Tag Archives: Alcoholism

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

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All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

What are the elements an author uses to create suspense? One dramatic devise is to slowly release “clues” throughout the narrative leading up to a “big reveal” at the optimal climatic moment. The ultimate success of any thriller is when the reader is kept confused and clueless right up to the proper “ah ha” moment with a surprised “I didn’t see that one coming”. Failure results when the plot is either too obvious (I figured the ending out in the first couple of chapters of the book) or too erroneous (What the ???? This doesn’t make sense.) In the mix is the author’s artistry in creating the perfect “gimmick” as a means of imparting the necessary details.

In All the Missing Girls, the author, Megan Miranda, uses reverse chronology. Along with both an introduction and epilogue, the story counts backwards from day fifteen to day one of events with each chapter adding a bit of background about the details surrounding the disappearance of two girls, ten years apart. The story is told from Nicolette Farrell’s point of view as she revisits her hometown of Cooley Ridge in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina to help her brother Daniel in the care of their aging father who is at a facility. With his apparent encroaching demensia, it is time to repair and sell their no-longer-needed family home. Yet the process brings back old memories of the disappearance of her best friend Corinne after their celebration at the local fair following their high school graduation. The resulting accusations and recriminations from the local community led to Nic’s flight from home and relocation to Pennsylvania. Yet her brother Daniel and pregnant wife Laura, along with her Dad, remained a link for her to touch base from time to time allowing an occasional reconnection with her high school sweetheart Tyler. Now, ten years later, she’s engaged to Everett, a high end Philadelphia lawyer, and Tyler is dating Annaleise Carter. It isn’t long though before Nic’s world turns upside down when Annaleise turns up missing, rekindling all the horrors associated with the loss of Corrine. As the tale “progresses”, Nic reveals specifics about both mysteries through her analysis of past events as she revisits the sites containing the ghosts of her past.

There were various problems inherent in this type of format. It was harder to keep track of events necessitating repetitions and calling for a quick read to keep the various particulars front and center. The opportunity for in depth character development was also hindered, since too much information would take away from the end result, especially since Miranda wanted to maintain a sense of mystery as we tried to figure out the guilty party. There were also a lot of dead ends left dangling as Nic’s thoughts rotated from present to far past to recent past.

For me the results were muddled. None of the characters were particularly likable, especially the two victims, and even the townspeople were petty and judgmental. Outsider Everett was the only one who had my sympathy as he tried to do the right thing and ended up getting kicked where it hurts. The conclusion, while acceptable, didn’t blow me away, but overall, a worthwhile read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

When my book club was looking for some lighter fare to read I suggested Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty since I have enjoyed her other novels, and then when the regular study leader could not attend, I volunteered to facilitate. Since I was leading the book discussion, I took a more indepth approach to this novel, both reading the book and listening to the audiotape expertly narrated by Christine Lee. (Yes, some might argue the subject of this particular title isn’t actually in the “fluffy” category, but please note that we had been reading a series of books dealing with subjects such as the Holocaust, the War in Sarajevo, plus the Shakespearean Tragedy MacBeth.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the overall reaction was mixed which was also reflected in the numerous reviews I found on Goodreads. Perhaps I can’t change anyone’s mind as to the worthiness of this title, but I can attempt to give everyone an appreciation of Moriarty’s skill in developing the plot.

I presented this as a circular story where the reader is fed bits of information alternating between the past, present, and future in order to develop a complete understanding of the fateful incident at the barbecue. Even better was the suggestion of one of the book club members who called it a mosaic, or a puzzle which we put together as the story progresses, not seeing the entire picture until the very end. Either way, it took a lot of skill to pull it off, with every segment having an underlying meaning as it connected to the whole.

There are two components to the book, a “big” reveal and a series of smaller reveals. Many readers felt the build up to the incident at the barbecue which was not divulged until 60% through the book, was anticlimactic, as if disappointed that the event wasn’t even more tragic. However, it’s those small secrets which truly make this an excellent read. Moriarty’s real genius is the way she develops her characters. As their foibles are disclosed, we get to know them intimately so they become alive in our minds, especially since each of the characters gets to “speak” making the reader aware of their personal thoughts and motivations.

