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Rating: 3.5 stars

Review: Eve Dallas returns for more case-solving of a crime that disturbs her more than usual: young women are being "sexed to death"---wined and wooed and then drug with a lethal cocktail of substances that make them so wild in bed that they literally overload their systems and die.  When more than one woman dies this way, Dallas becomes enraged at the thought that someone is using these women so brutally.  What puzzles her, though, are the slight differences in the discovered scenes, differences that make it seem like more than one person is involved in such evil activities.

This is another sexy and gritty and sometimes funny Eve Dallas adventure and while there are some plotlines in this series that I enjoy more than others, I am never disappointed by the entertainment.  I enjoy the relationships between Eve and the people that she has made into her family, and even the seedier elements are fun to peek into in the way that crime-drama shows are fun to watch.

What's not so fun is when real news stories prove that the imagination of fiction writers is rooted in reality.  A couple of weeks ago I read a story about a college fraternity that was banned because of the discovery of a color-coded system they were using to drug the drinks of the girls that attended their parties, and it was a reminder that date rape is very common.  When sex becomes more about dominance and winning than it does about mutual agreement and enjoyment, the lines get crossed in ways that seem unthinkable.

This was my second reading of this volume in the In Death series, and I like that I can be both entertained by a story and characters while also made to think about the broader picture that such plotlines present.  I'm not sure what can be done to help prevent such crimes, but it's clear from the real-life story that improvement is needed.

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Rating: 4 stars
Review: January Schofield is a bright and imaginative and energetic little girl.  She loves her parents and she loves her little brother, and she also wants to hurt them.  She is compelled to hurt them, instructed by entities only she can see, told that she must hurt or she will be the one hurting.  This drives Jani to extreme efforts to fulfill those demands, and frightens her parents to extreme actions themselves.  The Schofields are unwillingly shipped on an Odyssey they are still trying to navigate through and this book is just the beginning.

This is a really raw memoir of Michael's thoughts and feelings through the process of trying to diagnose and treat Jani.  Michael discusses really personal details: violence both to and from him, the strong desire to walk away from everything, the equally strong pull of suicide, feelings of hatred directed at everything and everyone in the world (including his wife), and the feeling that, because he's the one that's learned the tics and bits of Jani's thinking, only he can be the one to save her.  And when he does let go a little bit, allowing help to come in, too often it disappoints and serves to reinforce the belief that he is alone in the fight to save his daughter.

It may be important to note that Susan Schofield (wife of the author) was a schoolmate of my brother, and both she and Michael are friends of mine via social media.  Aside from the school link, we share the common bond of schizophrenia --my mother had the illness.  While there are certainly differences between dealing with such an illness in a parent versus in a child, many of the frustrations and fears are the same.  This is an illness that, until recently, was "solved" by keeping those inflicted out of sight and doped into drooling stupors (if medication was available and could be bought), and advising their loved ones to move along with their own lives.  There is not enough known about it, not enough attention paid to it, and not enough help for families dealing with it.  There aren't penny jars on store counters for schizophrenics.

I felt fortunate, at times, that my mother could at least qualify for help due to her age and disability status, though most of her housing was with dementia patients in facilities with too many patients and not enough staff.  As a mentally ill adult with occasional violent outbursts, there was at least a place for her to go where she was safe and monitored and where I could help take care of her while not completely giving up my own life.  I cannot imagine how much more difficult such an experience would be with a child.  No one can unless they live with it.  The Schofields have received a lot of really threatening responses, not just to this book but to their other mediums of outreach done both in an effort to provide for their family and to educate the world that conditions such as Jani's exist.  I wish that those people could experience a weekend of living with schizophrenia, wading through the mine field of a mind that is living across multiple realities; perhaps they would understand things better.  I hope they count their blessings every night that the don't have to.

