between 1866–1880). Others are delineated as “Demons of the Depression” or “Turn of the Century Psychos” of the time period 1892–1896. There are, of course, vivid examples of killers for almost every range of time in between.
According to the author, the various methodologies used to commit murder differed over time as well. There were a plethora of women who used arsenic to poison their victims in the 19th century. Some used the poison to rid themselves of abusive husbands; others who were financially strapped killed family members who were insured in order to rise above poverty.
At that time, arsenic was as easy to procure as aspirin is now. Used originally as a pesticide, it could be purchased by anyone from a grocer or a druggist by explaining it was being used to kill rats. These poisonings were so common this era was referred to as “The Age of Arsenic.”
Before the invention of “tabloid journalism” major murders were relayed to the public via “murder ballads:” poems and songs composed by those whose motives were simply to make a profit.
One such ditty was written about Lydia Sherman aka “The Poison Fiend” who in the 1870s killed eight people including two of her children, her first and second husband, as well as the children of husband #2. The first stanza of the ballad reads:
“Lydia Sherman is plagued with rats.
Lydia has no faith in cats.
So Lydia buys some arsenic,
And then her husband gets sick,
And then her husband he does die.
And Lydia’s neighbors wonder why.”
This is but a short sample of the hype surrounding infamous murderers du jour. There were seemingly no boundaries people used to capitalize on the public’s fascination with murder. The famed P. T. Barnum (founder of the Ringling Bros.’ Barnum & Bailey Circus), displayed a wax figure in his American Museum (conveniently located near the courtroom) of a killer named Polly Bodine. The display was widely advertised via flyers, resulting in hordes of visitors.
The journalistic sensationalism coupled with ballads, poems, etc. created a tremendous circus-like atmosphere surrounding these infamous killers. Trials took place in overcrowded courtrooms while public executions were considered gala events drawing thousands of people.
Well-respected authors also became part of the cultural fascination with murder through their various stories. For example, the classic story “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe portrays the type of killer who tortures, kills, and dismembers his intended target.
Herman Melville wrote many stories about people he deemed the “unpardonable sinner” referring to bright men who lack a conscience and exploit the vulnerabilities of others. One of the most famous books, Psycho, penned by Robert Bloch, became the plot for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie of the same name debuting in 1960.
The killers described in Psycho USA are each unique in their professions, motives, and types of victim chosen. A few were even doctors during the day and killers at night, the ultimate Dr Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde types who wear a mask of respectable normalcy by day.
Robert Irwin aka, “The Mad Sculptor” whose only toy as a child was a bar of soap found that sparked his interest in sculpting. His mother bathed in his presence while espousing the importance of scripture.
Shockingly, in 1939 he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital’s emergency room for trying to amputate his own penis. Though consistently unstable, he studied with a master sculptor but never gained career success. He became infamous after a sculpted bar of soap was discovered at a horrendous scene of murder and mayhem. He became the most notorious killer in New York circa 1937.
Psycho USA is definitely a book crime aficionados will want among their collection of true crime books. Readers will be enthralled with the history and party atmosphere surrounding our nation’s killers. Considering fingerprint and DNA analysis had not yet been invented, it is quite stunning that almost all of the killers mentioned in Psycho USA were ultimately caught, tried, and executed.
The final chapter of the book contains a list of the author’s favorite quotes related to the criminal mind. Though some of the quotes are compelling, this may appear to some readers constituting an abrupt ending. One might expect a summary of sorts or a set of conclusions in this last chapter. The reader is left with a feeling of an incomplete finale in an otherwise compelling masterpiece.
A fascinating new release called, "Up Jumps The Devil" by Michael Poore.
July 24, 2012
“. . . an elegiac masterpiece, equally dramatic as it is eloquent.”
Throughout history the mere mention of the names Lucifer, the Devil, the Fallen Angel, or Satan conjures up a frightening and haunting visual of a beast with horns whose dominant personality traits include manipulativeness, hatred, and covetousness.
Though some of these traits are portrayed in Up Jumps the Devil, John Scratch (aka, the Devil) is a cornucopia of complex identities and deep emotions.
Michael Poore weaves a provocative tale that captivates the reader from its inception. One of the writing techniques the author so skillfully uses to capture readers is his ability to create dynamic flashbacks throughout this novel containing plenty of historical grounding.
