Review of “The Last Days of Night” by Graham Moore

 

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I do not care so much for a great fortune as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.  – Thomas Edison

Until I read this book, I had an impression of what it would have been like to see the night lit for the first time. It was terribly romantic. It was surreal, ethereal, and peaceful. (Sort of like this book’s beautiful cover.) There were scientists and engineers of all sorts slapping each other on the back, congratulating themselves on their enormous contribution to mankind.  Thomas Edison was one of these scientists, of course, and he was a jolly good fellow. He lead this collaboration of gifted men with the grace, elegance, and credibility only natural born leaders of that period possessed.

It seems I was mistaken.

Graham Moore’s  latest novel, The Last Day’s of Night, is the story of the War of Currents. Though it is a work of fiction, the majority of it is historically accurate and all of the characters did exist including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse, and Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath. Paul, a fresh-out-school attorney in is mid-twenties is hired by Westinghouse to defend him in a law suit Thomas Edison has brought forth demanding the outrageous sum of one billion dollars.

Paul is a thoroughly likable young man who quickly finds himself in over his head. He is, however, determined to win at all costs. He is ambitious, driven, and singularly focused. As time goes on he morphs from naive rookie to shrewd, calculating, savvy attorney. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few SNAFUs along the way… (Though I’d never heard of him, he is apparently quite well-known in the legal world. In fact, the firm he eventually started is still in existence and continues to use the Cravath Sytem which has been credited with changing the way lawyers practice and law firm are structured.)

This book is more intriguing that I could have imagined. All of the same components of modern corporate conflicts and greed existed then. And these scientists we’ve come to hold in such high esteem where not exempt from engaging in all manner of unscrupulous behavior in their quest to be the first and best. From patent infringement to character assassination, from corporate espionage to arson, nothing was off limits.

The author tells this story in such an amazingly engaging, page-turning way that I was fully entertained while being educated. That, I think, is the pinnacle of happiness for those of us semi-obsessed with historical fiction.

There is already a movie in the works. Moore has done the adaptation. My expectations are admittedly very high after having seen The Imitation Game which he adapted from the book Alan Turing: The Engima  by Andrew Hodges.

5/5 stars

Many thanks to Random House for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of “Stranger, Father, Beloved” by Taylor Larsen

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The book begins with Michael seeing his wife, Nancy, talking to another man at a party. He decides that this is the man who should be married to Nancy. He promptly begins working on his plan to make this man Nancy’s new husband.

This is a strange book in the sense that a decent writer (clean, articulate language, etc.) has written a bad story about mostly bad, unlikable characters. My instinct about twenty per cent through the book was to put the book down, mark it DNF, and move on with my life. I didn’t do that for two reasons. The first is that it’s a fairly short book and I knew it would only take me another day or two get through. The second is that I appreciated the author’s writing style enough that I kept hoping that the plot would change, that something would happen to make it a more pleasant to read. Sadly, this did not happen.

We learn that Michael has some behavioral health issues. He suffers from a neurotic paranoia that has been difficult for him to mask/control for most of his life. He also has some other issues but I don’t want to give too much away. These issues, however, do not explain why Michael has such utter contempt and disrespect for women. With the exception of his precious mother, that is. I found his personality to be offensive and didn’t feel it had anything to do with his legitimate diagnosis. He was simply a thoroughly unlikable man.

As for the other characters, I found most of them to be very stereotyped and one-dimensional. Nancy is too timid, too self-sacrificing, too compliant. NO ONE is that nice, that wholesome. I understand that she feels a little inferior because of her lack of education but it was all too much. John, the would-be husband, is too pure, too salt of the Earth.

1.75/5 stars

I would like to thank Gallery Books for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of Sober Stick Figure: A Memoir by Amber Tozer

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Amber Tozer is super-funny, brutally honest comedian who has bravely chosen to share her story of alcoholism and recovery with the world. If you’re thinking this is another super-heavy memoir that will leave you feeling  nothing but depression and pity, just take a look at the cover. That sick figure version of Amber makes frequent appearances throughout the book…

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In a very real and funny way, Amber Tozer shares how and why she first began drinking, how her drinking became out of control, her struggles to gain control, and finally, how she was able to get sober. And there are also several funny stories about urine. And a few other funny (funny haha and funny odd) stories that have little or nothing at all to do with urine.

It’s refreshing to hear another human being share their insecurities and worst moments with such candor and humor.There’s no blame game being played here (though the author did have some difficult moments in her childhood). And though I got the sense that she definitely had some regrets about some of the things that occurred while she was drinking, this isn’t a preachy book about redemption or regret and self-loathing.  I got the sense that she was sharing her story to make people smile and to help others who may be having a difficult time.

Sober Stick Figure was a quick, page-turning, one-day read for me.

4.5/5 stars

Thanks to Running Press via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review of Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison For a Murder He Didn’t Commit by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved. – Benjamin Franklin, letter to Benjamin Vaughn dated March 14, 1785

 

On the evening of October 30, 1975, Martha Moxley, a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl residing in the prestigious Belle Haven enclave of the very affluent town of Greenwich Connecticut, was brutally murdered so close to her own home her mother believes she may have heard her screams.