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Rating: 3 stars

Review: While browsing some of the free books available for download, I came across this title and was intrigued not only by the subject, but by the author: it was a book that would not only fill the need for my book club's July topic (American History), but would also fill in a slot for another reading challenge I was working on (non-fiction written by women).  It wasn't until I had downloaded it and opened it to read that I realized that it was an early-reader for children.  This dampened my enthusiasm a little, but I was still interested based on a couple of factors.  First, it was written near the turn of the century (1905 I think? 1908? I don't have it in front me but something like that), and the author was in San Francisco, which is home base for me.  I was definitely curious about how well, or even if, the writing had withstood the test of time.

Unfortunately, it was really almost TOO simple to draw any conclusions about that; this is a very early reader and the structure definitely reflects that.  Short, repetitive statements and very simplified storytelling occasionally called to mind the sound of stuttering voices sounding out each syllable carefully and backtracking when corrected quietly.  Without knowing a lot about the subject matter going into it (other than the very basic info I vaguely remember from my own school days), it was hard for me to gauge or compare accuracy of the stories and facts with what we know a century later.  If I were a parent, this might be a fun one to visit or re-visit with a young reader of my own, but as an adult, I didn't get much out of it.  But it was short, and it was free, so no regrets!

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Rating: 3.5 stars

Review:  I didn't realize until I was several chapters into the book that I had read it before, but enough time had passed that, while several smaller details were familiar to me as I came across them, I'd forgotten much of the big picture.  Torey Hayden is a teacher and child psychologist that focuses on emotionally and mentally challenged kids.  While there are a handful of them mentioned in Ghost Girl as they are all part of a single, small classroom in a small town, the primary focus for this book is on a little girl Hayden calls Jadie.  When Hayden first arrives, Jadie appears to be a deformed and hunched mute, but as her relationship with each child and the class as a whole evolves and tightens, Jadie starts to trust this new adult and gradually reveals her true self.  The layers of what she's hiding are shocking and hard to believe.

Like with some of the books by Ann Rule, it's so hard to figure out how to rate books that are telling stories of real tragedies; how to rate what's essentially the entertainment value of someone's life?  Some aspects of a rating can certainly be bucketed into things like clarity of the writing and flow of storytelling, grammar errors and such, but then what?  Is it a measure of a person's morals to admit to being fascinated when reading about the experiences that happened to this poor kid?  The fascination comes, at least in part, because the situations are so completely alien to my thinking and behavior that it the stories seem too fantastical to believe, and yet I know just from reading the news that stuff like this happens, in some form or another, all the time.

How do you put a rating on stories of human suffering?  I do it because I'm supposed to for book reviews on the sites I participate in, but I'm not sure it's really an accurate reflection of how I feel when I've finished reading one of these stories.  I'm not sure I can accurately articulate that.

23rd-Jun-2014 07:40 am - Smelling Mother
Once, in college, my friend and I skipped class and went to Denny’s for lunch.  The restaurant had a funny smell to it and my friend, joking around with a funny quip from a popular movie of the time, mis-quoted it.  She meant to say, “I see dead people.”  What she said instead was, “I smell dead people.”  It was hilarious at the time; we actually still reference it with a chuckle twenty years later.  It was one of those word slips you don’t forget.  The smell, too, was one you don’t forget.

The building had that smell.  I’m not sure what the building used to be; an office complex, perhaps, but it had become a care facility for those too sick to care for themselves and too poor to afford something nicer.  The staff did the best with what they were given, but they weren’t given much and there weren’t enough of them.  The halls and rooms were spacious, at least, but it was dark with carpets that were threadbare, taped down, patched and dirty.  There was a weird echo to the space despite it feeling so enclosed and dim.  The lobby of the building was paneled and grungy and it made me think of those pay-by-the hour motels they love to feature in crime dramas on TV.

The elevator was a shaky box that took long minutes to move and, except when traveling in it with my mom, I preferred to take the stairs in order to escape the trapped feeling, even though the stairs usually smelled of fresh urine.  I guess they couldn’t keep track of all the residents all the time with so few staff.  She seemed to enjoy some of the nurses but spent a lot of time in her room.  She used to like taking care of plants and birds outside her window until they stopped letting her open it because someone on a higher floor had jumped out.