Like in real life, the relationships are complicated. Erica and Clementine’s close friendship involves mixed feelings of resentment and jealousy, but also an intimacy only found between people who have grown up together since childhood. While the marriage between Erica and Oliver is one between two soulmates, Clementine and Sam’s witty banter indicates a love in spite of their frequent spats, often involving their two young children Holly and Ruby. Add in some flashy, gregarious neighbors along with a grumpy old man who finds fault with life itself, plus some “interesting” parent(s), and you have 410 pages or 13 hours of reading pleasure.

Guilt is the theme, as each of the “cast” members has to deal with both the repercussions from the barbecue as well as the angst found in everyday life, while the resolutions from that fateful day changes the dynamics of the couples, leaning towards a promise of healthier future relationships.

With the successful mini series based on Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies being optioned for a second season, keep your eyes on the look out for Truly Madly Guilty to hit the big or small screen as well, especially since Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have purchased the film rights. One wonders if they will once again change the setting from Australia to California.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

I was aware of the author Lisa Genova from the success of her book, Still Alice, so when given the opportunity, I was pleased that Netgalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an ARC of her novel, Inside The O’Briens, in exchange for an honest review.

Prior to the opening chapter, Genova introduces us to the symptoms of Huntington’s Disease (HD). Here is one of those horrendous illnesses which slowly robs the “victim” of control over various neurological functions worsening over time until they reach their inevitable death. Not only is there no cure, but there is little known about medical treatments to halt or lessen the symptoms. To make matters worse, since this is a genetic disease, the children of an infected parent have a fifty percent chance of also contracting HD. Symptoms don’t usually occur until the age of 35-45 with a life expectancy of an additional ten to twenty years. However, there are instances of early onset of this disease, robbing the individual of several decades of symptomless living.

A heart-wrenching topic which I normally would avoid (since ignorance is bliss), I was unwillingly drawn inside the life of the O’Brien family. Joseph and Rose began their relationship at the young age of eighteen, forced to marry when Rose became pregnant with eldest son JJ. Remaining in the same neighborhood where they spent their own youth, not far from historic Boston, the loving couple raise four children steeped in the Irish Catholic traditions of their ancestors. The opening chapter features a thirty-five year old Joe, a member of the Boston Police Department, having a melt down, expressing rage when he can’t find his keys and will be late for work. Fast forward ten years and Joe’s weird behaviors prompt his wife to take him to a neurologist for a check up. Joe insists his troubles stem from an old knee injury and dismisses the possibility of anything serious. When a diagnosis of the rare Huntington’s Disease is confirmed, the life of the O’Briens is irreconcilably changed. Not only does the family have to watch the symptoms slowly creep and take control of their father/husband, they also have to deal with the fact that all four offspring could have inherited this genetic marker. The story is told from the viewpoints of Joe, Rose, and youngest daughter Katie, revealing how siblings JJ, Patrick, Meghan, and Katie and their parents deal with the progression of the disease and their individual future prognosis.

Genova has a unique gift of sensitively dealing with the strength of character and human foibles required of individuals and families dealing with the crisis of life changing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Autism, or Huntington’s Disease. What is so compelling about Inside the O’Briens is that Genova brings us into the world of this family, making us care about their daily struggles. It’s a family not unlike many others filled with an underlying love of a life filled with badly cooked meals, mismatched dishes, old furniture, and the jealousy, squabbling,and closeness shared between siblings. While this might sound boring, it creates an entertaining “fly on the wall” peek at Sunday dinners and other family events. We feel the disappointments and triumphs of the characters as they deal with their day to day trials and tribulations. Even while we root for success, the reality of the inevitable ending is never a secret. Yet the focus is on life, and not death, despite the expected insecurities of all involved.

