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New to Me: Review of Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy

Looking for JJ by Anne CassidyWhere I got it and why: I needed some good storytelling, and when I want just plain storytelling I always turn to YA. I pulled a couple of books from The List to request from the library, and this was one of them. (I’m sure I heard of it originally from a book blog, but I just can’t remember which one…)

Recommended? Yes, particularly if you like true crime (which this book has much more in common with than a murder mystery, although it is a novel)

Review: Six years ago, ten year old Jennifer Jones killed her best friend. Now Alice Tully is trying to build a new life for herself. She’s got a job at a coffee shop, a boyfriend, and a good shot at normality, but will she get to keep any of it?

This book has the least convoluted plot but the most interesting structure of anything I’ve read recently. The story itself is straightforward, an excruciatingly sympathetic portrayal of a young woman who had killed someone when she was only a child, and how she attempts to deal with that and the normal problems of adolescence. We’re introduced to Alice Tully first, and as her past slowly begins to creep up on her, we flash back in more and more extensive detail to her childhood and the terrible event that defines her life.

Within the first couple of chapters I realized that this book is actually a fictionalization of the famous case of Mary Bell, which I read about earlier this year in Gitta Sereny’s incomparable Cries Unheard. Cassidy changed some details for her YA novel, which I was originally a little annoyed by, since I do think some of them are substantial to the meaning of the case – the victim being much younger versus roughly the same age, the degree of abuse the girl suffered in her home life – but then I realized that what Cassidy did was tone it down to the point where it was actually readable. I know I found Cries Unheard to be extremely tough going, and on reflection I can’t imagine some of those things being included in any novel, never mind a YA novel.

As you have probably concluded by now, Looking for JJ is one of those YA novels people have been complaining about lately, one of those things saturated with darkness. But it’s saturated with something else, too – empathy. This is a story about someone who has done something horrible and knows it, about coming to terms with that and learning how to move on even though she can never forget or atone. It’s also a story about learning how and why she could have done such a thing, and doing her best to make sure she would never do something like that again, even though that means making impossibly hard choices. It’s incredibly grown-up stuff, but as the fact that it’s based on a true story makes obvious, it’s not stuff that only grown-ups have to deal with.

I found this not only a good read, but an important book, the kind of book that librarians ought to keep on the YA shelves because there might be a kid out there who needs it. Looking for JJ is not trying to prove anything, it has no secret agenda or ultimately uplifting message, but it’s a book full of compassion for damaged people. It is an example of the best of what dark YA can do.

 

Hot Off the Press: Review of The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. Greenburg

The Mad Bomber of New York by Michael M. GreenburgWhere I got it and why: After I spotted this in the Goodreads new release newsletter, I put a hold on the library’s on order copy immediately. I love true crime and history – this is two in one! Also, I am a huge fan of CBS’s Criminal Minds, and they used the story of the Mad Bomber extensively in the first season. (The specific episode references, if you’re looking for them, would be 1×03, “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and 1×13, “Poison.”)

Recommended? Yes, if you like history, the 1940s, or are like me trying to track down books on every one of the serial killers, cult leaders, and other criminals mentioned in Criminal Minds.

Review: From 1940 to 1956 – with time off for World War II – George Metesky waged a one-man war against the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, New York. He’d started with letters, but by the 40’s, he’d escalated to pipe bombs, wrapped in a man’s red woolen sock and stashed at various locations around the city. He eventually confessed to planting more than sixty of the things, although only about thirty-some ever went off. (There is one in the Empire State Building, Greenburg reminds us, that has never been found.)

Greenburg renders the story of the Mad Bomber, as he was known, from a variety of perspectives – from the newspapers who followed his exploits to the police who tracked him to the psychologist who profiled him to, sometimes, Metesky himself. He also does a fine job of including quite a bit of historical context, helpful for those of us who do not have a ready-made mental picture of New York in the 1940s and 50s. (Mine always includes Cary Grant.)