She’d never been much of a TV watcher and that seemed to occupy a lot of the residents time, so she listened to music in her room when the machine wasn’t broken or hadn’t been stolen.  She was happy when I came to visit, but it was a bit of a drive, so she always sent me home after a few minutes because she was afraid that I might get caught in the dark or in a rainstorm or run out of gas.  It smelled musty and old there and I hated leaving her but I was also relieved to have the lobby behind me for another couple of months.  I could smell musty death and urine for the rest of the day, long after I’d left.

When I got the letter informing me that the facility was closing due to financial concerns, the only thing that really surprised me was that lie.  I had started doing research, unearthing the complaints from residents and the county regarding the disrepair, poor conduct, inadequate care, and so on.  I knew by this time that the financial concerns were more about not being able to remain open without forking up the money to fix all the issues.  Better by far to oust the residents and change the entire place into something more profitable.  The social worker assigned to my mother’s case thanked me often and profusely for helping get her packed and moved to the next place; she’d been assigned ten cases to get moved in thirty days and my mother’s was the only one where a relative was willing to come help.  I’m shocked, but such a novice at this.  I don’t know how any of this works, and maybe this is normal.  It takes three moves, three tries, three stresses on a woman for whom stress is a Very Bad Thing, before we find some place that might actually work, and only because, before going into it, mom was so stressed out she ended up hospitalized first.  The new place was an extension of the hospital; the transition, therefore, was easy.

This building, too, was old, a cement block on a busy street, definitely more about function than anything else.  It was a longer drive but there was comfort in knowing that the police department and a hospital were nearby.  Also present here was that institutional scent, the one found in places where illness, cafeteria food, and industrial cleansers swirl together into a single aroma.  It was far from pretty and much too crowded to be pleasant.  The hallways were cluttered with carts and wheelchairs and people wandering from space to space with no apparent goal but to move to the next space.  Televisions were loud but most of the people parked in front of them weren’t watching.  It was the kind of place that most of the mentally ill without money end up.

Still, she was happy here…mostly.  She liked the staff, and they loved her.  She sang a lot, which caused some issues with roommates at times; she changed rooms on occasion during her stay there.  But they had activities daily and she saved space in her drawer for the prizes she won at BINGO, cheap beads and bubbles and greeting cards she added stickers to in art class for the holidays.  These she piled into my lap when I visited, always apologizing that it couldn’t be more but so delighted that she was able to give me something after all the years of hardship.  Most of these treasures ended up going straight to the Salvation Army when I left; I had no room to store these trinkets but I didn’t have the ability to say, “No thank you” when she offered them.

I got smarter about the rules and regulations and medications that ruled her daily life.  Most of it was still handled by the place where she lived, and I wondered how families that didn’t have that option dealt with the headaches that come from all the paperwork, paperwork, phone calls and paperwork.  Billing was complicated and I never knew what to pay when because it seemed like when I paid on time, it bounced back because we didn’t owe anything that time, and when I didn’t, we got a late fee.  The most important thing to me was that she was safe and happy…mostly.  She was happy but lonely, and sometimes the lonely was hard to deal with, especially when my visits were still cut short by her anxiety about my driving to see her.  I tried to supplement with phone calls and cards by mail that she used to decorate her bulletin board and shrugged off the guilt when relatives far away mentioned the utilitarian space, the traffic noise, the crowded conditions—lists that seemed to bullet point my inadequacy in being a caretaker.  And I still felt relief when I was allowed to walk away from trays of canned green bean lunches and Judge Judy screaming from the corner.