During major cataclysmic events in the world, John Scratch actively participates in the outcomes of wars, assassinations, and yes, even creates fame for those mortals craving success and riches. The Devil is, after all, the ultimate alchemist. In return for the achievement of their earthly desires, John Scratch becomes the proprietor of each person’s soul.
As he explains the methodology of his bargain with mortals, he states, “I’m like the landlord of your soul from now on. It belongs to me and it does what I want it to do. I’ll change you maybe a little, maybe a lot. Everyone’s different. But don’t be surprised if you feel a little crazy from now on. More impulsive, more hungry—”
John Scratch as the devil is beguiling, witty, and utterly self-centered. His character is charmingly reminiscent of Al Pacino’s portrayal of Satan in the film The Devil’s Advocate.
But Scratch has an interesting twist to his personality that is atypical of what most people perceive as that of the all-powerful Lucifer: He longs for the end of warfare and laments about the way our planet has (d)evolved. And he has powerful and unique insights into human behavior.
The reader is so drawn into this literally magical story as well as the main character’s perspective after having lived for centuries. We begin to see how likeable the devil can be at times: He feels pain and even grief. The main source of his grief is that he is hopelessly in love with another angel named Arden and tries to convince her to stay on earth; yet she is only able to remain with him for short periods of time, and he is helpless in his endless desire for her.
Scratch cruises around in John F. Kennedy’s black limo with his wicked sense of humor, trying to “help” people achieve their dreams as part of the ultimate Faustian bargain. In the midst of all this chaos going on in present times, he is the main star in a TV reality show; however, Scratch is fond of recounting his historical significance. He claims to have witnessed the fall of Rome, the erection of the great pyramids in Egypt, and to have positively influenced Ben Franklin as well as giving courage to Nat Turner in the fight for civil rights.
Up Jumps the Devil is an elegiac masterpiece, equally dramatic as it is eloquent. It is a Faustian tale well worth exploring. Unfortunately the magnificent tension built throughout the book stops short of a brilliant ending. A reader may feel a bit disappointed that the finale does not reach the pinnacle this story truly deserves.
Brooklyn Zoo: The Education of a Psychotherapist by Darcy Lockman
July 17, 2012
“Brooklyn Zoo would be interesting to many clinicians, especially those first starting their careers; however, it may not be the most inspiring book in the memoir genre for the average reader.”
On rounds one day at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, Dr. Singer asked, “Do you know this old psychiatry joke?”
It goes as follows: A psychiatrist is called in to see a patient. He gets there and the patient is dead. The psychiatrist goes to the physician and says, “The patient is dead.” The doctor looks horrified and replies, “What did you say to him?’’
Dr. Singer is but one of the players in the ongoing saga of what transpires within the walls of Kings County Hospital located in a poverty ridden area of New York. The notorious G Building that houses the behavioral department is drastically lacking in resources, and competent and dedicated clinicians, and is replete with burned-out staff.
Shocking statements from physicians and psychiatrists include insensitive and irrational remarks to a psychotic patient such as “You’re not making any sense.” One might be horrified to hear comments like these, hoping against hope that they are rare in a mental hospital. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
After earning her graduate degree in psychology, Dr. Lockman chose to serve her internship at Kings County; her rotations included some of the most intense wards at Kings County as well as a court clinic assessing competency cases. Her interactions with clinical supervisors are a lesson in both patience and handling criticism. There existed very little patience and a barrage of criticism during Lockman’s various rotations.
It’s natural to assume that clinicians would be dealing with difficult patients, a drab environment, and a bureaucratic system within the mental health system. But Kings County had other systemic issues among the staff that according to Dr. Lockman were close to being intolerable.
There exists a hierarchy within the mental health field whereby psychiatrists are assumed to be the most highly credentialed in the field and as such, they assume that psychologists and social workers are not as qualified to treat patients. The deference they expected at Kings County was at the very least discounting to the other clinicians.
Further, their belief in the medical model, i.e. dispensing medication, as the best solution seemed antithetical to the “talk therapy” and communication skills that interns were ready and able to provide to the patients. Thus, not only were the interns shortchanged in the area of supervision but their contributions were limited in scope as well.
In some ways, Brooklyn Zoo is quite a frustrating experience. A reader could get very depressed absorbing the futility surrounding Dr. Lockman’s experience as an intern. After all isn’t the experience as an intern ideally supposed to be an environment where one both learns and contributes—a reflection of future aims and aspirations?
