Book Review Saturday: The Couple Next Door

“No! What are you saying? That I killed her? Is that what you really think?”

Reading a book with someone is like discovering it twice. This was my first buddy read of 2018 and it went by so quickly that we were both left with a sense of now what? It’s interesting to see the things that each person finds important or interesting. I feel a better sense of understanding and depth from a book when read with another person. Plus, it throws in an added excitement of text messages that went something like: O.M.G, wait, can you believe that? I knew that person was shady, this can’t be happening…I did not see THAT coming. This has led to a new goal for the year of adding more time reading with friends and my book community.

The Couple Next Door is appropriately labeled a thriller. Anne and Marco leave their baby next door while they attend a dinner party. They check on her every 30 minutes and have a baby monitor to listen for any problems while she sleeps. Well, the baby is kidnapped. You can probably see that coming, but the rest of the book is a series of twists and turns. It became evident who kidnaps Cora about a third of the way through the book, but the motives and back story present themselves much later. It is an interesting dynamic of what occurs when a child is kidnapped, how the parents are usually the first to blame and how the investigation unfolds from the perspective of the parents, detective and grandparents. It also looks at how far a person will go when faced with utter devastation and ruin. The entire family begins to unravel based on unfounded judgements that present themselves. The ending is the kicker. I did NOT see THAT coming, and I usually do.

When I finally recovered from the ending and moved on to another book, I kept going back to the question: Who leaves their baby alone in a house with no supervision? I wonder if I’m being judgmental since I do not have children. Her husband needed a night out, and she went against her better judgement to please him. The emotions that Anne experience post baby seem very relatable. Although this is every parent’s worst nightmare, there rings so many truths that this book would appeal to many mothers. I recently spoke with a friend who is staying home with her first child about not having anything to say to her husband. Anne was experiencing this same dilemma along with depression. I had never put myself in their shoes and this gave me new perspective and insight to some of the struggles that new mothers must face. Does my husband still find me attractive? Why will my baby not stop crying? I know this is only a small portion of the book, but it spoke volumes to me. Another great reason to have a second opinion while reading because my friend questioned everything from the father’s perspective. What was he giving up? How must he feel with a wife at home that is depressed and pushing him away? There are always two sides to the story and Lapena did an excellent job adding additional elements to this story.

The first two chapters of A Stranger in the House, also by Lapena, are included at the end. I look forward to reading it!

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Write About it Wednesday: Rubio Murders, Brownsville, TX

“If the building stays behind, it will always be a landmark of three children who were never given an opportunity to live, to see the sun rise one more time, to see the moon.”

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts dives into the city of Brownsville, Texas and the repercussions of a horrendous murder of three children and what happens to the building where a crime of such nature is committed. This true crime novel is written in a unique way that focuses outside the murder itself and shows what is left behind. The author was asked to cover the potential demolition of the site of the murders but saw a story that went much deeper. This led to a six-year journey into the effects on the city in the aftermath, the larger significance of such crimes and an exploration of social issues such as poverty and mental illness. John Allen Rubio, with the aid of his common law wife, murdered his three children after voices told him to. These were not simple, point and shoot murders but were gruesome in nature. These children suffered at the hands of their parents. My first question is always: Could this have been prevented? Were there signs?

Rubio had a rough childhood. His mother would use his disability checks to pay their rent instead of providing therapy and assistance. He was pushed into prostitution and moved in with girlfriends to get away from the abuse. He had dreams of going into the military after high school but failed the aptitude tests required for entry. He became addicted to drugs and was homeless on and off. He could not hold down a steady job. Tillman spoke with past teachers, coaches, neighbors, shelters that Rubio visited about his childhood and disability. She left no stone unturned. She even corresponded with Rubio through letters and visits to the prison. He sent her pictures and school reports and painted a picture of a loving father, dedicated to his children. So, what went wrong?

The neighbors believe the building where the crimes were committed is cursed, it has a bad energy that passes to those that come near. Tillman made countless visits to document the changes occurring in and around the building, but didn’t truly grasp the murders until she walked into the Rubio apartment. Her description of not being able to wear the shoes she walked through the apartment in anymore shares how deeply involved she became while covering this crime. She spent six years of her life on this project and it shows. The research is impeccable. As she describes the building, the community, the neighbors, the reader can truly feel the effects of the murders and begin to question their views and opinions on major issues such as poverty, mental illness, the death penalty and many more. These are uncomfortable topics that she doesn’t skip over but instead brings to the forefront and makes you think. He murdered his children. He is a monster in the eyes of most because that is how the media portrays him. Who could kill their own children? He deserves to die. What if you had to look him in the eye? What if you knew his whole story? Would it change your mind…?

I have been lucky in my nonfiction choices lately. I would easily add this book to my favorites list, not only for the content but the writing is something to learn from. As always, I did further research and considered various aspects of the story, the city itself and the coverage of the crime. It made me reflect on issues that I’ve always felt my mind was made up on. Isn’t that the power of good writing?

