Book Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Weight of BloodThe Weight of Blood
Laura McHugh
Spiegel & Grau, March 2014
ISBN 978-0-8129-9520-6
Hardcover

Seventeen-year-old Lucy Dane lives in the tiny rural town of Henbane, in the Ozark Mountains. Lucy is an appealing narrator: smart, practical, empathetic, pretty, and resourceful, she is not judgmental and tends to take the side of the underdog. Lucy seems to have a lot going for her, as she looks forward to finishing up high school. Her father, Carl, is protective and loving, a hard worker who supports the goal of getting Lucy away to college. Her uncle, Crete, owns the restaurant and store in town, as well as much of the surrounding land, and his prosperity makes him an important figure in Henbane. Birdie, the savvy old woman who is Carl and Lucy’s closest neighbour, is like a grandmother to Lucy, teaching her important skills about cooking and gardening. All of these relatives and friends have done their best to support Lucy through a significant loss in her life:  Lucy’s mother, Lila, died when Lucy was just a year old, under mysterious circumstances. Lila’s body has never been found, and there are rumours that she committed suicide in one of the old mineshafts in the area.

Although Lila’s death has left a permanent mark on Lucy, and grief and loss are always with her, she still manages to be a typical teenager in many ways.  She enjoys giggling with her best friend, Bess, about Daniel, a boy Lucy likes who is also smart and college-bound. Even in the Ozark Mountains, Lucy has a cell phone, and she and Bess get up to no good at parties held by the riverbank.

Henbane may be beautiful in many ways, but it is seedy and dark in others. Drug dealing is prevalent, and just a few months before the story begins, the town has been shocked by the murder of a mentally challenged girl named Cherie, who had been particularly close to Lucy. It is Cherie’s brutal death that really galvanizes Lucy into action and forces her to begin looking more closely at the people around her, as she tries to discover who killed Cherie. Are the people Lucy has grown up with who she really thought they were? She begins to pay keener attention to the rumours about other girls who have gone missing, and of course she can’t help but connect this with Lila, her own young mother who disappeared so many years ago.

The Weight of Blood has a strong sense of immediacy. The novel begins with first-person alternating narratives between Lucy and Lila. While Lucy relates what is happening in the present, the reader is shown, in Lila’s words, what has happened in the past, so that the stories of mother and daughter unfold together. Then, as the book goes on, more characters begin to pick up the threads, and chapters are written from Carl’s point of view, from Crete’s, from Birdie’s, and from others who know Lucy and who had known Lila.

Unfortunately for Lucy, it begins to seem more and more obvious that it may be someone very close to Lucy who is responsible for the horrible crimes she learns about. Henbane seems to become creepier and more sordid, and Lucy faces danger both for herself and for those around her.

The Weight of Blood is a perfectly titled novel. While the plot revolves around Lucy gradually solving the questions she has about Cherie’s death and Lila’s disappearance, the book is also very much about what Lucy will do with this information once she has uncovered it. The Dane family has lived in the Ozark Mountains for generations; Lucy can’t divide herself from her own ancestors, no matter what they might have done. Lila was an outsider, so Lucy struggles with her sense of herself as someone who is, like her mother, quite different from many of the people around her. At the same time, Lucy is entrenched in the town’s ways, as her Dane grandparents were before her. McHugh has done a very successful job of writing a creepy, oppressive-feeling thriller, while at the same time exploring how someone can accept themselves when they discover harsh truths about the people they love the best.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, July 2016.

A Handful of Teeny Reviews: The Enchanted Truth by Kym Petrie, Hunt for the Chupacabra by Michael Hebler, A Gnarly Christmas by Lauren Carr, Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle, and Bruno and the Carol Singers by Martin Walker

The Enchanted TruthThe Enchanted Truth
A Modern-Day Fairy Tale for Grown-Up Girls

Kym Petrie
Greenleaf Book Group, September 2012
ISBN 978-1-60832-368-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In this humorous and insightful tale, a modern day princess finds herself single and asking for magical intervention to change her sorry love life. Rather than casting a spell to bring Prince Charming to her rescue, a savvy fairy godmother gives the tenderhearted damsel an unexpected gift. By entrusting her true thoughts and desires to an unlikely confidant, the young royal soon discovers that the person who could make her life everything she dreamed it would be has been with her all along.