In addition, Brooklyn Zoo reads somewhat like a daily journal of repetitive events, which periodically makes it difficult to slog through. As a memoir, Brooklyn Zoo is an accurate portrayal of what occurs behind closed doors in a mental hospital with patients that are extremely challenging to help. And the behavior of staff toward one another (and sometimes staff behavior toward patients) makes this difficult working environment that much more painful to absorb.
Brooklyn Zoo would be interesting to many clinicians, especially those first starting their careers; however, it may not be the most inspiring book in the memoir genre for the average reader.
Book Review: Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption by Nancy Mullane
June 26, 2012
“Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption is an important book for all of us—if only we could allow the mythology of prisoners to be dispelled.”
“I am driving past what remains a secret, isolated, walled-off community (aka San Quentin Prison) of more than 5,000 people in the middle of one of the most liberally minded, eco-friendly, justice oriented counties in the U.S.”
Immediately after a more detailed description of the view of this notorious California prison from the perspective of the multimillion-dollar homes above and the freeways in close proximity, author Nancy Mullane piques the reader’s interest by posing a myriad of provocative questions.
“Do they wonder who is in there? What is it like? Is prison effective? Is locking them up and throwing away the key making people feel safe and is this an effective answer to crime and punishment? Or is it a punishment born of social ignorance?”
As a journalist, author Mullane examines these questions and more after accepting an assignment to research the high costs of incarcerating what are known as “lifers.”
Her interviews with these men and their loved ones spans over four years. She has unfettered access to them both within the prison system as well as what transpires in their lives after release.
Of the five men whose lives are featured in Life After Murder, each has served at least 20 years in this maximum security prison housing those who have committed the ultimate crime—murder.
All are very young when they commit this one foolish and selfish act. Each endures not only the hardship of prison life and families torn apart (both theirs and the victims) but they have also done their utmost to turn their lives around.
Even after they are deemed “suitable” for parole, they are often denied by the governor and serve many more years. Ms. Mullane cites some revealing history about the numbers of “lifers” that do receive parole.
In the 1980s politicians responded to a war on rising crime with a drastic reduction in granting paroles. After Proposition 89 was voted into law in California, new powers were granted to governors of various states to deny parole that used to be reserved for the Board of Parole Hearings. As this new induction of political power arose, Governor Deukmejian for example, allowed parole for a mere 5% of the lifers that had been deemed suitable for parole.
In the 1990s even though the homicide rate declined, only about 1% were released. Additionally, men were more apt to die in prison than having a chance to be released.
These statistics became a catastrophic financial burden on the system and people began to question the drastic policy of denying almost all paroles.
Since that time, however, the state supreme court rescinded the sole power of the governors to deny releases, placing the power back in the hands of the Parole Board. The recidivism rates declined so drastically that of the”1,000 prisoners paroled in California in the last twenty years who had served a life sentence for murder, not one has committed murder again.”
In the process of her proximity to the lifers, Ms. Mullane began to view them as men who had suffered greatly for committing a horrifying act in a tragic moment for all concerned.
She witnessed their remorse and dedication to redirecting their lives, helping other families and members of the brotherhood of convicts.
The support for one another was amazing to witness and their remorse palpable.
After release, the men struggled to maintain their dignity while being rejected from jobs and apartments. Many developed stable relationships but all were shocked about how the world had changed. Cell phones and many other forms of technology were all new and the simple act of ordering off a menu gave them pause.
Some readers may have a difficult time absorbing Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption depending on their beliefs about parole for men who have committed murder.
Willingness to set aside fixed opinions about the stereotypical persona of an inmate may be next to impossible for some.
In addition, the families of victims may be quite pained by the portrayal of lifers in this empathic manner.
Life After Murder: Five Men in Search of Redemption is an important book for all of us—if only we could allow the mythology of prisoners to be dispelled.
What Comes Next by John Katzenbach
June 5, 2012
“Reading What Comes Next is an experience akin to riding the scariest roller coaster ride: You gulp with the rush of both trepidation and excitement—and you sigh with relief when it’s over.”
“Inside the black hood that covered her head, Jennifer’s entire world had narrowed to just what she could hear, what she could smell, and what she could taste and each of these senses was limited—by the pounding of her heart, the throbbing headache that lingered behind her temples, the claustrophobic darkness that enveloped her.”