It took me a little while to get into this book, partly because the first few chapters are more than a little confused. They jump backwards and forwards in time – clearly an attempt to start in media res, but since so many of the bomb incidents are so similar, it’s hard to get a grip on exactly when this is happening. Around chapter two or three, though, things settle down and start moving forward at a reasonable pace: Metesky’s personal life, his injury on the job at the Con Ed plant, his escalation from letter-writing to bomb-making, the collaboration of policework and journalism that finally identified the bomber, and Metesky’s long incarceration in the mental hospitals of New York.

The Mad Bomber was a landmark case in a lot of ways, from the way newspaper articles drew out the bomber by inviting him to communicate with them to the impact it had on sentencing and dealing with mentally ill criminals, and Greenburg touches at least a little bit on each of them. He devotes a whole chapter to the profile of Metesky created by Dr. James Brussel and how this widely-publicized tool impacted the later development of criminal profiling as we know it today, which I found fascinating, Criminal Minds fangirl that I am. The passages comparing profiling to Pliny’s descriptions of the physical characteristics of the criminal type seem to indicate a certain disdain for profiling on Greenburg’s part, which I can’t entirely disagree with. In just a few short sections he provides a perspective on the field I haven’t seen before, and for that alone the book was worth it.

Although a little thin at times, and drawing more conclusions about various actors’ internal thoughts than I generally like in my nonfiction, I found this a good overview of an interesting and complex case. Greenburg does an excellent job of situating the Mad Bomber case in its historical and cultural context, and draws attention to all of the wide-ranging influences it had. I enjoyed this quite a bit, and I would recommend it as a good summer read, if you’re inclined to find this sort of thing as fun as I do.

The Mad Bomber of New York: The Extraordinary True Story of the Manhunt that Paralyzed a City, by Michael M. Greenburg, was published by Union Square Press on April 5th, 2011. Find it on: Goodreads, Indiebound

The Profiler, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Maltese Falcon

Pat Brown, The Profiler
As you know, Bob, I have both a ridiculous fascination with true crime stories and a distaste for sensationalizing, victim-blaming crap. Profiling books are the best of both worlds: lots of serial killers, little to no sensationalizing crap. Pat Brown is a self-made profiler: she started when she became convinced that a boarder in her house had killed a girl in her hometown. Now she’s a successful private detective and independent profiler. I have to compare her book to John Douglas’s, since I’ve read so many of his, and the biggest contrast I found was that Douglas refuses to talk about cases that haven’t been closed. He only names killers he’s profiled where the case ended in a conviction. None of Brown’s cases (that she talked about in the book) ended in conviction; most of them didn’t even end with the arrest of the person she names as the probable killer. I can see the ethical arguments behind both approaches, and it’s an issue I’m glad I don’t have to deal with personally.

Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
I think this is where the series really starts to get its feet under itself. This is a book with themes, with a solid and complex mystery, and with a truly impressive cast of characters. (I did miss Miss Climpson, though.) General Fentiman is found dead in his club on Armistice Day (which must have been a much different thing in 1928 than it is now) and a large inheritance turns upon the exact time of his death, which Lord Peter investigates (until he is investigating, of course, the murder). It’s very much a book about the aftereffects of the War; nearly all the members of the club are veterans, but the younger men who served in the Great War have a vastly different perspective than their older colleagues (and ancestors — one of the most interesting characters is George Fentiman, the General’s grandson, who suffers spectacularly from shell-shock).

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
I am absolutely astounded at how close the movie is to the book in almost every way. Of course, Hammett’s dialogue is incredible, why wouldn’t you lift it directly? (I noticed the same thing in the film version of The Thin Man.) The plot gets a little twistier in the book in the last half, but it’s definitely one of the most faithful film adaptations I’ve ever seen. …Sorry, this is a book review, not a film review. Hammett practically invented the hard-boiled detective genre with this book, and while Chandler and many others have done it differently, I’m not sure you could say they’ve done it better. It’s not so much the mystery that’s compelling in this book – by halfway through all the players have been introduced and there’s no real question of who killed Archer and Thursby – but the way Sam Spade plays with the other characters. He’s profoundly in control of himself, in the face of two of the most profound (and classic noir) temptations: sex and money. But then, as he says, when a guy’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it.

