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After I’m Gone

After I’m Gone
Laura Lippman

When local big shot and bookie Felix Brewer skipped bail and disappeared, he left behind a wife Bambi,  three daughters, and a mistress, Julie. When Julie disappeared ten years later, many people assumed he had sent for her. It was 15 years before her body was discovered.
Private investigator Sandy Sanchez is trying to solve the cold case of Julie’s murder. Digging into the past, he finds layer after layer of secrets and lies. But will he discover the truth?

After I’m Gone uses multiple narrators and weaves together accounts spanning many years. While it initially appears to be a story about Felix, it really the story of all the women he loved and left behind. Each one adds her own unique perspective to this novel.
Part mystery, part family drama, After I’m Gone is all page-turner. Telling a story from so many viewpoints is tricky, but Lippman did an excellent job. Each character has their own distinct voice but they tell one story.
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The Deepest Secret

The Deepest Secret
Carla Buckley.

Tyler celebrates his 14th birthday in the backyard, after dark. He has a rare disease called “XP” which makes UV light fatal. His mom Eve has done her best to shelter him, and their family life revolves around a series of elaborate protocals to keep Tyler safe. The reality is, tho, he will still probably die before he turns 20. Tyler’s older sister Melissa seems to accept their unusual life, but as she nears 16, she starts to buck against her parents’ rules. Their dad, David, is working in another state and struggling to stay close to his family.
Tyler’s family thinks they are doing ok (fatal disease notwithstanding) until the night Eve’s best friend’s daughter Amy goes missing. The seach for Amy takes over all of their lives. The strain of this tragedy, on top of their daily struggles, might just be too much.
Tyler has a secret: he sneaks out at night with a camera. At first he just took pictures of wildlife and plants, but soon he discovered the irresistable thrill of peering into his neighbors’ lives. Everyone has secrets, and Tyler knows a lot of them. But its the one secret he doesn’t know that could be the hardest for him to face.

The Deepest Secret could be classified as a fairly standard women’s novel. The chapters narrated by Eve and David are like a lot of other chapters about two married, disconnected people. But the chapters from Tyler’s perspective elevate this novel above the ordinary. His character and voice are unique. Its rare to read a novel with a 14 year old boy that has been this well developed.

Everyone has secrets. And The Deepest Secret will keep you turning the pages, wanting to find out all of them.
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The Kept

The Kept
James Scott.

The Kept is a novel about family, about the things we do for the people we love, and the lengths to which we will go to protect them. Its also a story about revenge, and about how one action can not balance the scale of another.
Elspeth came home to her remote family cabin from a stay in the city, working as a midwife, to find her husband and four children had been murdered. Her last son, 12 year old Caleb, was nearly mad with hunger and grief. Mistaking her for the men who killed his family, he shot her.
When Elspeth recovered just a little, the two of them struck off on a long cold trek to the nearest city, looking for answers.

Scott draws his characters with fine lines, revealing their inner lives in action and gesture. He uncovers information slowly, so that when the facts are finally stated, you are surprised but feel like you also knew it all along.
Sadly,  Scott creates these characters and then ruins them. Most of this book, people are starving, freezing and bleeding- or all three at once. The Kept is about family, and about revenge- and it doesn’t end well.

James Scott has produced an excellent first novel. I didnt precisely like it, because it was so bleak, but I still admire his talent. I am eager for him to write another book soon…maybe one with some hope.

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Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black
Diane Setterfield

Setterfield’s first book, Thirteenth Tale, was a wonderful story that I love and recommend but find hard to explain. With Bellman and Black,  she’s done it again. The cover describes it as “a ghost story”, but I’d have a hard time explaining exactly who is haunting whom.

William Bellman is a young man when his uncle takes him under his wing and begins grooming him to take over the family cloth mill. Thanks to skill, a little luck, and incredibly hard work, Bellman expands and eventually inherits the business. His personal life is likewise sucessful, until one day tragedy strikes.
Mourning at the grave of his dearest loved one, Bellman meets a mysterious man named Black, who offers him an opportunity. Inspired, Bellman envisions a new business, which he names Bellman and Black. His business is successful beyond his wildest dreams- until one day, after years it suddenly isn’t. On the downward slope from a peak of success, Bellman begins to wonder who exactly his invisible business partner is, and what kind of deal he has made.

Rooks figure largely in this story (if there is any specific ghost, it is a rook.) Death is part of life in this story. Color and the many shades of black are also a focal point.

Summed up, it Bellman and Black doesn’t sound wildly compelling. Oh but it is! This is one of those books where the power of the story (and the beauty of the writing) is greater than the basic plot. Its true gothic Victorian-style horror- chilling exactly because so much is left implied.
The descriptions of color, cloth and materials are especially lush. I lost myself thoroughly in the pages of description for Bellman’s business.

If you want a story that is compelling, frightening, and gorgeous all at once, pick up Bellman and Black when it goes on sale this week. Maybe, in the end, its the story that haunts you….