As author Kym Petrie herself realized, every woman needs a froggy friend and a secret journal—and enough adventures with the girls to keep her heart pounding and her mind racing. Life is meant to be about happy beginnings . . . you can never have enough of them.

In a departure from the usual fairy tale where Prince Charming sweeps the princess off her feet, the author has crafted a sort of allegory meant for the modern girl who’s looking for her true love. The princess of this tale learns, with a little help from a fairy godmother and a rubber frog, that finding the handsome prince is not enough.

The tale is brief but the message comes through clearly—today’s women need to learn to recognize their own worth if they want men to value them and they also need to value those men who are more than just a pretty face or a fat wallet. Many parents of teenaged girls might want to consider dropping this endearing little book in their daughters’ Christmas stockings.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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Hunt for the ChupacabraHunt for the Chupacabra
Michael Hebler
Michael Hebler, June 2011
ISBN 978-1-4581321-5-4
Ebook

From the author—

A retired Confederate tracker persues the elusive and legendary creature for some well-deserved revenge. “Hunt for the Chupacabra” is a short story that precludes Book One of the Chupacabra Series, “Night of the Chupacabra”.

Is it real or just a legend, a figment of some very wild imaginations? No one can say for sure but Calvin Hawte is on a mission to avenge the death of his young son and will track the killer to the ends of the earth if need be. He might be surprised at what he will find out there in the desert.

This is a very short story but well-written and, well, creepy as a good horror story should be. It’s a good lead-in to Night of the Chupacabra, first in Michael Hebler‘s new series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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A Gnarly ChristmasA Gnarly Christmas
Lauren Carr
Acorn Book Services, November 2012
Ebook

From the author—

Here’s a special holiday treat for mystery lovers who have fallen in love with Gnarly, Mac Faraday’s German Shepherd sidekick, from Lauren Carr‘s Deep Creek Lake Mysteries.

It is Christmas day and Gnarly has been up to his old tricks again. Now he’s in the dog house–or rather the boathouse–after stealing the Christmas feast! Moments after Archie and Mac leave Spencer Manor, Gnarly hears a call for help from Rocky, the Maltese down the street. Four assassins for hire have invaded the home of Rocky’s elderly owners. While the home invaders wait for instructions from a mysterious caller, Gnarly must plot to stop them. Can Gnarly save Christmas with only the help of an 8-pound Maltese dressed in an elf suit?

Need a good laugh? You won’t go wrong with this delightful story of a dog who gets into trouble for swiping the Christmas turkey but who doesn’t forget that he’s a protector. Gnarly teams up with a tiny floofy dog named Rocky to foil the plans of a bunch of bad guys bent on mayhem and how the two get the best of the murderous robbers is a hoot. Gnarly even manages to let Rocky take the credit for saving the day but there’s still a mystery—why has Gnarly been stealing food lately?

Sit down with Gnarly and Rocky for a few minutes of pure fun—and don’t forget that fat squirrel named Otis!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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Lucretia and the KroonsLucretia and the Kroons
Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau/Random House, July 2012
ISBN 978-0-8129-8437-8
Ebook

From the publisher—

Lucretia’s best friend and upstairs neighbor Sunny—a sweet pitbull of a kid, even as she struggles with a mysterious illness—has gone missing. The only way to get her back is for Lucretia to climb the rickety fire escape of their Queens tenement and crawl through the window of apartment 6D, portal to a vast shadowland of missing kids ruled by a nightmarish family of mutants whose designs on the children are unknown. Her search for Sunny takes Lucretia through a dark fantasyland where she finds lush forests growing from concrete, pigeon-winged rodents, and haunted playgrounds. Her quest ultimately forces her to confront the most frightening specter of all: losing, forever, the thing you love the most.

Central to this novella is a 12-year-old girl named Lucretia but this is no story for children. In a flight of fancy, LaValle explores how a child might cope with the death of a friend, a best friend, and these two children both capture the reader’s heart. Not all of us suffer this kind of loss at such a young age and I have to wonder if, perhaps, the author did.