The American Way of Death Revisited, Ballad, Helter Skelter, Cries Unheard

Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited
I picked this up while wandering randomly through the lovely Rosemary Garfoot Public Library in Cross Plains one day. (I live in Madison, but I’m working part-time in Cross Plains until one of the libraries I’ve applied to finally notices that I’m completely awesome and hires me.) The original edition of the book is from the 60s, and the rewrite from the 90s, but it’s still a startling expose on the funeral industry. It’s easy to see how corruption happens; it’s not like you’re in the mood to comparison-shop for funerals. But wow, talk about price-gouging. (Not to mention the lying: apparently it is not a legal requirement to be embalmed before cremation. I honestly did not know that, but it’s going in my will.) Also, I now understand the reference to Forest Lawn thrown out in a Raymond Chandler novel. I kind of wish I didn’t. Apparently Bogart is buried there, how depressing.

Maggie Stiefvater, Ballad
I hated this book for the first five chapters, which was terribly disappointing, but there’s not much I dislike more than “boy pines over his best friend but can’t tell her he’s in love with her.” Fortunately the teachers at Thornking-Ash (and what a name to give a music school in a faerie-infested universe) were fascinating enough that I kept going. Then the pining stopped. And then it started to get good. I stand by my assessment that these books (including the prequel Lament) are Twilight for people who hate Twilight, but they also have some of the best faeries I’ve read in a long time. They’re properly inhuman, horrifyingly selfish and violent, and charming and compelling nonetheless. Also, there was an in-universe explanation for the name of the school, which I hadn’t expected and made me deliriously happy.

Vincent Bugliosi & Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter
While the official subtitle of this book is “The True Story of the Manson Murders,” it’s really much more the story of the Manson trial. Fair enough, for a book co-written by the prosecuting attorney. If you believe this book, the entire case was single-handedly saved from the LAPD by one Vincent Bugliosi. Which may be true, I don’t know. The stories of the trial are surprisingly fascinating, all the wrangling over testimony and cutting deals with Family members and Bugliosi’s thwarted determination to get Manson to take the stand. Manson and the girls who were tried with him were sentenced to death, but California suspended the death penalty before they could be executed, which is probably just as well. Ted Bundy was a celebrity until the day he was executed (giving a totally ridiculous deathbed interview to Jerry Falwell), while Manson wastes away in prison becoming more and more a cliche’d parody of evil. The book ends with the customary notice that Manson would be eligible for parole in 1978; as of today, no one has been willing to risk their career to give it to him. (Hey, and here’s a transcript of his 1992 parole hearing.)

Gitta Sereny, Cries Unheard
This is one of the most interesting and original true crime books I’ve ever read, and undoubtedly the least exploitative. Mary Bell, along with a co-defendant, was tried for the murder of two toddlers when she was eleven years old. The other girl was acquitted; Mary was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. This book is written by a woman who had covered the original trial with cooperation from Mary herself, now a grown woman with a teenage daughter of her own. Most of the book is in fact about what happened to her after her conviction: the places she was sent, the reform schools and prisons she lived in, the ceaseless media attention that has uprooted her family dozens of times. Sereny argues that children who kill are not the same as adult murderers and we should not treat them as such. They are severely damaged children, and they need help. The stories of Mary’s life, and especially the sense one gets of her as a responsible and moral adult, are extremely compelling evidence in her favor.

30 Days of Books: Day Four

Day 04 – Your favorite book or series ever

Whoops, missed a day, largely because we’re coming up to a series of prompts I don’t really know how to deal with. Remember how, on Day One, I said that I’m really bad with “favorite”s and not to believe anything I put down as one? This would be one of the prompts I stared at for hours thinking “I DON’T EVEN,” and eventually I decided the heck with it, I’ll just write about something I’ve been reading lately. So just throw out the “favorite ever” part of this prompt and bear with me while I ramble on about books I like.

I’ve become enamored lately of John Douglas’s books about being an FBI profiler. Co-written with Mark Olshaker, these go into the basics of criminal profiling and break down categories of profiles. I’ve always been kind of interested in true crime, largely because I’m interested in people, and I think you can’t really understand something until you understand how it fails. Serial killers pretty much qualify as the failure state of humanity. Most true crime, though, particularly books about serial killers, tends to be really exploitative; they’re not about people, they’re about blood and guts and shocking! truths!