Cheers to another year of reading, writing and continuing to fly through a million pages…

Special Sunday Edition: Christmas Reads

“It’s curious how a few lines can cheer one so greatly over a cup of tea and a slice of toast.”

I’ll Be Home for Christmas by Lori Wilde- This was a quick read that I picked up when I saw Twilight, Texas on the front cover. I’m a native Texan, and a visitor of Wilde’s real hometown which made this a cozy start to the Christmas season. This is a spin off the movie “The Holiday” but Texas style. Gabi is a runaway law student. She wants to spend Christmas in a small town, like the one in the snow globe her brother gave her before he passed away. She trades places with a woman that she speaks with online but has never met. She finds herself living in a yurt on a Christmas tree farm in Texas. Of course, this wouldn’t be a romance without a hot man that she finds irresistible so in walks Joe. Gabi finds herself and her love along the way. It was cute and worth the read around the holidays. The descriptions of the town were perfect and there are some elements of intrigue scattered throughout.

Last Christmas in Paris by Heather Webb and Hazel Gaynor- This was hands down one of my favorite reads for 2017. I couldn’t put it down! First off, back to the hopeless romantic in me: there is nothing like a well written letter. We live in a digital age of text/type/email that has lost that grand gesture of time spent pining over what to say, how to say it, and then sending the envelope waiting for the response while you stare longingly out the window as time passes. This book takes you back in time to World War One staring out your own window waiting to devour the next letter. We follow the correspondence of strong willed, ready to spread her wings, Evie Elliott as she deals with the war and its repercussions for her friends and family. She longs to be a part of the war but must serve her roles at home until the time arrives. As the years pass, her growth as a woman is seen through her letters and the hardships she and so many others are forced to face. The love and loss make this a must read for historical fiction fans. I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed some tears. I needed 100 more pages of letters, and then 100 more because it would never be enough. These authors did an amazing job of blending the characters and stories and providing perspective on the women’s views of the war. Besides the romance, the coverage of the newspapers and how the media reported on the war was enlightening. I hope to do research on this subject soon.

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas! Enjoy your holidays and curl up with a good book!

Book Review Saturday: Hannah Swensen Holiday Mysteries

“… a Santa-sized sackful of trouble ensues.”

Christmas time usually involves a handful of fun, easy reads and several binge sessions of Hallmark holiday movies. No worries though, I still manage to fit in quite a bit of reading between The Christmas Kiss and The Santa Clause. I have never read Joanne Fluke but the thought of a few mindless hours behind a Christmas themed book was too tempting to pass up. I finished Christmas Caramel Murder in a few hours and returned to the library the next day for another one. It was hard to limit myself, but I need to save a few for next year, right? The books are very short and include several recipes for those that are baking inclined. I must admit that a sugar cookie craving followed. I doubt mine tasted quite like the book proposed but I was up for the challenge.

I read the books out of order and it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t know all the back story or characters but that wasn’t why I was reading. I just wanted to solve the murder while humming Christmas tunes and imagining the town all decked out in holiday cheer. The Christmas Caramel Murder finds Mrs. Clause dead in the snow. Mrs. Clause, better known as Phyllis Bates, has angered several people including Lisa, Hannah’s best friend. Phyllis was chosen to play Mrs. Clause alongside Lisa’s husband, her ex-boyfriend whom she kisses during rehearsal of the Christmas Carol play. Hannah must work quickly to solve the murder because her friends are high on the suspect list. This was my favorite of the two. Sugar Cookie Murder was a bit drawn out. Murder strikes at the annual Christmas buffet and Hannah decides to put her investigation skills to work since Detective Mike is shorthanded. The new wife of Martin Dubinski is found dead in the snow with the whole town stranded in the Community Center as suspects. The obvious suspects such as the ex-wife, ex-boyfriend and husband who was already regretting the marriage are ruled out, but the real evidence comes in the form of photographs of the event. Hannah always seems to find the killer before Mike and it seems a bit far fetched that the detective is always a few steps behind.

I do not read these cozy mysteries looking for five star reads. If that is what you are looking for, you will be very disappointed. I read these to escape for a few hours and not have to think or be challenged. That isn’t a negative against the author, these just aren’t those type of books. I know people who rate them with one star because they say the writing is awful, or it’s too predictable but what did they expect? I think book reviewers fail to consider context and audience which can be a detriment to many authors. Be considerate before you review. It will make for a better reading and writing experience for all.

Do you have any holiday reads that you enjoy? I would love to add some new ones to my reading roster. Please send me some of your favorites!

Write About it Wednesday: Front- Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign

“Every day on the campaign trail Trump’s actions test the definition of normal.”