How much Loochie loves Sunny is evident and endearing and the scenes of what’s going on with Sunny are heartbreaking, especially because they let us know what is most probably going to happen. Even knowing that, I couldn’t help admiring Loochie’s absolute belief that she could save her friend when Sunny goes missing. Despite the fearsome Kroons and winged rats and all sorts of fantastical frights, Loochie presses on and her bravery and steadfast loyalty are a lesson to anyone who has to face such a terrible loss.

Lucretia and the Kroons is my first taste of Victor LaValle‘s work and I’ll be looking for more.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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Bruno and the Carol SingersBruno and the Carol Singers
Martin Walker
Alfred A. Knopf, December 2012
ISBN 978-0-385-35031-0
Ebook

From the publisher—

St. Denis is experiencing its coldest winter in years—bringing the promise of snow and shared chocolats chauds in the village’s cafés—and Bruno is occupied with his Christmastime duties. From organizing carolers to playing Father Christmas for the local schoolchildren, Bruno has his hands full . . . at least until some funds raised for charity go missing. Then it’s up to Bruno to save the day (and perhaps manage a Christmas miracle) in this charming holiday installment of Walker’s best-selling series.

In this appealing short story, Christmas has come to St. Denis and Bruno is right in the middle of the festivities when he gets a call about a paroled convict who has disappeared from the town where he was living while he completed the last months of his sentence.  His ex-wife and son now live in St. Denis, hence the call to Bruno. Is this man bent on harming his family or will Bruno be able to pull off a Christmas miracle?

Fans of Bruno will feel right at home with this French municipal policeman and his friends and will wish they could sit down to Christmas Eve dinner with Bruno, Pamela and the others.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

Book Reviews: Save Me by Lisa Scottoline, Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon, Red on Red by Edward Conlon, The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, and Favorite Sons by Robin Yocum

Save Me
Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin’s Press, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-38078-X
Hardcover

Bullying, and shining a spotlight thereon, is heralded as the reason this novel was written, but it plays such a minor role in the story that one wonders why it is even raised, except perhaps for the widespread publicity attendant to the subject.  It does occupy, along with much extraneous and superfluous background, about the first half of the book.  It is not until this reader got past that point that a modicum of interest arose.

The plot is a mishmash of twisted lines.  It begins with a fire in a newly opened elementary school, in which three persons are killed and two young children injured, one of whom is the young victim of the bullying, the eight-year-old daughter of Rose McKenna.  Rose, serving as a lunch mom, saves two girls (one of them the bully), ushering them toward an exit, and returns through the fire to save her daughter, who is locked in the bathroom, emerging initially as a “hero,” but then criticized when it is learned that the bully was injured in the fire (how?  It seems she returned to get something she had left behind) and Rose is accused of ignoring her in favor of her own daughter.

Faced with civil and criminal charges, Rose undertakes to discover the reason for the fire (officially attributed to accidental causes) when she suspects foul play.  This leads to further action, somewhat beyond belief.  The novel is carefully constructed and well-written, but somehow doesn’t fulfill its purpose, since, essentially, it is a murder mystery, but so overloaded with superfluous subplot that it becomes burdensome to read.  The author usually writes legal thrillers which I have found to be so much better, and I for one hope she returns to that milieu.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Drawing Conclusions
Donna Leon
Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1979-7
Hardcover

Unlike previous novels in the series, this mystery lacks many instances of the refined palate enjoyed by Commissario Guido Brunetti’s life.  There is some, but not much, of his charming home life.  Instead in this, the 20th entry in the series, we have a deep study of the man and his ethics drawn into a mystery he informally investigates.

It all begins when a retired school teacher is found dead of an apparent heart attack by a neighbor who calls the police, and Brunetti and his assistant respond.  The medical examiner rules it a natural death, but the detective is disturbed by bruises on the woman’s body, so he continues unofficially to look into the circumstances of the death.  This leads to a philosophical judgment on his part, quite unlike the stickler for the law that he usually is.

