In Ebony and Spica: Two Birds in My Life, Janet Doolaege tells about a blackbird and a starling who were rescued as fledglings and spent long and happy lives as part of her household. It might seem like there wouldn’t be much of a story here, but the author’s keen observations and skillful description make this brief memoir an entertaining read.

The writing abounds with vivid imagery and information about birds, the kind of knowledge that comes only through close observation:

An aggressive blackbird looks very different from an aggressive starling. Ebony in an angry mood would look like a horizontal missile, all feathers on his head flat and his beak pointed forwards. . . . An enraged starling, on the other hand, is a vertical challenger with crown feathers sticking straight up.

Bird lovers will enjoy the antics of these feathered sweethearts, who worm their way into the hearts of Doolaege and her husband. The latter occasionally loses patience with Spica’s dinner-table incursions. My husband and I share our home with a budgie, so I know how birds can take over a household and how annoying they can sometimes be. I had quite a few moments of recognition while reading Ebony and Spica.

Some think of birds as neglible creatures. Anyone who has lived with them knows they’re intelligent and sensitive. but even bird lovers might not think of starlings and blackbirds as beautiful. Doolaege reveals their beauty—Ebony “with a fine gold ring around each large black eye” and Spica “with his feathers slightly puffed out like miniature cockle shells.”

The story of the birds inevitably allows readers into the author’s daily life. I enjoyed visiting a world not fraught with melodrama or darkened by disaster, a world where people with ordinary problems find contentment in their day-to-day experiences. The author adopted Ebony and Spica because they would have perished otherwise, but she concludes that birds cannot live a full life among human beings. I understand her arguments but think a bird, wild or domesticated, could meet a far worse fate than life in a French farmhouse with other birds, cared for and loved by compassionate human beings.

Ebony and Spica

An Animal Life: The Beginning by Howard Krum with Roy Yanong and Scott Moore follows a group of students through their first semester at University of Philadelphia School of Veterinary Medicine in the 1980s. For readers interested in what vet school is like, this novel offers a full experience of demanding class work, raucous parties, and sometimes painful personal growth.

The omniscient point of view is skillfully done. It gives the authors leeway to explain aspects of veterinary medicine in technical detail so readers can understand what the students are learning in class. But the analytical perspective on the action is less suited to expressing the characters’ emotional lives and motivation. Too often we are told rather than shown who characters are and what they want.

In an intensive and useful glossary, the authors give a tongue-in-cheek definition of An Animal Life as  “A book series . . . [that] may be an upcoming blockbuster movie or TV series.” They offer a “Suggested Soundtrack” of popular songs to accompany each chapter. Their music selections are knowledgeable and clever, and the objective omniscient point of view has a cinematic flavor, but the story isn’t presented in a way likely to attract Hollywood.

The book makes demands on the reader. It takes some knowledge of biology to understand the chapters about vet school classes. (Those pre-med biology courses back in college came in handy here.) The illustrations by Patty Hogan help, but they’re difficult to see in the Kindle book. The story, while interesting, isn’t exactly a page-turner. The narrative plods through that first semester of vet school, developing the various subplots sporadically. Despite the potential for suspense, there isn’t much.

On the other hand, a screenwriter might transform this promising raw material into the hoped-for blockbuster.

The story has several plotlines, but two stand out: a romance between two first-year students and a medical mystery.

Jack, a former cop, is attracted to Anna, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Although she has feelings for him their personalities aren’t altogether compatible, and various missteps and misunderstandings keep them apart. Their story follows the conventional pattern of romance novels without the usual emotionalism. Both know Anna will die young, but the story is almost over before they become close enough to acknowledge it. The title suggests the story will continue, and I’m curious to know whether the two will get together.

Because of the point of view, Jack and Anna occasionally seems like puppets, doing what the plot requires rather than acting from character-driven motivation. Jack’s infatuation with pet-food PR slut Avery is one example. We’re told that Jack resists sex with Avery because he’s waiting for “the one,” yet Avery has him enthralled. That kind of paradox is certainly possible, but readers aren’t shown enough of Jack’s thoughts to understand why this intelligent, experienced man gives in to juvenile lust.

