Book Review: The Confession, by Jo Spain

The Confession is a psychological thriller that starts out with the murder of a reviled Irish banker, himself single handedly blamed for the destruction of the Irish economy and the slaying of the Celtic Tiger. During the attack, his wife Julie sits by frozen (with fear? with relief?) and only calls the police after carefully cleaning herself up.

A troubled young man, JP, quickly confesses to the murder. Alice, a gritty policewoman on Dublin’s murder squad, should have an easy win to add to her high solve rate, but she suspects something more sordid behind his facile confession. Despite heavy pressure from her boss, she digs, expertly playing off Julie’s and JP’s vulnerabilities to reveal the warps in their lives and alibis.

My main problem with the book is that Julie is such a sniveling, whiny character that you almost wish JP had taken a golf club to her head also. It isn’t until late one night, after she humiliates herself at a tony party, that she reveals any personal agency beyond excessive drinking. The gruesome act that follows isn’t totally a surprise, but it ties the plot together well.

Fans of Tana French will love this book.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

5 Stars


I was mesmerized by this book.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman suffering from severe abdominal pain and bleeding, entered Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital, where the wards were still segregated, and the care of Black patients was rumored to be inferior to that accorded Whites. Baltimore’s Black community even claimed that Hopkins kidnapped people in the dead of night, right off the city’s streets, to serve as unwilling subjects of gruesome research projects. Unsurprisingly, Black patients like Henrietta went to Hopkins only when they were critically ill or dying.

Henrietta was quickly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her radium treatments, cells from Henrietta’s cervix were harvested and given—without her true understanding, her family would later maintain—to Dr. George Gey, a Hopkins researcher who was trying to create the world’s first line of immortal cells, or cells that could regenerate themselves indefinitely.

Dr. Gey was successful and the HeLa cells were born. The immortal HeLa cells became a medical miracle that would give rise to life-saving drugs like the polio vaccine and various cancer therapies.

Within weeks of her entering Hopkins, Henrietta died, and her name was quickly lost to history. Some later articles said her real name was Helen Lane, but there was little immediate interest in discovering the true identify or life story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Her husband and children were left uninformed even as to her diagnosis and had no idea what happened to her during the autopsy that Dr. Gey performed.

At the heart of Rebecca Skloot’s story is the desperate longing of Henrietta’s children to know who their mother really was. Skloot focuses on daughter Deborah, who has only a lock of her mother’s hair, a treasured possession that she keeps in the family Bible. Deborah pursues obtaining official recognition of her mother’s contribution to science and worries that her mother’s cells experience pain in the research she imagines as inflicted upon them.

Henrietta had been born in Clover, VA, in the home-house that had served as her ancestors’ slave cabin. She was a wife, a loving mother to four children, a woman who adored dancing, and a caretaker in both her family and her community. In her life, her greatest journey was from Clover to Baltimore’s Turner Station neighborhood, but her cells would travel to outer space on rockets, studying the impact of space travel on human beings.

The HeLA cells were harvested and grown just before the birth of the Civil Rights movement, and at the confluence of so many issues: healthcare parity for impoverished, minority, and disadvantaged patients; medical privacy; and especially, informed consent. Her husband and children have long maintained that Henrietta never donated her cells. They wonder why her cells could jump start a multi-billion-dollar industry, while they themselves could never even obtain health insurance. Most poignantly, they struggle even to pay for the hearing aids they need to treat their congenital deafness.

Fans of nonfiction and medical science histories will love this book. I certainly did.

Book Review: A Double Life, by Flynn Berry

5 Stars


I loved this book. Flynn Berry creates an indomitable character in Claire, a British General Practitioner who displays great courage and resourcefulness in investigating, as an adult, a vicious murder that she witnessed when she was only 8 years old.

A Double Life is a psychological suspense thriller set in present-day London and Scotland. It is loosely based on the story of Lord Lucan, a Member of Parliament who disappeared in 1979 after being accused of murder. The real Lord Lucan had several children; Berry imagines how such a man’s daughter and son would have coped with the fallout from the murder and their subsequent life in Witness Protection, where their greatest fear was that their father might one day return.

A Double Life reveals the depravity of the scions of the Upper Class—those Oxford men who speak with cut-glass accents and throw their privilege around like a medieval torture device against those less endowed with cash, connections, and real estate. It shows how the crimes they committed as students—for the sheer arrogance of proving they could escape punishment—led to repercussions that haunted their children for decades afterwards.

My one quibble is with the editing:  the book contains many independent clauses or sentences that should have been separated by a period or semicolon. I read—and loved—Berry’s previous book, Under the Harrow, and noticed this error in that book also. This seems to be one of the few weaknesses in her writing style, one a good editor should correct.

Fans of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver will not be able to put this book down.

Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace


5 Stars

Harvest is an exquisitely-written tale of the dispossessed: impoverished indentured farmers are flung off ancestral lands as a wealthy landlord transforms his feudal holdings into more profitable grazing land for sheep. The story is set in a medieval time that is never specified, and in a village too small to possess a name, a church, or even an awareness of life in the next parish; the village’s boundaries are delineated by stones against which parents symbolically butt their children’s heads, a warning to the next generation of the limits of both geography and role that they must never traverse.