This is quite possibly my favorite read of 2017. Unbelievable is just as the title states: Unbelievable. I watch the news. I follow campaign trails. I don’t get caught up in the day to day as often as I used to, but I like to know what is going on in the world around me. Katy Tur’s first-hand account of the recent presidential election had me questioning everything I know and remember. The book starts out with her receiving the Trump assignment (and some sex with a man she met on Tinder) and follows the campaign from the very beginning of Trump’s announcement of his candidacy to the final victory party. She pieces together her time on the road through memory, tweets, TV scripts and a compilation of notes that were outlined and then published for us to enjoy. Although Tur asks difficult questions of Trump, she claims no political affiliation to remain unbiased. I did feel she leaned toward Democratic views, but her book focuses on Trump and the evolution of campaign coverage. It truly was the CRAZIEST campaign in American history and she was there through it all.

What makes this book so great? I keep asking myself this question. I cannot pinpoint the exact reason that I loved it except to say that I took my reading further than words on the page. When an interview was mentioned, I found myself searching YouTube for the video. When a person is mentioned that I hadn’t heard of, I found them on Twitter. Tur’s story is down to Earth, easy to read and opens your eyes to the things that journalists deal with in our current media climate. Trump called her out on multiple occasions and violent threats were a real possibility from his supporters. Her interviews weren’t flawless, she didn’t claim to be perfect, she was real.

I think this book is a must read for anyone who enjoys politics, history or a laugh when it comes to presidential candidates. I will look at political coverage in a new light and have become an active Twitter follower of many news sites and organizations. I have been looking for a journalist from the Clinton campaign to come forward with a similar title, but no luck so far. As many of you know, I try to always read both sides of any story so if you have recommendations, please feel free to share!

Book Review Saturday: Lincoln in the Bardo

“That stillness seemed the most terrifying thing of all. He was on his own now. None could help or hinder him on the profound journey which, it seemed, had now begun.”

I did not know what to expect with this book. I checked it out from the library previously but did not get around to reading it until the Man Booker finalists were announced. I love historical fiction, but this falls into a category all its own. I have never read a book like this. Saunders wins the award for most creativity, but the book did fall flat in some regards for me. The research is impeccable and presented in a new way that grabbed my attention. The history is entwined in the story with direct accounts from people who witnessed the events. It shows the discrepancies in what is remembered and how history can be misconstrued.

With a cast of 166 narrators, the book can be overwhelming at first. Saunders grabs your attention right away with stories from characters in the mysterious Bardo. It reads as a ghost story with historical elements. You will laugh, blush and feel sadness for the President in what must have been a heart wrenching experience. I do not have children. I can’t imagine having to bury one while still maintaining leadership of an entire nation. The weight of the world on his shoulders and watching his every move.

Unfortunately, the afterlife consumes most of the novel. I was more interested in the historical elements which left me a bit disappointed. I was ready for the ending about 50 pages before it came. The people trapped in the afterlife provide insight into the struggles of self and humanity, but I wanted more of the historical side of Willie’s passing. I am curious where the inspiration for the ghosts originated because they are so diverse. Their stories are well developed, and every detail was captured. It begs the question; do we really know we are dead once we pass? If there is an in between, why must we wait? Saunders tackles these issues and more with a book that is worth the read. I believe it will stand the test of time and be read for many generations to come.

Write About it Wednesday: Start Writing Your Book Today

“Most successful authors began their writing career in the margins of their normal life.”

I thought I would cover a few books about writing in honor of #nanowrimo. Although I am not participating this year because of graduate school, I still have been writing here and there and planning out my ideas. This book helped me get over the fear of sharing that I want to write a novel one day. Why is it so hard to say that out loud to people? Are we afraid of their judgement, afraid that we will never accomplish it or just lacking confidence in ourselves? I’m over it. I know this is something that I want to do and I don’t want to wait until I “have more time,” “all my research is complete,” or “when I become a better writer.” This book is 103 pages of pure motivation with excellent advice and easy to follow steps.’

The most important first step is writing your WHY. Why is this book important to you and why are you writing? This should be written down somewhere for you to return to when you lack motivation or feel like giving up. It is an excellent reminder. Setting weekly writing goals and tracking word count progress is vital to completing the project. If the book truly matters then you will make time in between your daily life to meet the goals. The author suggests using Pomodoro sessions working in small chunks of time with short breaks in between. Intention for the writing should be set along with a timer so the writing is meaningful and not wasted. She outlines a seven-week process for completing your first draft. At first, I thought this seemed way out of reach but I believe if her system is followed it would be possible. She even allows time for free writing which will eventually become the basis for the rough draft. After the rough draft, she describes ways to deal with criticism, revisions and helps you develop good writing habits.

I like the direct approach of this book. She is straight to the point and provides easy to follow steps to becoming the writer you want to be. She includes several resources in the back that assist with tracking your progress to stay accountable, advice on the creation of a reverse outline, and guides to developing the habits that will get you closer to your dream. This book was worth the money and just what I needed to get in gear. There are so many books out there for writers and it can be overwhelming trying to decide which ones will help you. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact I was quickly developing my why and creating outlines for future work.

Good luck to everyone who is typing away at their word counts. I’m proud of you! I hope to join you soon. If you have any books that have helped your writing career, please share! I would love to hear from you.