The medical mystery begins when animals and birds in the area begin to die in startling numbers. A zoo vet and a pathology instructor work to discover why, but corporate interests at the zoo are less interested in the truth than in avoiding bad publicity. This conflict culminates in one of my favorite scenes as an Aussie thug employed by the zoo tries to intimidate the vets.

An Animal Life succeeds most completely on an intellectual level. I learned a lot about what veterinarians do and the challenges they face. The book raises the ethical dilemma of caring for animals while exploiting them for food, experimentation, and entertainment. An Animal Life offers no solution and has no ideological agenda — all the characters except Anna are unapologetic meat eaters — but it reminds us that humans and animals are part of the same ecosystem. Our treatment of animals has environmental consequences. On a personal level, the story depicts callousness and cruelty toward animals as character flaws, kindness toward them as a mark of goodness, and respect for them as essential in a veterinarian.

I noticed smatterings of punctuation errors concentrated in certain parts of the book, an uneven job of proofreading, but by and large An Animal Life is well written and worth the time of any reader who cares about animals and enjoys biology.

The Fourth Season is the fourth and final book in a mystery quartet by award-winning Australian author Dorothy Johnson. (The others are The Trojan Dog, The White Tower, and Eden.) I read the book with the disadvantage of not having read the earlier ones, so I knew nothing about the protagonist, Sandra Mahoney. She lives a complicated life with two children, an ex-husband, a live-in partner, and a fraught friendship with a police detective. She also has a reputation as a cyber-security expert. Of course Sandra’s history comes to bear on events in The Fourth Season.

The story centers on two murders: a student killed and dumped in a lake and a scuba diver killed and dumped in a public swimming pool near Sandra’s house. Sandra takes an interest in the first murder because her partner, Ivan, was in love with the student, Laila Fanshaw. He becomes an immediate suspect. It doesn’t help that he turns uncommunicative and selfish, staying out all night and neglecting their young daughter, who adores him. Then a stranger, Don Fletcher, phones Sandra and offers her money to investigate the case. Also a suspect, he wants the real murderer caught. Sandra has qualms but needs the money. She takes the case.

She discovers Laila’s passionate interest in environmental causes—in particular protecting the waters around Australia from exploitation by oil companies—and the passion that her beauty and energy aroused in those who knew her. Ivan isn’t the only one who fell for Laila. Various suspects emerge, including a prominent politician. Sandra’s snooping results in her being followed. After the scuba diver’s body is found, a phone call to the police places her car near the swimming pool. It becomes more and more obvious that Sandra and her children could be in danger.

Johnson writes polished prose and constructs a solid plot with masterful pacing. The story held my interest even though Sandra’s investigation consists mostly of her talking with the various people involved, and some of the conversations end without her learning much of anything. The most action-packed scene that she instigates is sneaking into Laila’s house to steal evidence. Much of the story concerns Sandra’s relationships with her children, with Ivan, and with Detective Sergeant Brook. The complex lives of these characters are as compelling as the murder mystery.

Sandra’s first-person narrative shows her intelligence and perceptiveness. She reads people well and knows how to draw information from them. But the narrative point of view keeps her on the periphery of the action. Lacking authority and tied by domestic responsibility, Sandra can go only so far. She must depend on Brook for crucial information that he isn’t always willing to share. She has a vital stake in the outcome, but the story’s climactic event unfolds many miles away from her. All she can do is wring her hands and hope things work out.

I would have preferred a protagonist more at the center of the action. Despite Sandra’s intelligence, I wondered why Don Fletcher comes to her and why the killer feels so threatened by her. She seems like an unprepossessing woman. The earlier novels probably establish Sandra as a formidable investigator, but in The Fourth Season she comes across as a gifted amateur snoop. At times I felt I was reading a cozy without the coziness.