Though he gets a little melodramatic at times, Douglas is really good at treating people like people. It’s part of the reason I like profiling so much, even though I’ve read the studies that say it’s never actually been all that useful in criminal investigations or prosecutions. Most of the criminal justice system functions in one of two modes: either you’re Putting Bad People Away, or it’s a kind of game, a system where you get points for winning at something. Profiling is about treating everyone, criminals and victims alike, as people who had reasons for whatever they were doing, even if their reasons, quite frankly, sucked. It makes the monsters human again, and I think it’s important to remember that people we can call monsters are not necessarily that different from us. (It also makes the victims human again. My favorite Douglas book for this is Obsession, which my roommate and I call The Rape Book. Douglas’s rage about victim-blaming, particularly the type that happens in the courts, is righteous and amazing.)

And, okay, I would not be honest if I did not admit that I started reading these books because I freaking love Criminal Minds, and David Rossi is clearly based on John Douglas. (I swear I can hear Joe Mantegna in my head when I read them.) If I do a 30 Days of Television when I’m done with 30 Days of Books, like I’ve been thinking about doing, there’s a real chance it’ll be All Criminal Minds, All The Time. But I’ve never seen another crime show that so consistently treats every single character as a human being, with writing so consistantly challenging and demanding and downright awesome. So, if you are like me and find serial killers morbidly fascinating (and not just for the blood), a dual recommendation. Start with Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Seriously, John, Mindhunter? What a terrible title), and continue with Criminal Minds. Start with season one and give it at least a full disc of episodes. You’ll thank me for it eventually.

Wolf-Speaker, Phonogram, Women Who Kill, The City & The City

I am on a book-finishing roll.

Tamora Pierce, Wolf-Speaker
Second in the previously-gushed-about Immortals series. I admit I don’t like this one as much as the first; where Wild Magic features tons of characters from the Alanna Quartet, plus some new ones as well, this one is almost all just Daine, the wolf pack, a girl from the Dunlath fort, and the basilisk Tkaa. I don’t know if it’s because they’re all new characters, or if it’s because they’re so isolated, both physically and in their concerns, but Wild Magic (and the sequel, Emperor Mage) feel much richer than this book. Not that I don’t love it, mind. It’s just the least-awesome of the four.

Phonogram Vol. 1, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie
A graphic novel about…well, lots of things. On the face of it, about a phonomancer — a magician who uses magic as his medium — attempting to save himself and the memory of BritPop from retromancers — magicians disguised as DJs who play nothing but old music in an attempt to make people feel nostalgia, which they feed off of. You can kind of see the other things they’re playing with from that; music and pop culture, of course, the difference between nostalgia and memory, what it means to be shaped by your past. I liked it, even though the main character was a wanker. (He knew he was a wanker, but that didn’t stop him, which is exactly the kind of person I hate the most.) I’ll read the other books in the series if he’s not the main character any more.

Ann Jones, Women Who Kill
The classic work on women murderers throughout history. Originally published in 1988 and reissued in 1996, this is a very classically feminist work, focusing on the way women who were subject to a law more interested in keeping them out of the way than addressing the wrongs done to them might turn to murder just to get any damn thing done. Jones explicitly says that she’s talking only about cases that excited the public imagination; she’s not talking about murder as much as she’s talking about women in history, with murder as the catalyst. I started reading a dissertation on female serial killers once that made no sense to me as part of the serial killer literature, but now makes a little more sense as a kind of sequel to this work. (Maybe I’ll dig that dissertation out again and finish it, actually…)

China Miéville, The City & The City
As usual from him, a book you can’t even begin to talk about sensibly unless the other person has also read it. Reviewing without spoilers is complicated. Basically: this book takes place in two cities that occupy the same space, Besźel and Ul Qoma. (Do you know how long I had to hunt for that accented z? I finally gave up and pasted it from Wikipedia.) That is, citizens of Besźel live in their streets, some of which are all Besźel and some of which are part Besźel and part Ul Qoma, and they go about their days and if they encounter any citizens of Ul Qoma (as they are bound to do), they unsee them. Act as if they aren’t there. Same with buildings, cars, smells, sounds…everything. (Obviously tourism is somewhat complicated.) One day a murdered woman turns up in a Besźel slum, and it seems that she was killed in Ul Qoma and dumped in Besźel, which is a breach, which is handled by Breach, a shadowy, mysterious, and entirely creepy organization that stringently enforces the boundaries between the two cities. But Breach won’t take the case (since, it turns out, there was no breach involved), and the poor inspector who started working on the case is stuck with something much, much more complicated. It’s an amazing book (featuring two of the most incredible chase scenes ever), and the effort it takes to get started is entirely worth it in the end.