When I got the letter informing me that the facility was closing due to financial concerns, I was not surprised and there was no lie here.  This is a county facility in an old building, and it didn’t meet earthquake code.  The cost to renovate it to bring it up to current code would bankrupt the county entirely (and then some) and at least this time we were given a lot of notice to prepare.  Besides, I’m not a novice at this anymore.  Still, remembering all we had gone through before, I woke up often, worrying about things in the dark of night so that, when daylight came, I could closet the worries and soothe her anxieties.  She, too, remembered what had gone before and she cried sometimes, thinking we wouldn’t be able to find her somewhere to live.  She had made friends here, she had made a life here as best she could among the green bean lunch trays, and she didn’t want to leave them.  She wrote and gave a speech at a board meeting to try and persuade them to keep the facility open, and cried again when they voted to close it anyway.  It was time to move on.

The building here looked like a house that had been stretched out, placed on a quiet residential street among ordinary family homes; but for the sign identifying it and a few other details seen only because we were stopped there, we might never have known this was a care home.  The parking lot was small but easily accessible, and the building lined with neatly trimmed hedges and blooming rosebushes.  She noticed those first, of course; having had a love of gardening for as long as I knew her, she had missed the nature that so many of us take for granted.  I could see it in her face as we pulled into the lot, the transition as her face relaxed into a natural smile from the terrified “first day of school” mask she’d worn the hour’s drive down.

There were familiar elements inside: the extra wide hallways, the alarms on the outside doors, the squeak of nursing shoes on the pristine linoleum.  The kitchen still projected that scent of mass macaroni and cheese that seems to be a hallmark for hospital and school cafeterias everywhere.  There are some scents and sights that can’t be escaped in this world.  But it was quiet.  And clean.  Instead of wheelchairs and plastic tables crowding walkways and corners, there was a real living room, with a bookcase and a piano and a CD player playing Elvis Presley at a volume designed to be energetic and fun without preventing those sitting nearby from having an actual conversation.  The staff was friendly, the place relatively small, and she could open a window—a real window!—and see red roses from her bed.  She wasn’t even ten minutes away now, and the once-every-six-weeks visits morphed into several times a week.  She took a walk outside every morning around the neighborhood, stretching her legs in the sunshine she rarely got to see in the last few years.  Most of the time when I arrived, she was already standing at her window.  I think at first that she’s watching for me, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that she was actually checking on the roses again.  Seeing me was just the side bonus.

I’d only been home for three hours from the last visit when my brother called.  They tried to call me first but after I got home from my visit, I decided to spend some time out in my garden, so I was away from the phone.  She died suddenly, unexpectedly, only three weeks after the move to the new…the last…place.  They never charged me for her stay, even though she’d been there three weeks.  I never got a bill, only a card of condolence from the staff and an offer to help with any arrangements if I needed it.  She didn’t have much to pick up since we hadn’t transitioned all her stuff in yet.  We were waiting to see how she settled in, if she’d like it, before bringing anything more.

My relief at walking away this time was different.  It didn’t stem from feeling like I’d escaped something dreadful.  Death is a funny thing; you can’t predict how you’ll react to it until it happens.  One of the thoughts I remember most clearly having went something along the lines of knowing without a doubt that she was at peace.  Together, we had been through a crazy-awful road trip and we were, both of us, finally allowed to get out of the car.  Sometimes I wonder if that was the trigger; if somehow she felt like here, in this place that was quiet and pretty and clean, she had found rest and could finally let go.  Or, perhaps a better thought, she could finally let me go.

There are no buildings here, at least none of note.  A couple of small bathrooms hunker near entrances, mostly unnoticed except when needed, and another structure of the same size is present, probably for landscaping equipment, but the rest is all garden and park.

It’s quiet here, even when the place is full.  Water nearby splishes and swooshes in ways that are calming and pleasant and don’t invoke images of mops sloshing in buckets of pine cleaner.  Even the light is different, natural and bright but not harsh, playing through tree branches and flower petals in patterns that make me want to nap in them so that I, too, can be dappled as they are.  I feel her here more than in any other place, which is funny since she never came here.  We had meant to come, but ran out of time before I could make it happen.  Or did we?