And soon after this portion of the author’s calm narration of the scene, Jennifer hears one of her captors, Linda, state firmly, “From this moment you belong to us.”
The petrified and shivering young Jennifer swept up in a vortex of horror, struggles with her current reality in a dungeon-like room. She is stripped unexpectedly from the outer world and any sense of safety from her previous life.
Chained by the neck to an old metal framed bed with both hands and feet cuffed, clad only her in panties, the reader quickly begins to question why this is happening and more importantly—what will come next.
As the title of this thriller What Comes Next implies, the dehumanization and depersonalization that follows, is unfathomable as each new revelation in quickly unfolding plot is unraveled. It soon becomes known that Jennifer is kidnapped off her street to be the star of a live feed webcast that is being televised worldwide. The audience ranges from college students, businessmen, couples in the creative arts and everything in between.
The reader is privy to a lavish party in a penthouse apartment in Moscow where guests calmly drink vodka and eat caviar as the show is about to start on a large screen television. The eager worldwide audience tunes in to the show with wild anticipation to observe every movement and sound of the show. Viewer’s credit cards are approved by the thousands on the website known as whatcomesnext.com. After approval of a hefty fee, they receive immediate access to what is called “Series Number 4.”
Each subscriber joins the others cloistered in their comfortable abodes as “vibrantly red italicized writing appears, slicing across the frame like a knife carrying the words: What Comes Next.” Along with the live feed comes full access to an interactive board where viewers can post suggestions and comments.
They openly express impatience with what they perceive as a slow scene or dispense rave reviews when the show crosses forbidden boundaries. Some vocal fans on the interactive board vividly describe their morbid pleasure with phrases such as “Kill her! Kill her!” as this real life drama builds in intensity to the anticipated climax of the macabre—torture and death.
The filmmakers and resident torturers Linda and Michael are ensconced in a farmhouse rented with cash as full payment. As they discuss and plan each new possible scenario in the series, the reader hears both their dialogue as a couple and details of each ones salacious proclivities throughout the entire broadcast.
Michael frequently adjusts the camera angles with precision and detail to achieve the intimate close-up for their fans. His obsession with perfection in what he perceives to be film making at its best, is reminiscent of episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in which Hitchcock serves as both the director and calmly detached moderator of a nightmare in progress.
As Linda and Michael banter about the series conclusion and plan for “Series Number Five” they are as giddy as two children playing noisily in the park. The more terrified their prisoner becomes, the more passion is ignited between the lovers as they purr with delight while satisfying their insatiable sexual desires.
Author Katzenbach’s portrayal of these main characters mimic real people who would be diagnosed as “sexual sadists” by top-notch criminal profilers. The motivation of these characters adeptly parallel the rare couple that works as a team in a macabre partnership of inflicting pain on others to achieve the heights of passion between them. More often, though, sexual sadists operate alone in their deviant endeavors.
Younger readers of What Comes Next might be reminded of the film Hostel, which is actually alluded to in the book. Aficionados of the horror film subgenre (now referred to as “splatter films” that depict graphic violence and torture with sexuality) will be familiar with the movie’s plot. In the film as in the book, wealthy clients pay a high fee to torture and kill unsuspecting women who have been abducted for this purpose. The millions grossed for Hostel and its sequel were off the charts. If What Comes Next finds its unique set of fans, similar attention might be paid to it.
To fully analyze What Comes Next, one must also mention the intricacy between the couple and the other equally important characters. And as each character is revealed, the plot thickens with subplots that surround the main story and are brilliantly tied in ever so slowly. These subplots both build tension and heighten the mystery of the book.
Author Katzenbach devotes each chapter to another character and then brilliantly weaves them delicately into the main plot in such a way that he creates a thrilling story that is edgy, unpredictable, and mesmerizing.
There are several fascinating characters that are critical to the story. The main one is a retired Psychology Professor named Adrian who spent most of his academic career studying the intricacies of fear. He has been diagnosed with a form of dementia whose symptoms include a rapid decline in cognitive functioning. And he is the only living witness to Jennifer’s abduction. He becomes convinced that he is the one person who can rescue her from a brutal fate.