Wild Magic, Lovecraft Unbound, A Rage to Kill, Getting Things Done

Tamora Pierce, Wild Magic
I read this series for the first time…in middle school, probably, because I remember having to wait for the fourth book. I actually read these before the Alanna books, so I still kind of like them better (not that there’s any Tamora Pierce I don’t like). Pierce is great at female characters — there are gender issues in these books, not just the magical “in fantasy universes women can do everything.” There’s class issues, although Tortall is kind of a utopia in that way. There are people of distinct races, and people with prejudices (and not just the bad guys, either) and people who learn things. …and this is not an advertisement for Most Politically Correct Fantasy Series Ever, I swear, they’re also full of fun and interesting magic things, and an interesting use of mythological beasts, and all kinds of other delightful fantasy things going on. I’m not sure I can talk about this series rationally, since I read it early enough that it’s kind of imprinted on me as “default fantasy setting,” but that’s not a bad thing.

Lovecraft Unbound, edited by Ellen Datlow
I love Lovecraftian stories. Most of the stories in this anthology aren’t quite what that usually means, though; there are vast tentacle-filled monsters in less than half of them, I’d say. Most of them are simply stories in that genre of horror that Lovecraft and Blackwood and Machen wrote in, that unfortunately doesn’t have a name other than “Lovecraftian.” I particularly liked Brian Evanson’s “The Din of Celestial Birds,” “Marya Nox” by Gemma Files, and the final story, “That of Which We Speak When We Speak of the Unspeakable” by Nick Mamatas. (And the Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette story, “Mongoose,” but you knew that already.)

Ann Rule, A Rage to Kill
I think I like her shorts-collections better than the longer pieces, if only because the book-length stories (I keep wanting to call them novels, what do you call true crime books?) tend to suck me in and make me a little bit paranoid. Which is not a huge amount of fun. The shorts don’t have the same depth of character, though, which is really what Ann Rule does best, and is the reason she’s the only true crime writer I’ll read. Also, I had to skip a whole section of this book, because it was “a prostitute kills her john,” except that apparently the reason it was an exceptional enough case to include in a true crime anthology was that the prostitute was transsexual. And I just couldn’t cope with the fail. Life is too short, y’know?

David Allen, Getting Things Done
This is an absolute favorite of the personal productivity genre, and while such books are often tremendously cheesy (see: Allen’s smarmy photo on the cover) and clearly targeted toward exactly one segment of the population (see: advice to get your assistant to do all your filing, if possible), I did think this was both interesting and useful, particularly as I’ve been reading about GTD online for years and most of the rewrites I’ve seen of it seem to miss the point. There are two aspects to the system, and the first one is the one that most websites get. That’s the physical organization system, which consists of an inbox, a “things in process” box, and a filing system that lets you save pieces of paper for a particular day without letting them pile up on your desk. Handy.

The other part, though, the intellectual part, seems to me to be more interesting and more useful: everything that you are working on needs to have a “next action” attached to it. “Do it later” is not a next action — you don’t “do” a project, he says several times throughout the book, you do a lot of small, concrete physical tasks that eventually pile up to make the project finished. So if my project is “clean my living room” (which it is), that’s not just one thing, the first thing I have to do is…hmm…the thing taking up most space is that fan that may or may not work any more. So the first thing to do is see if the fan works. And if it does, I have to put it away, and if it doesn’t, I have to put it out for the trash. And then… This, Allen says, is how projects get done, and how they fail to get done is by having “clean the living room” on your to-do list without thinking about how you’re actually going to do that. Multiply that times the millions of other projects you have going (get a job, spruce up my professional blog, work on my craft business, start working on Christmas presents) and you can see how easy it is to not get anything accomplished.

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