Is there such a thing as life after death?  Does the soul live on after the body has quit?  Does it go to Heaven and sit on a cloud and play music in Paradise with God, or does it wink into nothing like the flame of an extinguished match?  Are we beings on a celestial journey, making Earth just one stop on a long road, or does our energy go back into some kind of central pool, melding with one another to evolve into something or someone else?  At any given time, I believe in none and all of these things; I don’t know if that’s an indication of being indecisive or incredibly open-minded.  Does having faith require picking one of these options and sticking with it?  If I pick a side and it’s not the right one, does the Universe give a pass on being wrong?  I don’t know the answers to those questions either.

What I do know is that, when I’m here, so is she.  I’m not hurried here.  I don’t worry here.  I can rest here and close my eyes for a while.  And when I do, when I close my eyes and inhale, all I can smell is roses.

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Rating: 3 stars

Review: So much time has passed since I read this that I'm not sure I can review it adequately at this point, though my notes had already indicated a rating of 3 so I feel confident that's how I felt about it at the time.  I do recall thinking how advanced, ahead of his time, Emerson's comments seemed, that there was much that he said with regard to man and his relationship to and need of nature that felt like newer ideas, and that I was surprised to discover how NOT new they actually were.

I remember having some struggles with sections; the formality of the language slowed the pace considerably and also caused my mind to drift if I attempted to read more than a few pages at a time.  Thankfully, the essay is short (under 100 pages) and segmented, so it was somewhat easy to break into reading sections, but I definitely did not retain as much as I would have liked.  I have this essay on my Kindle and it was a free download so this will probably be revisited at least a couple more times.  Perhaps I'll have more to say about it then.

22nd-Jun-2014 09:54 am - Book Review: Insomnia by Stephen King
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Rating: 3.5 stars

Review: Ralph is an older man, a bachelor now after his wife's passing, who spends his days with retired friends and spends his nights pondering his increasingly common sleepless hours.  It seems that, every day, he loses a few more minutes at a time, until eventually he's only managing an hour or two a night before sitting wide awake, once again, watching from his window while the rest of the world slumbers.

Something else has arrived with his sleepless nights.  Strange colors begin to radiate from people, from things, and the more Ralph watches, the more he realizes that there are differences in them.  They change with situations, moods, and external circumstances, and some make him uneasy. Some terrify him.  What scares him more, though, is what else he sees besides the colors.

Wildly weird and creepy and imaginative as Stephen King does so well, it made me wonder how many sleepless nights he must have with these ideas lurking in the dark corners of his mind.  Does emptying them on paper help or hinder his rest?  Although I enjoyed the story (as I always do with King), I didn't connect as firmly with the characters as I have in other books which is why the rating isn't quite as high.  It was good company during the toasty summer nights when my own sleeping efforts were restless and I am hoping that finishing this one may help break the reading slump I've been in for the past few weeks.

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Rating: 3.5 stars

Review: The Writer's Drawer is an online blog/resource site for writers seeking peer feedback and camradarie from fellow writers.  It is managed and moderated by Beryl Belsky, a professional editor who wanted to provide a method for aspiring and/or rusty writers to receive professional (and free) editing support.  It is a safe harbor where timid writers can put some of their work into a public space and test the waters, so to speak.

In the first collection compiled from submissions to this site (and published with permission, of course), there are three sections: short fiction, poetry, and an essays section that is somewhat of a "day in the life of" experience.  The theme for my face-to-face book club for June was travel writing or books on a theme about moving from one place to another, so it was this last section that I was particularly interested in reading about.  Since writers for The Writer's Drawer are global, this "day in the life of" essay theme would be a bit like playing armchair traveler, spending a few hours at a number of different places around the world.  The idea worked out perfectly!

As with any collection of writings, there were some that I liked better than others, some that stood out or resonated more with me.  I enjoyed visiting with a woman in Iran who helps escort a field trip for schoolgirls, and another in England who reflected on a decision made at an English dock that inevitably altered the survival of her family.  It was the type of collection that stirred my own memories and had me thinking about what types of things I would write about with such a theme.  It also reminded me that I hadn't visited the web site in a while which spurred a pleasant Saturday evening browsing through writings I hadn't yet seen.  I even submitted one of my own this time, so maybe volume 2 of this collection will include something of mine.