Each book in the series is an enjoyable read, and this one certainly is no exception.  The descriptions of Venice, its buildings and churches, continue to warm the heart of one who fell in love with the city years ago (and is about to renew the friendship in September). Let’s hope we can continue to recommend the series well into the future.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Red on Red
Edward Conlon
Spiegel & Grau, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-385-51917-5
Hardcover

Having first turned his hand to a memoir of life in the NYPD, Blue Blood, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-fiction, the author, a working cop and detective, has now turned his efforts to fiction.  In this novel, it seems there is plenty of real life fact to go along with the fabricated story about two NYPD detectives.

Nick Meehan transfers into an upper Manhattan precinct from a miserable post in the Bronx under the auspices of Internal Affairs, ostensibly to get the goods on another detective, Esposito, as being “bent.”  Unexpectedly, the two are partnered and develop a close relationship, and Nick is torn by his own self-doubts and unstable personal life.  It soon appears that “Espo” is sort of a genius, conjuring up various scenarios to close cases as well as to help Nick’s love life.

The novel is full of detail on how a detective squad works, solving crimes and interacting with each other, written, obviously, by one who knows whereof he writes.  It is amusing at time, sad at others, but throughout, rings with authenticity and emotion, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2011.

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The Redbreast
Jo Nesbo
Harper, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-206842-2
Mass Market Paperback

During World War II, Norway was occupied by the Nazi army, and the head of the government lent his name to the English language synonymous with traitor—Quisling.  About 400 Norwegian youths volunteered to fight with the Germans on the Eastern front against the Russians.  Most of them did not survive the war. But those that did and returned to Norway were branded traitors and sentenced to years in prison.

It is against this challenging backdrop that the author has created a superb mystery novel equal to the best of the Scandinavian writers. He introduces Harry Hole, an irreverent, alcoholic detective on a par with Harry Bosch and his contemporaries.  The story moves from events during the war to present times and back and forth.  A series of murders takes place in Oslo, and little by little Harry follows the leads subtly provided, ignoring the powers that be who tell him to ignore his intuition and “be a good boy.”

The roots of the story are gleaned from the author’s own background—his father served in the Leningrad siege and his mother in the resistance. The novel was first published in Norway in 1997 and won the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel and later voted the best Norwegian crime novel ever written.  It is the author’s second book [his third has just been released in hardcover] and we look forward to many more. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2011.

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Favorite Sons
Robin Yocum
Arcade Publishing, June 2011
ISBN: 978-1-61145-004-0
Hardcover

Sometimes a first novel is born from an author’s prior background, reflecting authenticity and deep understanding.  Such is the case in this debut novel with a plot more complicated but more meaningful than a simple plot summary can convey.  In its utter simplicity, the novel traces the ramifications of a decision taken by four 15-year-old boys, 30 years after the fact.

The book centers on Hutch Van Buren who seems a shoo-in to be elected Ohio’s next Attorney General, leading in the polls by about 18 percentage points.  Until, that is, it comes to the surface that he and three friends covered up the murder of a retarded youth, allowing a pedophile to be convicted of the crime.  After his release from prison, the convict threatens to expose Hutch unless he quashes another charge of molestation.

The novel delves deeply into the psychological impact on Hutch, and looks into various other issues, including corruption, bribery, and the criminal mind.  It tests the limits of friendship, and weighs heavily in on the question of whether truth and justice should prevail.  This is a worthy book, especially so coming from a first-time novelist, and we hope there is another forthcoming.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2011.

Book Review: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Ape House
Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, September 2010
ISBN 0385523211
Hardcover

Water For Elephants was a magical read. That book had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world. Obviously, I’m going to compare every elephant and circus book to “Water” and I’m pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I’m going to have to compare Ape House to “Water” as well and come to the same verdict.

What happened here? Well, to start with, the book’s titled Ape House but we don’t get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider ‘Amanda’ a darling that Ms. Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.

When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they get captured and sold to reality television creators who decide to make a television show about their activities. Doing what’s natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.

The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda’s husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes’ story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly-attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel is about as unnecessary as Amanda.

The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. A lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But, do we have to have the ‘Eastborough’ Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and thus, potentially bisexual?

In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and ‘evolved’ species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.

Now, in conclusion, I’m going to mention the fictional work that I consider the Water For Elephants of the ape world. It’s Captivity by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.

Reviewed by Rebecca Kyle, September 2010.