The following morning, her friend finds her body bludgeoned and stabbed. The weapon is a golf club which has been wielded with such force it has broken in three. Her pants and underwear have been pulled down around her ankles, indicating a sexual assault, though in the days to come we will learn that her hymen remains intact and there is no evidence of semen found on or near her body.

There are suspects are aplenty. The neighbors, the neighbor’s tutor, the ill-tempered boyfriend, the rapist gardner, the weirdo next door. Some witnesses even report seeing large, hulking figures slinking about in the night, inspiring such fear that they hid until the coast was clear and then ran to the safety of their homes. Residents are sure the forensic evidence will narrow the search and a stand-out suspect will come to forefront. Police will swiftly match the evidence with the suspect, corroborate eyewitness testimony, and elicit a confession. Sadly, that does not happen. Alibis will be corroborated. Polygraph and sodium pentathol tests will be passed and failed. There will be a devastating loss of physical evidence and other catastrophic investigative failures. The case will become cold.

But even as the case turns and stays cold, one family will remain under a cloud of suspicion. The Skakels, the Belle Haven neighbors of the Moxley family, will provide police, the media, and the general public with two suspects. Initially, however, it is Michael’s older brother, Tommy, who is considered the more likely perpetrator. In fact, it will be years before Michael is considered a suspect. I won’t reveal all of the information on the various suspects or all of the contradictory evidence but it’s my belief that there were other suspects who deserved at least the same amount of attention given to the Skakel boys. It seems some were only given a cursory glance while some were not given any attention at all. It was no secret that the Skakels were a wealthy and powerful family. But rather than making them off-limits and impenetrable as some have suggested, it seemed to have made them more of a target to those who considered them suspects.

In 1991, the Greenwich PD announced they would be reinvestigating the case. What ensued  between this announcement, Michael’s arrest and conviction, and his being granted habeas corpus relief  in 2013, was a media and judicial three-ring circus the details of which you must read to believe. Due at least in part to the inadequate representation Michael received, a whole laundry list of factors, including the disregard of the established time of death and solid alibi Michael had for that time, and credibility of the only witnesses testifying against Michael were ignored, resulting in Michael’s conviction.

This book isn’t simply the story of the crime and trial, however. It’s also the story of  Michael and the Skakel family. Some of the details may surprise you. That’s all I’ll say about that.

This book is a must-read for anyone who has been interested in the Martha Moxley case. It is also an important illustration for us all that miscarriages of justice can and do occur when the need for results, power, fame, and money supersede the need for justice.

Though I was left with a few unanswered questions, I felt Framed: Why Michael Skakel Spent Over a Decade in Prison For a Murder He Didn’t Commit provides a compelling case in support of Michael Skakel’s innocence. Of course, the author is Michael Skakel’s cousin. (Perhaps we wouldn’t be so familiar with this case if it were otherwise.) But even a biased presentation of facts (and I’m certainly not saying there is one here) could not change things such as time of death, lost physical evidence, and the concealment of exculpatory evidence.

I feel that I should mention that I have not read any other books regarding this case, fictionalized or otherwise, including those by Dominick Dunne and disgraced former L.A.P.D. detective Mark Fuhram. Therefore, I have no basis to compare the arguments for or against any suspects or information in previously published books.

We must always remember that despite gut feelings, rumors, and personal disdain and prejudice, the American criminal justice system is based on one’s innocence until guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution in a court of law – not with the media, tabloid or otherwise. And certainly not with the rumor mill, those with a personal ax to grind, or those out to make a quick buck on someone else’s misfortune.

Michael is currently awaiting a decision as to whether or not he will be re-tried for the murder of Martha Moxley.

4.75/5 stars

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of “Esther the Wonder Pig” by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walter with Caprice Crane

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“Every amazing and wonderful thing that happened to us was because of an animal that most people don’t think of as more than a barcode in a grocery store.”

It’s hard to not to go all fangirl when I think about Esther the Wonder PigI’ve been a Facebook fan of Esther’s for a long time now. Her substantial physiognomy and wry sense sense of humor (not to mention her wardrobe!) have never failed to put a smile on my face. Needless to say, I was very excited when I heard there was to be a book written about Esther, her dads, and their journey. I even had an idea of how the book would go:

  1. Esther’s dads find that there’s a pig that needs a home. (I did know they initially thought she was a micro or mini pig.)
  2. After much research on the rearing of pigs and much discussion and thought, they agree to adopt said pig.
  3. The aforementioned pig grows slightly larger than they’d anticipated but it’s all good because she’s super cute and was so easy to train.
  4. They love having a giant pig so much they purchase a farm so they can have have even more pigs.
  5. Everyone lives Happily Ever Esther!

WRONG!!

Esther’s story is so much more than I ever realized. First, there are the small details of how Esther came to live with Steve and Derek. Which I can totally relate to because I currently have 5 dogs living in our home (one is a foster) and sometimes you just have to sneak one in under the radar. But I don’t like spoilers so I’ll leave it at that.