But in the end, the problem isn’t this beautifully executed novel but my expectations. I want a story with pulse-pounding action centered on the protagonist, and Johnson isn’t a writer who sacrifices realism to deliver cheap thrills.

romance, literary fiction

The Awful MessRecently divorced, Mary Bellamy buys a house in the small town of Lawson, New Hampshire. The breakup of her marriage hasn’t shattered her. Far from it. She’s glad to be rid of her childish, self-centered ex. She envisions a contented life as a single woman with a cat and a secure job as an editor–a job that requires her presence in the office only occasionally. She’s definitely not looking for romance, but it hunts her down anyway.

Soon after moving to Lawson, Mary becomes acquainted with Arthur Tennant, rector of the Episcopal church. Arthur is married and off limits. The marriage is far from happy, though, and Arthur is lonely. One evening he shows up at her house with wine. They drink, they talk, they have sex. Mary considers it a one-night stand, the unfortunate result of too much wine.

Meanwhile, a handsome young cop shows an interest in her. Mary reluctantly agrees to go out with him. To her surprise, she enjoys his company and gets along with his fundamentalist father.

Just as things seem to be going well, a series of misfortunes threaten to destabilize her new life. Her job turns out not to be secure after all. Mary might be laid off and lose the income that makes it possible for her to afford the house. Her ex-husband comes slinking around. He dumped Mary because she was apparently infertile, but now he’s unhappy with his new young wife.

Then catastrophe strikes. Mary discovers she’s fertile after all, pregnant with Arthur’s child. It has to be his. She hasn’t had sex with with anyone else. Soon everyone in Lawson will know she’s pregnant and the speculation will begin. If the secret is revealed, it will destroy Arthur’s life.

Author Sandra Hutchinson tells the story with economy, grace, and an occasionally comic touch. Lawson is not Hawthorne’s Salem, and the townspeople react in unexpected ways. Even the minor characters are complexly drawn. Particularly impressive is the treatment of the cop’s father. A less thoughtful writer would have made him the stereotypical fundamentalist Christian–intolerant, irrational, and unforgiving. As with much else in the novel, it’s not that simple.

The Awful Mess: A Love Story is an intelligent, entertaining novel that faces the truth about life’s difficulties without descending into bleakness.

18185976M. M. McVey’s novella The Trashcan Opera Society tells the story of the doomed love between Jordan, a onetime attorney who lives on the streets of Los Angeles, and Hannah, an aging stripper. The two meet when Jordan inadvertently saves Hannah from a violent patron by vomiting on the man.

McVey’s omniscient point of view keeps its distance from the characters and describes their world in a tone that manages to be both clinical and poetic. The narrative voice put me off at first. Occasionally it seems stilted or strained, but it’s the right voice for a story that blends harsh realism with operatic melodrama.

The characters are complex and unpredictable and very human. Not many homeless guys have premium season tickets to the opera. Not many strippers have the insight to their circumstances that I see in Hannah. I came to care about these two lovers who accept their hopelessness with such grace.

The author has a talent for description. Often I was impressed by the vivid detailing of scenes, but now and then I became impatient and wished the story would move faster. Take this  paragraph describing a chair in which Hannah is about to sit.

There was an old government gray chair resting in front of Donny’s desk that served as a resting place for the few visitors ever invited into his office. One spring, under the right side of the chair’s cushion was broken, forcing anyone sitting in the chair to tilt their body to the other side. The arm rest on the left side was worn through in most places. The exposed padding was gray with years of sweat and body oils. The remaining leather was slick as a saddle horn from a dime store mechanical pony.

I know exactly how Hannah feels sitting in that chair, but the knowledge serves no dramatic purpose. The chair merely reinforces the impression made by quite a few other paragraphs of description spread throughout the story: the joint where Hannah strips is a real dive.

In general McVey repeats too much. Readers are told over and over about Jordan vomiting on the man who attacked Hannah and about Jordan’s education and intelligence. I learn so much about Jordan so quickly that later revelations about him lose much of their impact.