While I whole heartedly give this book four stars with a strong recommendation, my one complaint is a bit of repetition within the plot and the introspections of the main characters. The ending is also abrupt, resulting in an “oh no, you didn’t”, leaving us wanting more. Yet the results of Genova’s research is evident, easily leading to her heartfelt plea for donations towards research in this field, which with only 35,000 cases (versus 3 million individuals with breast cancer) does not receive the attention it deserves.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

X Child Stars: Where Are They Now by Kathy Archer and Fred Ascher

X Child Stars: Where Are They Now by Kathy Archer and Fred Ascher explores the lives of numerous child actors who appeared on some of our favorite television shows beginning in the 1950’s through the 1990’s. Kathy is the perfect person to attempt such a book since she herself was a child actor (Cissy in Family Affair) who successfully transitioned into acting as an adult. A co-worker and often friend to many of the actors mentioned, she has a personal insight into the pitfalls child actors face after their series has been cancelled. While some continued in the business, many seemed to have difficulty finding work and ended up angry, bitter adults. Well adjusted former child actors were able to find work in other fields, many attending college. Unfortunately, too many early success stories developed substance abuse problems which overwhelmed their lives and often led to an early demise. Not only did Kathy and Fred give a detailed account of each child actor, including dates of birth, information about their marriages and children, the roles they played and, all too often, the date and cause of death, they also had a running commentary of personal items which many of us will find of interest.
An accounting of each television series included debut and finale dates, the name of the network(s), whether it was in black and white and/or color, the number of seasons it was on the air as well as the specific number of shows, and a description of the show including the names of relevant adult actors and a description of the character they played.

While there were many sad tales, there were also numerous inspirational stories, whether the individual ended up pursuing a life in show business or found success in other fields.

All this information is sure to enthrall those of us who were avid television watchers and curious to discover what happened to the little tykes who entertained us back in the day.

Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the trip down memory lane, there were many ways this book could have been so much better. First off, more photographs – especially photos of the casts of the featured television show plus before and after pictures of each child star. While I can get a lot of this information off the Internet, having everything all in one book is rather appealing, but I definitely wanted more pictures than the few the authors included. The write ups also had a biased slant, difficult to avoid when one is writing about their friends or associates, but distracting just the same. The personal commentary should have all been saved for the summation at the end of the book. This is the appropriate place for personal reflections, not as a part of some of the stars bios.

Definitely a book to pick up if you are always clicking on those “Where Are They Now” apps found on the net. With the coverage of about seventy five shows, there were still some of my favorites which were not mentioned. (Do I hear “sequel”?)

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Rowman & Littlefield for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. (Send me a copy with more photos and I’ll up it to a four).

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

It starts on a train and ends on one as well. Poor Rachel who goes back and forth to London each day must stop at the way station in a small suburb just outside the city where she is able to look down upon her former beloved home, now occupied by her ex-husband Tom, his new wife Amy, and their recently born little girl. A glutton for punishment, Rachel can’t seem to keep herself from watching the life which should have been her own. Then there is the perfect couple living just up the street in a home laid out in an identical manner to her previous abode. She creates imaginary scenarios of loving married bliss while watching the beautiful wife sitting out on the terrace joined by an adoring husband who fondly enfolds her in his arms. Vicariously she inhabits this fantasy world as each day she catches a glimpse of an existence beyond her reach.

Paula Hawkins in The Girl on a Train has created a scenario where our heroine, poor Rachel, feels compelled to drown her sorrows in booze which only complicates her predicament. Yet Rachel is lucid the day she sees that pretty girl on the porch kissing a man who is not her husband. Within days that same girl is found dead and so the mystery begins. On that fateful night an inebriated Rachel had tried to see her former husband, just as she often did when stinking drunk. She knows she witnessed something vitally important, but her frequent blackouts prevent her from remembering exactly what really happened. The reader looks at the unfolding events alternatively through the eyes of Rachel, Anna, and the murdered Megan. Megan’s story takes place 6 months to a year before all the events unfold, while the others thoughts are reflected as they occur. While it is a little confusing marching back and forth through time (although the entry’s dates are clearly labeled) it is helpful to hear each of the women’s perspectives in order to understand the unfolding developments. Please note that none of the men have a voice despite their importance to the plot. We can only assess their characters through the interactions and reflections of the three females. I must warn future readers that, similar to Gone Girl, none of the participants are particularly likeable. It is even difficult to sympathIze with Rachel who seems to be her own worst enemy. Despite the slow start of this book, the momentum draws the reader in, like a cowboy with a lasso, until they are caught up in the drama and led to continually wonder which of these nasty characters are culpable for Megan’s death. While I still have some questions about a few lose ends which are never answered, the climax is not only satisfying, but makes sense out of a senseless situation. Four stars.