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Rating: 3.5 stars

Review:  A fantasy hero quest with a female lead character and an occasional Arabian feel, The Blue Sword picks up several generations after the events of The Hero and the Crown, but was actually written before the "prequel".  A young woman, alone but for a sibling away in military service, travels to be near her brother under the foster-care of his commander's family.  Now housed within a fortress out in the middle of the desert, the girl known as Harry feels a great restlessness, as if she is waiting for something to happen.  Sleepless nights find her gazing across the sand to the distant hills, home to a group of people that are said to be dangerous and magical.  When the king of those people seek out assistance from the commander and are refused, Harry finds herself unable to stop thinking about him.  The feeling is mutual as the magic within him compels him to steal her and bring her back to the hills for reasons not even he can explain.  It is an action that sets her on a journey no one expected.

While there was a romance feel under the surface, this is primarily about a young girl's destiny to become something "more than"--a fulfillment of a wish, of sorts, for the girl Harry who, watching her companions at the fortress twitter and coo at social events, wanted something other than such flirtations to absorb her days.  However unwillingly she was thrust among the Hillfolk, it becomes apparent to her and to those around her that she belongs more to their world than her own.  Soon she is challenged, both physically and mentally, and it is up to her to determine if she is going to meet that challenge despite what it may cost her in the end.

I did enjoy the story but I wanted to like it more than I did.  I'm not sure if the timing was off for me in terms of subject and mood, or if perhaps this would have been better received had I read it when I was younger as it's geared a bit toward the young adult genre.  Whatever it was, I seemed to have a hard time getting into it, or maintaining an interest while reading it.  I'd read a few pages and then find myself wanting to go do something else, or read something else.  I was easily distracted.  It was well written and an interesting story, generally speaking, so I'm rating it well for those reasons, but I just didn't have the gusto for it that I've had for other McKinley books (including The Hero and the Crown).

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Rating: 4.5 stars

Review:  I thought remembering my childhood was hard to get through, but I had a 90210 experience compared to Jeannette Walls.  Her adventures and misadventures growing up with her family seems, at times, too fantastical and too terrible to be real.  Somehow, the kids manage to survive situations that would have (and likely has) killed others; it really seemed like they had a guardian angel looking out for them on more than one occasion.

I had the opportunity to see Jeannette Walls speak not long after finishing the book, and it was interesting to hear her verbally speak of some of the incidents she had written of.  She discussed briefly the incident when her dress caught on fire, her attempt to sell her rock collection at what she considered to be bargain prices, and getting the courage to leave home and go to New York.  She spoke quickly but conversationally, and with matter-of-fact humor through much of it, in much the same voice that her writing conveyed.  As far out as some of the incidents were, they were often par for the course in her family, so even though they drew some gasps from the audience, it seemed like for her, it was just another kooky family story.

I was struck by how there was no bitterness toward her parents, neither in the book nor in her speaking.  While it seemed there were many occasions that could have spurred a break in relationship, she continued to welcome them back into her life even though doing so often opened the door for more drama and damage.  She loved her parents, she said, for the amazing gifts they gave her in terms of encouraging her creativity, providing reading and art materials and always spending time with them in a growing era of separation between parents and kids.

Having grown up with a mentally ill mother myself, I often wondered through the reading of the book if her mom might have been (at the very least) bi-polar.  During the talk, that question came up from the audience and Walls indicated that her mother had never been diagnosed with a mental illness.  I still find that a little hard to believe, but I guess she would know.  I found the read hard and fascinating at the same time, and I'm glad, in some ways, that she is able to forgive and love her father because I find myself disliking him intensely.  I wanted (still want) to find a time machine and scoop those children out of that environment.  The saddest part, though, is that there are other kids out there, right now, who are living similar experiences and most likely will not have this kind of success story.  It's frustrating and heartbreaking for those of us that just want to fix it and don't know how.

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