To cheer him on, providing clarity and direction, are the ghosts of Adrian’s deceased wife, son, and brother. As he rapidly declines, they speak aloud to encourage him in his pursuit to save Jennifer as well as provide helpful clues.
In addition is Terri the detective who had met Jennifer on several previous occasions when running away from home seemed the best alternative for the young teen at the time. At first Terri is reluctant to believe that there is a nefarious plot going on but ultimately Adrian with his logic and conviction still intact, convinces her of the kidnapping. She becomes personally involved in the case as she contemplates how she would feel if her kids were in mortal danger.
Unfortunately, while in pursuit of the perpetrators, Terri pays dearly.
What Comes Next is replete with paradoxes. The main one is that as explicitly terrifying the story is, the more you want to continue reading. You may feel like covering your eyes as you might in a gory film, but you continue to watch and hold your breath to bear witness to the horrifying conclusion.
“Reading What Comes Next is an experience akin to riding the scariest roller coaster ride: You gulp with the rush of both trepidation and excitement—and you sigh with relief when it’s over.
“Reading What Comes Next is an experience akin to riding the scariest roller coaster ride: You gulp with the rush of both trepidation and excitement—and you sigh with relief when it’s over.
Fierce Joy: A Memoir by Ellen Schecter
June 1, 2012
“Ellen Schecter creates a visual symphony with her extraordinary command of the unique language of the soul. . . . Fierce Joy is a powerful story full of hope, redemption, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.”
Most of us don’t give much thought to the physical and emotional ramifications of being diagnosed with a life threatening illness, especially in the prime of life.
In this poignant and powerful memoir, author Ellen Schecter shares her very personal story of a transformational journey that begins with two dreaded diagnoses: Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE, an autoimmune disease otherwise known as “the wolf” coined from the distinctive rash around the eyes that resemble the markings on a wolf) coupled with Peripheral Neuropathy (PN). PN damages the protective sheath surrounding the nerves causing the loss of mobility.
In that all-consuming moment when the doctor explains the depth of this earth shattering news, Ms. Schecter realizes her life and family will never be the same.
Either of these catastrophic illnesses can be completely overwhelming but in juxtaposition, the prognosis is daunting. During her research, Ms. Schecter learns that “the average life expectancy for people with lupus is nine years after diagnosis.” In the early phases of facing the truth, she states, “My disease and I are locked in a silent, relentless struggle.”
In the midst of IV steroids, loss of mobility, chemo, and the concomitant side effects, Ms. Schechter tries to keep her frantic feelings under wraps.
Naturally, she experiences the entire grief process, particularly the eventual loss of her high-powered career writing children’s books and serving as a greatly respected Director of Publications and Media at a major company.
Eventually the disease leads to a downward physical spiral progressing from the use of a cane to the necessity of braces and crutches.
In the midst of these traumatic events, Ms. Schecter vividly describes her journey from being a person with a disability to one that becomes empowered to focus on all of her abilities.
With the support of attentive physicians and a loving family she rises above the pain and begins to flourish in the idea of new possibilities, opening doors whenever the opportunities arise.
Fierce Joy is no ordinary memoir: neither a simple journal nor a chronicle of events. Nor is it a tale of self-pity or bitterness. More importantly, Ms. Schecter strikes a wondrous new chord within her heart and soul that allows the reader to bathe in her new insights about healing and the power of the life force within us.
The reader may be immediately awed by her search for meaning within the context of spirituality as well a loving environment she finds with new friends from a support group and her foray into the exploration of her faith.
Ellen Schecter creates a visual symphony with her extraordinary command of the unique language of the soul. She paints a poetic visual and auditory masterpiece that blends color with sounds on canvas. She transforms sights we take for granted into phrases such as “indigo skies and the magenta twilight” as if she is viewing them for the first time. The reader is transfixed by her hypnotic writing style with its melodic tempo and soulful metaphors.
Some readers may have emotional difficulties with portions of Fierce Joy. Bearing witness to moments of Ms. Schecter’s excruciating physical pain and the debilitating effects of her illnesses is not easy; however, in the final analysis, Fierce Joy is a powerful story full of hope, redemption, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
The Serial Killer Whisper: How One Man’s Tragedy Helped Unlock the Deadliest Secrets of the World’s Most Terrifying Killers by Pete Earley
Therapist as Life Coach: An Introduction for Counselors and Other Helping Professionals by Patrick Williams and Deborah Davis