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You might like: Tiger’s Wife, Obrect. Bookman’s Tale, Lovett. Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield.

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Life After Life

Life After Life
Jill McCorkle

(Another book with the same title, by Kate Atkinson, came out around the same time. It received more buzz, but I like this one better.)

Johanna has been married several times, and even in love a few times, but has never found happiness. She returned to her hometown when her father died. Now she manages the hot dog stand he left her, and serves as a hospice volunteer at Pine Haven retirement home. Johanna is struggling to rebuild a relationship with her childhood friend Ben, whose selfish wife Kendra is planning to leave him and their unhappy young daughter Abby, who is grieving the loss of her puppy, Dollbaby. Johanna has taken under her wing a single mother named CJ, who works at the hot dog stand and also is a beautician at Pine Haven.

The cast of characters at Pine Haven is just as varied and complex. Sadie is a kind retired teacher who uses film and glue to help others journey wherever they wish. Toby is also a former teacher, and a lesbian, only she alternates between calming yoga breaths and dispensing blunt advise. Rachel is a Jewish widow and once successful lawyer who has moved to the town seeking the memory of a forbidden love. Stanley- my favorite, the saddest of all- Stanley has hatched a plot to keep his son Ned from being too attached, but it quickly gets more complicated than he ever imagined.

The narrative storyline is interrupted by pages from Johanna’s journal relating the lives and deaths of people she has attended. Each of her accounts is followed by a few lines from the dying, as death takes them back to their happiest moments of life.

Life After Life has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots woven in and around the story. It is a testament to the author’s skill that each character appears vivid and compelling on the page- some sketched in only a few lines, and some fleshed out. The story is narrated from many people’s perspectives, and their views of themselves and others make the different characters come alive.

Life After Life is necessarily a sad book, because its about people dying. But its a good book, because its about the impact our lives have even once we are gone. And its a hopeful book, because its about the things we do for love. For love, Johanna marries a dying man named Luke so she can sign over his belongings to his partner David. For love, CJ sacrifices herself for her son Kurt. For love, Stanley makes a fool of himself to give Ned a chance. For love, Johanna sits with the dying and gives them a chance to tell their stories of life.
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You might like: Me Before You, Jojo Moyes. The Bakerton Stories, Jennifer Haigh.

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Five Days At Memorial

Five Days At Memorial
Sheri Fink

This is easily one of the best narrative nonfiction books I have ever read. It tells the story of what happened in one New Orleans hospital during Hurricaine Katrina, where doctors and other medical staff were accused of euthenizing patients. The book is divided into two sections. The first is an account of what happened in the hospital during the storm. The second recounts the legal process in the years afterward. Dr. Anna Pou, a doctor who was working in the hospital during Katrina, and later arrested, is a focal character. The author relies on the viewpoints of many different people to tell a necessarily complicated tale, but she has done an excellent job at weaving all the narrative threads together into one compelling story.
This is a good book but also a sad book. One of the things that astounded me page after page was the poor planning and communication at almost every level of disaster response. For example, most hospitals in New Orleans (including Memorial) had food and water stores as well as generators at or below the ground floor (below sea level.) Another example was the evacuation issue: the mayor ordered people to evacuate, but roads were clogged and not every one had cars. The hospital burecrats (off location) and government officials each assumed the other was responsible for removing hospital patients. Once evacuated, there was no plan in place for which hospitals would take in patients, or how they would get there. And of course no one knew how to prioritize: should the sickest patients leave first, or those with the best chances of surviving? 
Even in Memorial hospital, it seems that some basic knowledge and communication could have helped. The author clearly portrays the medical professionals who were there (some of whom chose to stay to care for the sick and dying) in a favorable light, as people who did often heroic things under the worst of circumstances. But it seemed that some of the circumstances didn’t have to be. I was particularly upset when I read that another building in the Memorial complex had electricity, but on-site administrators chose to hole up there, rather than bringing patients in where climate control and ventilators could’ve eliminated suffering and saved lives.
Sadly, we know what happened. The healthier patients and their families left first, leaving the very sick and terminal patients to suffer in the heat, darkness, and increasingly poor sanitation; without access to basic medical care like oxygen. At some point, at least one doctor made the descision to give these patients large doses of morphine and other drugs. Was the intent to alleviate suffering in patients truly believed to be dying? Or was it, in fact, to cause death in patients that might have lived?
A grand jury eventually found Dr. Anna Pou not guilty of murder for her role in administering the drugs. But the bigger issues remain unanswered. What accountability do doctors face in a disaster situation?  Who is responsible for crisis response? What should triage be when resources are limited?  And of course, what sort of care is acceptable at the end of life- where is the line between palliative care and euthanasia or assisted suicide??
There are no easy answers, and this author avoids the temptation to provide them. She tells a story, and raises the questions, and then the words stick with you long after the book is over.

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I received an Advance Reader’s Copy for this review. Covers often change before publication, but I hope this one does not, as the design is eye-catching and extremely fitting.

You might like: Columbine, Dave Cullen. Zeitoun, Dave Eggers.