Then there’s all the things they went through as they learned to adapt to life (with what would turn out to be a 650lb) commercial pig. And it’s a lot. As it turns out, raising and training Esther was no easy job. And not exactly glamourous. But there is a one-word explanation for why it ultimately worked: COMMITMENT.  Sure they loved her, but that was the easy part. Who wouldn’t? Steve and Derek stuck it out when the going got really, really tough.

Then, on a totally uncharacteristic whim, Steve decided to give Esther her own Facebook page. And that’s when life became even more exciting. Esther became an overnight celebrity. Steve and Derek gave Esther a voice and she began to use it to communicate with kindness and humor. As it became painfully obvious their family had outgrown their modest home, Esther used her voice to help her dads raise some of the necessary funds to relocate to the farm which is now the Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary.

Esther the Wonder Pig is a fantastic, fun, quick read that will make you laugh and cry. I loved the honesty and humor!

5/5 stars

Thanks to Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review of “We Could Be Beautiful” by Swan Huntley

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Catherine West is a wealthy trust fund (43 year old) kid living the good life in Manhattan. Like many wealthy people, she seems to have it all from the outside. Her days are spent bag shopping and lunching (though she doesn’t actually eat anything). Her nights are filled with gallery openings other society events. Somehow she manages to squeeze in massages on Sundays. She barely has time for involvement in the boutique stationary store she owns though she considers being a small business owner an important part of her identity. She is superficial and judgmental. Even her generosity (she loves to mention that she throws money at her staff, waiters, etc.) seems egocentric rather than being born of a need to actually help or reward people. Though she has been burned a few times when it comes to love, and she longs to have a husband and family, she’s such a you-know-what that it’s hard to find any sympathy for her.

She has a sister who adores her but she finds Caroline to be weak and needy. She judges her parenting skills. She’s happy to let Caroline take on the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to caring for their mother who has recently been moved to an assisted living facility due to the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

When she meets William Stockton at a gallery opening, things begin to look up for Catherine. He’s handsome and cultured and his parents were friends of Catherine’s parents many years before. This move very quickly and they become engaged. However, it soon becomes apparent something may be a little off with William. Catherine struggles with her competing emotions. On one hand, she’s ecstatic that she’s found her Mr. Wonderful. On the other, she has some questions and William is not exactly open to talking about the past. And why is it that her mother shuts down at the mere mention of the name William Stockton? With her wedding growing nearer by the day, Catherine needs to find out.

The first half of We Could Be Beautiful was difficult for me to get through. It didn’t feel psychological or mystery-like. It felt like Chick-Lit. There’s nothing wrong with Chick-Lit if that’s your preferred genre but it’s generally not mine. Fortunately, the second half was much better. I won’t include much in the way of spoilers but I will say I think Catherine (finally!) grew up.

This was, overall, a solid debut. Though originally categorized as General Fiction on NetGalley, I see that it has now been recategorized as Women’s Fiction on the Penguin Random House  website which I think is more fitting and will draw a more appropriate and appreciative audience.

3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Doubleday via NetGalley for providing me with a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review of The Girls by Emma Cline

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The Girls , Emma Cline’s highly-anticipated debut novel, is the story of 14 year old Evie, growing up in 1960’s  California, and how she becomes entangled with a violent cult. Evie is now an adult who has, for the most part, moved on with her life. The story toggles back and forth between the two timelines in a well-paced and seamless manner.

The parallels with the Manson killings of that time are very obvious. I’m a bit obsessed with true crime books and TV (ID is pretty much the only thing I watch). I read Helter Skelter many, many years ago, and was fascinated by the ability of Charles Manson to control the minds and actions of so many people. Let’s face it – he was a super-creepy looking misfit. What were these people thinking??

I was hoping this book would answer that question and really dig deep into what makes people join cults and allow themselves to be brainwashed in such a way. We know that they are often looking for a sense of belonging and acceptance. (Evie’s parents had recently divorced and she had become estranged from her BFF… ) We know they are often young and beginning to use/are using drugs and alcohol. (Evie does.) We know they often feel a lack of control and a resentment toward authority. (Evie is about to be sent to a boarding school against her will.) But there must be something much deeper and darker. Many young adults have similar experiences and don’t seek out murderous cults to be their surrogate family.

While this book was a page-turner, I didn’t gain a clear enough understanding of why Evie joined, and kept going back to, this cult.While I understand that Evie’s attraction to and fascination with Suzanne, the most influential of the girls, was a major factor, I don’t think it was enough. And it didn’t explain how Russell was able to gain such power and influence over the rest of the group. I needed more details. Russell, the leader of the cult, was not as central a character as I’d expected him to be and I was a little disappointed in that. I would have liked to see him more fully developed and to understand more about his relationships within the group.

 

Overall, however, this was a very solid debut novel. I feel that if I didn’t know so much about the Manson Family, I may have actually enjoyed it more. It was unable to stop making constant comparisons between the novel and the real-life story and I think that certainly had an impact on my overall impression of the book.  I would look forward to reading Emma Cline’s next book even though I didn’t end up loving this one as much as I’d hoped.

My rating: 3.25/5 stars

Thanks to Random House Publishing Group via NetGalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.