My biggest disappointment with The Trashcan Opera Society is the sloppiness of the copyediting. Indie books usually contain more mistakes than books by commercial and small presses, and nobody is perfect, but this novella is closer to a workshop draft than a polished revision. It contains numerous errors and inconsistencies in punctuation and usage. Obvious errors have escaped correction. Several times its is used in place of the contraction it’s. Hannah has “taught stomach and leg muscles.” Lightening is used in a context where lightning seems to be intended, and discrete in a context that calls for discreet.

I encountered too many passages that made me want to reach for a red pen. Here’s one example:

The eyes acquire signs of aging early in a dancer’s career. It is due to  . . . the hard squinting to see if the paper money being waived before their body is a ten dollar or a one dollar bill.

If you see nothing wrong with the above passage, ignore my criticisms. As I wrote in a post last year, errors bother some readers more than others. If you see the errors and want to read The Trashcan Opera Society anyway, treat them like Jordan’s outward appearance. Overlook the scruffiness and you’ll find a moving story and characters worth knowing.

Redfern Jon Barrett builds his dystopian novel Forget Yourself on a Kafkaesque mystery. The narrator, Blondee, lives in an enclosure with dozens of other people. None of them remember who they are. They assume they must be criminals since they are imprisoned, and they separate themselves into groups based on the severity of their crimes. But they can only guess at what they did wrong.

The story begins with Blondee in isolation, awaiting punishment for some unnamed transgression. She seems to believe she will once again lose her memory, a kind of death even though her body will live on.

Blondee relates how she first awakened in this strange place, her memory gone. She can still read and give names to things, but she has no personal history. No identity. She describes life in the enclosure, her grief after her lover deserts her, and her complex relationships with other prisoners. Barrett’s writing is descriptive and often poetic, rendering characters and setting so vividly that I become immersed in Blondee’s world.

The prisoners receive “rations”—half spoiled food and discarded items. Their food and shelter. They parcel it out according to their own rules, with those who supposedly committed the least serious crimes taking first pick and those who committed the worst taking whatever the others don’t want. Within the groups of criminals, couples receive better rations than single people. After losing her lover Blondee gets worse food and worse junk with which to furnish her ramshackle hut. And of course she’s lonely. She’s something of an outsider anyway, a rule breaker and troublemaker.

As long as the story focuses on Blondee’s predicament, it holds my interest. I almost forget the mystery surrounding it: What are these people doing here? Why are they imprisoned? How did they lose their memories? Or more precisely, who took their memories and why?

(The comments that follow will spoil the story for those who want to read it, so anyone intrigued by Forget Yourself ought to stop reading here.)

The mystery deepens when Blondee begins to remember her previous life. Barrett develops this part of the story masterfully. Blondee’s first memory is an image of a fierce huntress with dogs. She has no clue what it means. Gradually the memory expands, and the huntress becomes a figurine in the house where she once lived with her husband.

Blondee’s rediscovery of marriage is significant since relationships in the enclosure are not lifelong and have no gender limitations. Everyone seems pretty much bisexual. The problems begin—both for the inhabitants of the enclosure and for me as a reader—when she unearths an old magazine for brides. The magazine seems a bit too convenient as a plot device.

The articles on upscale weddings and honeymoons give Blondee an idealized notion of marriage. Driven by the need to remember who she once was, she buys in completely and convinces quite a few others that marriage is the correct way to live. She deserts a passionate female lover to marry a male who is merely a friend. Although I understand her motivation, I lose sympathy for Blondee when she dumps her lover.

Then comes a catastrophe that might or might not be connected to the changes Blondee has wrought. Antifreeze is included in the rations. The inhabitants of the inclosure think it’s something to drink, and many of them die. This brings the mystery back into the foreground. Why poison these helpless people?