Walther Thirsk arrived in the village 12 years earlier as the servant of Master Kent, a kindly and generous lord. He fell in love with Cecily, a local girl, but even his marriage and subsequent widowing did not earn him the status of a trusted insider. His separateness is emphasized by the contrast between his dark hair and the blond hair of his intermarried neighbors. Subsequent events only serve to sharpen that divide.

Long-standing traditions are upended by two events that occur as Walter and his neighbors harvest what turns out to be their last crop of barley: the arrival of a family of squatters— themselves thrown off land that is being turned into pastureland for sheep, who are quickly blamed for a fire in the stable; and the childless Master Kent’s disinheritance of the village and manor house to his late wife’s cousin, the cruel and rapacious Master Jordan. Master Jordan has already hired the enigmatic Mr. Quill to survey his new lands, the maps providing Walter with a bird’s-eye view of the village and its tininess in comparison to the wider world into which he must soon venture.

My only quibble is that the ending was too drawn out. The last twenty percent of the book comprises more of a mental journey than a physical one, although that journey is rendered in language so evocative one feels the profound upheaval the villagers—and Walter—suffer.

Fans of Andrew Michael Hurley will love this book.

Book Review: Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson phoned this book in.

Published in 1992, the book is quite dated and would not be helpful to a European traveler today. Worse, there is very little “foreignness” in the book; Bryson’s anecdotes about the countries he visits are less about the country and more about his being dissatisfied with the country. I tired of the endless complaints about his difficulty in booking a hotel room, the rudeness of waiters, and the stupidity of train staff.

The book is loosely organized around his recreating a backpacking trip he took in the 1970’s with one of his college friends, Stephen Katz. Some of the stories he tells of that time are quite funny and comprise the few entertaining spots in the book.

If you want a hilarious reading experience, instead read Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which features Katz again, and In a Sunburned Country.

Book Review: The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

2 Stars


The Essex Serpent focuses on a conflict between Science, represented by Cora Seaborne, and Religion, represented by Rev. Will Ransome. Unfortunately, both pursue the “Lite” version of their vocations and their conflicts quickly dissipate into epistolary arguments. Frankly, I was bored by all their philosophical musings and forced myself to finish the last, tedious pages.

Admittedly, setting the book in the village of Aldwinter, Essex was an inspired choice; Essex was the site of a famous witch trial and of a previous hysteria over a supposed sea serpent. There are many references to serpents throughout the book: the sea creature blamed for all the villagers’ troubles; a child’s webbed fingers; and, the engravings on a pew. However, the author presents the Aldwinter locals as dimwits for believing in the serpent, which comes across as snobbish, particularly because Cora is herself drawn too easily into believing in the serpent.

Several of the characters are in love with Cora: Martha, her maid; Luke, her doctor; and quickly, Will himself. The love story between Cora and Will seems predictable, but unfortunately their union lacks anything but intellectual passion. One is left with the impression that they are as happy to be apart, writing letters to each other, as to be together.

Most disconcertingly, the book contains an utterly gratuitous child molestation scene. The scene serves almost no purpose to the larger plot and has little apparent effect on the character subjected to the abuse. Why include it?

Many reviewers have commented on the quality of the prose, and there is much about the writing that is beautiful. However, Perry has trouble maintaining a consistent point of view and there is a great deal of ineffectual head-hopping.

Readers who love Victorian literature might enjoy this book. I do, but for many reasons, The Essex Serpent left me cold.



In a Cottage In a Wood, by Cass Green

3 Stars


I gave this book 3 Stars and, upon further reflection, I’ve decided I was overly generous.

I admit that I have a weakness for flawed, unreliable narrators, but I was hoping for one as indomitable as Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train. Unfortunately, 30-year-old Neve Carey comes across as a mindless, drunken loudmouth who inflicts misery on everyone she encounters, especially her overwhelmed sister.

The primary problem is that the author never establishes a reason for the reader to sympathize with Neve. She simply presents her as an alcoholic who can’t maintain a job, a relationship, or a place to live better than a hovel. Neve has absolutely no sense of personal agency, which makes her appear malleable and weak. There isn’t any hint of psychological trauma until the last chapters and it is relayed through the device of a diary that has already been burned. How can one read a diary that doesn’t exist? Also, the main premise—that a suicidal woman would bequeath a cottage to the last person she meets before jumping off London’s Waterloo Bridge–is barely believable, while the rest of the plot is even more poorly imagined. The reader is expected to feel terror over trampled graveside flowers, an axe that has been moved, and a radio that has been switched on. I just didn’t.

The book is very poorly edited, and some sentences made no sense due to missing words. A lot of the imagery was overly dramatic and repetitive; Neve became dizzy, nauseous, and felt like she was punched in the gut way too often for my liking.

I have never read Cass Green’s children’s books, but I recommend she stick to fiction for young people. Fans of A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window and Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train might enjoy this book, but it’s far more likely that they will put the book down feeling terribly disappointed.