I have to register my disappointment with the ending. For no discernible reason, Blondee is suddenly able to channel the memories of her companions in the enclosure. Their stories pour through her mind in italics, disjointed and contradictory, their worlds so unlike they seem to come from different planets. Taken together, they compound the mystery rather than resolving it.

The backstories are a convenient solution to a difficult narrative dilemma. The author funnels information through the consciousness of the first-person narrator. He could have brought down the walls and let Blondee see the world outside the enclosure. Or he could have let other prisoners regain their memories. Either of these solutions would make an already lengthy novel  longer, but they couldn’t be any worse than having the backstories dumped on the reader in a jumbled and inexplicable heap.

I found plenty to admire about Melinda Field’s novel True. In polished prose the author creates a world of memorable characters and a lavishly described rural Northwest American setting. She knows and loves horses. The novel’s title is taken from one character’s description of horses as “true to their ancestral memory, their environment, their instincts, and their herd.”

The same might be said of the Yee Haw Sisterhood, the band of women at the center of the story. They know where they come from. Their lives are rooted in isolated Green Valley, California. They trust one another, and all of them eventually come to trust their deepest feelings.

The story opens with teenager Cat in Phoenix, Arizona. With her mother in prison she has nowhere to go except to her grandmother in Green Valley. Cat is less than thrilled by her new home, where she feels very much an outsider. After her arrival, the point of view switches to the various members of the sisterhood as they gather for one of their regular camping trips into the mountains. All are strong women who endure loneliness, loss, or in one case an abusive marriage, without whining.

Emma, a nurse and midwife, receives more narrative attention than the others. If the novel has a single protagonist, it is Emma. After several teenage boys drug and rape Cat and her grandmother dies, Emma takes her in. The novel chronicles Emma’s struggles to help Cat survive the aftermath of the rape, to care for a dying friend, and to gather the courage to rekindle a romance with the man she loved long ago. Interspersed with these conflicts are the stories of the other women in the Yee Haw Sisterhood. By the end of the novel, I felt as though I knew these women like friends.

As much as I enjoyed True, I think many readers will find it slow going. The lush and sometime purplish description will make some impatient. And the storytelling is flawed. None of the many plot lines dominates enough to give the novel a strong dramatic core. Events don’t build to a climax. They simply unfold. The subplot involving a woman with dementia seems extraneous. It has thematic resonance but does nothing to further the action. The novel doesn’t need the extra weight.

Another subplot fizzles in a frustrating way. Just as Cat faces a serious threat, the story switches to the mother of one of the sisterhood and then to Emma’s romance. When it finally comes back to Cat, the threat is resolved in a couple of sentences of dialogue.

If you crave action and suspense, look elsewhere. But if you love stories with vivid settings and strong female characters, True delivers.

In Miseerere Caren J. Werlinger has written an historical novel that weaves together narratives from two periods: the mid-1960s dominated by the Civil Rights Movement and the mid-1800s that saw the Civil War and the end of legalized slavery in America. The story centers on the descendants of Caitríona Ní Faolain, an Irish girl brought to America as an indentured servant.

One descendant in particular, eleven-year-old Connemara Mitchell, carries a heavy burden. Only she can lift a curse that began with Caitríona and has afflicted the family for a hundred years. But first she must uncover its secret.

After Conn’s father goes missing in action in Vietnam, her mother moves the family to their grandmother’s rundown house in West Virginia. Soon after their arrival, Conn sees the ghost of Caitríona, who reveals the terms of the curse. In each generation, one girl child will survive so that someday the curse might be lifted. All her siblings will perish. Soon afterward Conn’s younger brother almost dies of polio. She realizes that his life depends on her finding out the secret.

Through dreams and visions Conn experiences her ancestor’s life. Caitríona and her sister, Orla, are still children when their father sells them to the ironically named Lord Playfair. After a harrowing trip across the Atlantic, locked in the hold of a ship, they come to a pre-Civil War plantation where they labor alongside the house slaves. They are treated a little better than the Africans, but not much.

Catríona falls in love with Hannah, one of the slaves. The lives of the girls become more precarious as they try to conceal their love from everyone in the household. Catríona doesn’t help matters. Quick tempered and embittered, she’s whipped for impertinence. Conn experiences the whipping in a dream. Afterward faint scars appear on her back. She discovers a network of tunnels beneath the house and begins to explore, guessing the secret of the curse is hidden there.

Meanwhile Conn’s mother, Elizabeth, struggles to make a life in a new place. She hires Abraham Greene to help her fix up the house. Once a schoolteacher up North, Abraham now makes a living as a handyman. He becomes a friend of the Mitchell family. Word gets around, and rumors spread. Some people in the West Virginian town think Elizabeth and Abraham have crossed a line and must be punished.

Werlinger moves skillfully between the two narratives, building suspense in both. Her pacing is just about perfect. The characters are complex, believable, and sympathetic. Her view of human nature seems essentially hopeful and kind, given her compassionate rendering of characters that might have been cartoonish villains.

Miserere grabbed me and carried me all the way to the end. I put aside everything else and devoted a day to reading it, which is the highest tribute I can give to a story.


Kirsten Mortensen’s Loose Dogs is a wonderful novel, full of comedy without ignoring life’s sadness and cruelty. The characters are deftly drawn. The author gives them individuality even when they’re recognizable types. The story unfolds at a satisfying pace that kept me reading from start to finish.

Paige Newbury, the narrator and protagonist, works as an animal control officer in Rochester, New York. She seems content with her life, but then she receives a ring in the mail—not a diamond engagement ring, just gaudy costume jewelry that her erstwhile boyfriend, Gil Rudman, picked up at a flea market. Paige takes the ring as a sign that Gil, who left a while ago to pursue his career as an artist, is coming back to her.

She doesn’t want Gil to think she’s been waiting around for his return, even though she has, so she enlists the help of an acquaintance to pose as her boyfriend. Larry Crawford is a slick attorney and an accomplished player. He’s attracted to Paige and only too happy to help out with her scheme.

At this point I almost lost respect for Paige. The fake-boyfriend routine is such a stupid move, bound to end badly. And she obviously lacks the panache to bring it off. But Paige is a kind person. She sacrifices a meal at an expensive restaurant (courtesy of Larry) to catch a loose pit bull whose wounds suggest he’s been used for dogfighting. She worries about what will become of the pit. When a callous owner abandons her pregnant dog, Paige takes Lady in and sets about finding homes for the puppies. How could you not like and respect someone like that?

Many of Paige’s observations about the world and herself are laugh-out-loud funny. She thinks of romance as “the Prozac nature has slipped in our drink” to make life bearable.”  She has intelligent and wit. Even though she’s not glamorous, it’s altogether believable that Gil would come back to her and Larry would chase after her.

The plot of LOOSE DOGS turns on the romantic triangle, but I enjoyed the subplots just as much, especially Paige’s efforts to find and stop a dogfighting operation. Animal welfare is clearly an issue that matters to Mortensen. She donates some of the profits from the book to pit bull rescue.

Unlike many of the stories I enjoy, Loose Dogs has no foul language and no graphic sex or violence. Like its protagonist, it has humor, intelligence, and a good heart.

I could never get into zombies. Sad reanimated corpses, mindless and sexless, they shuffle along dropping rotted body parts in their wake, pausing occasionally to gnaw living human flesh. Horrifying, sure. Funny in a grisly kind of way. But mostly boring. Certainly not figures that evoke empathy.

I’ve enjoyed a few zombie movies—George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, Peter Jackson’s slapstick Dead Alive, and Edgar Wright’s satiric Shawn of the Dead. But I wouldn’t have watched any of them without the urging of my husband, Joe, Heumann, a film scholar. (Joe takes to movies for reasons other than the stories they tell. He would watch anything by Peter Jackson because he loves Jackson’s visual style. Joe has seen The Lord of the Rings movies, parts of them more than once, but he has only a vague idea who Eomer and Faramir are.)

Given my indifference to zombies, it’s not surprising that I greeted the Zombie Apocalypse with a yawn. I had no interest in reading one of the many novels with a ZA premise. I wouldn’t have read Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies (now also a movie) except for a recommendation from a friend whose judgment I trust. She loaned me the paperback.

Isaac Marion changed my mind about zombies. In Warm Bodies he creates a zombie hero who’s sympathetic, intelligent, and—amazingly—attractive in spite of his decomposing body.

R tells his own story and wins my sympathy from the start. He remembers nothing of his former life except the first letter of his name. He has a humdrum existence, hanging around an airport colonized by others of his kind, and venturing out to hunt and consume the few remaining humans in the novel’s post-apocalyptic world. But what else is he supposed to do? Everyone has to eat, right? R accepts that his flesh will eventually rot away until he becomes a skeleton, one of the Boneys who act as the colony’s elders.

Boneys keep zombie society functioning. They create schools to teach newbie zombies how to hunt. They join couples in a kind of parody of marriage, and they lead fervid religious services worshiping the sky. Fierce defenders of the status quo, Boneys keep everyone else in line.

The parallels between zombie and human society are humorous at the start, but they grow darker as the story unfolds and it become apparent that zombies are a manifestation rather than the root cause of the worldwide collapse of human societies. Things have gone terribly wrong, and nobody seems to know exactly how or why.

R shuffles through this structured non-life with a kind of bemused acceptance. Then something unprecedented happens. While out hunting, he consumes the brain of a young man named Perry. He experiences the usual pleasurable rush of memories and sensations from the brain, but they don’t pass within moments as they usually do. They linger, and gradually Perry takes up permanent residence in R’s mind.

R feels the need to help and protect Julie, Perry’s girlfriend, who is in immediate danger of being eaten. He conceals her from his fellow zombies and brings her home to the old airplane where he entertains her with recordings of Frank Sinatra songs.

Like a socially challenged high-school boy, R feels deeply but cannot express himself. His stuttering attempts to declare his love to Julie are touching and funny. And her gradual acceptance and growing affection for him show the best qualities of humanity—tolerance, empathy, and forgiveness.

Caring as he does for Julie, R finds he cannot go on as before. He can no longer eat people. He doesn’t know what he might become or whether he can survive the transformation, but love compels him to change. And the love between him and Julie inspires other zombies to question whether their fate is inevitable. In the end the lovers risk everything to find out.

Warm Bodies has zombies, but at heart it’s a love story. It embraces the treasured and audacious belief of romantics that love can change the world.

My cousin Deon doesn’t email often, so when a message from her lands in my mailbox, I open it with curiosity. Some time ago Deon wrote to recommend a book. Knowing I read about serial killers, she thought I might enjoy David Rose’s The Big Eddy Club: The Stocking Stranglings and Southern Justice. The stocking strangler was active in Columbus, Georgia, in the late 1970s. His victims were elderly, well-to-do white women, all from the same wealthy neighborhood. Deon lived in Columbus at that time and witnessed the city’s fear and outrage at the brutal crimes.

I had read very little about the crimes or Carleton Gary, the African-American man convicted of committing them. I leafed through a number of books and found brief references to Gary in Robert K. Ressler’s WHOEVER FIGHTS MONSTERS and John Douglas’s MIND HUNTER. Ressler and Douglas mention Gary only in passing. Both note that he was convicted, and both divulge a bit of the evidence against him. Neither seems interested in examining Gary’s psychology the way they examine other serial killers. For one reason or another, they appear to find him and his crimes uninteresting. Possibly I internalized this attitude; I wasn’t especially eager to read about the stocking stranglings. But I found the book on Amazon—on sale!—and decided to give it a chance.

I’m glad I did. The Big Eddy Club is an excellent piece of journalism. It is not, however, a serial killer book in the usual sense. Rose isn’t interested in analyzing the crime scenes or probing the mind of the killer. Instead he raises the question of whether Carleton Gary actually is the killer. Rose places the crimes, the hunt for the perpetrator, and the trial of the accused in the context of the place where they happened: Columbus, Georgia. He presents a history of racism in the area going back to the end of the Civil War. He gives accounts of lynching and other violence inflicted on African Americans, acts even more savage than the crimes committed by the stocking strangler, and makes the point that no white person had ever been sentenced for killing a black person in Columbus.

The Big Eddy Club of the title is a venerable private club for socially prominent folks in Columbus. Many of the strangler’s victims belonged to the club or moved in the same social circles as its members, as did the trial judge, the appeals judges, and the prosecutors involved in Gary’s trial. Rose presents it as a bastion of traditional Southern values and a symbol of institutionalized racism. Only recently the club admitted its first African-American member, one sign that things are finally beginning to change in Columbus.

Excellent as it is, The Big Eddy Club makes difficult reading—not because the subject is tedious or the book poorly written. Rose recounts so many past and present injustices against African-Americans, piled one upon another and culminating in Gary’s trial, where the prosecution withholds evidence from the defense and lies to the jury, and where the judge is blatantly biased against the defendant and makes no attempt to disguise his feelings or be fair. It was making me furious. When I reached the account of the judge’s refusing the defense any financial resources then booting them from a courthouse office for failing to pay a long-distance phone bill, I put The Big Eddy Club  aside. Not until weeks later did I pick it up again and push on to the inevitable conclusion. After years of appeals, new exculpatory evidence, and blatant evidence of the prosecution’s wrongdoing, Carlton Gary is still on death row.

If you’re shocked or baffled by the contempt expressed by many African-Americans for our system of justice, read this book.

Note: This review was published a few years ago just as I was beginning to blog and not many people were reading it. I want to spotlight the book again. It truly is worth reading.


In his legal thriller Defending Elton, TJ Cooke takes on formidable challenges.

First, his protagonist is a British solicitor who sets out to frame a mentally challenged client, Elton, for a murder that he himself committed. How can readers sympathize with a guy like that? Yet Cooke succeeds in evoking not just a grudging understanding of Jim Harwood’s motives, but empathy and hope that his life will take a turn for the good.

Jim tells his own story, so readers experience it from his perspective. And he’s a reliable narrator. He might be lying to every character in the novel, but he tells readers the truth—about his traumatic childhood, his tangled motives, his shameful behavior, and his obsessive love for the murder victim, Sarena. Her death is an accident for which he is partly responsible, and he’s tormented by guilt as he frames the hapless Elton. He has a conscience. He knows what’s right. In one memorable scene, a brute attacks a junkie in the street, and Jim comes to her aid even though he gains nothing by doing so. He’s not a psychopath, just a flawed human being trapped by circumstances and bad decisions.

Cooke develops two parallel narratives. In one, Jim goes through the process of preparing for trial. He conceals evidence and deflects questions from the barrister who will present the case in court. He negotiates an ambiguous relationship with Loren, the colleague/girlfriend whose jealousy precipitated the murder. And he ducks insistent messages from a former client, a criminal who keeps demanding favors. Dangerous favors.

The other narrative unfolds the backstory. Jim falls in love with Sarena, who breaks his heart when she vanishes mysteriously. He enlists Loren’s aide in uncovering the truth. By the time Sarena suddenly reappears, Jim knows she’s involved in some kind of illegal scheme, but he can’t help loving her anyway. After she dies in a confrontation with Loren, Jim carries out his elaborate plan to pin the murder on Elton.

Cooke’s challenge is to move back and forth between the narratives without causing confusion or slowing the pace, and to maintain suspense in the backstory even though readers already know the outcome. He does it superbly. The novel is beautifully constructed.

By the end of Defending Elton it’s apparent that TJ Cooke is a masterful writer of suspense. He constructs an intricate and coherent plot propelled by complex and believable characters. In short, he tells one hell of a story.