Audiobook Review: FURIOUS HOURS, Harper Lee researches the infamous Reverend Willie Maxwell

1E637C1C-2484-4A93-953C-DD11F29AEB4EFurious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep
Narrated by Hillary Huber

In the 1970s, in Alexander City, Alabama, Reverend Willie Maxwell suffered the loss of five family members, including two wives, a brother, and nephew. After police discovered he had multiple life insurance policies on the decedents, Maxwell was brought to trial but successfully defended by attorney Tom Radney.

When Maxwell’s stepdaughter, Shirley Ann Ellington, died in 1977, ostensibly due to a mishap while changing a flat tire, Maxwell was suspected of killing her, yet he delivered the eulogy at her funeral. Before the crowd dispersed, Shirley’s uncle, Robert Burns, fatally shot Maxwell inside the chapel.

Despite hundreds of witnesses, Burns was acquitted, and his lawyer was none other than Tom Radney, the same man who insured Maxwell himself didn’t go to prison. Watching the proceedings unobtrusively was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the world’s most beloved novels.

Harper Lee, who had traveled to Kansas with Truman Capote to help research In Cold Blood, had in mind to write a true crime novel of her own, and she spent time living in “Alex City” and interviewing the principals.

In the well-researched Furious Hours, Casey Cep presents two narratives in a single volume: the story of Maxwell’s misdeeds and downfall and of Harper Lee and her book, The Reverend, that she never finished. In recounting these histories, Cep offers vivid and lively biographies of a range of characters and provides important sociological context, particularly regarding issues of race in Alabama.

I listened to the Libro.FM audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber, and I thought she did a phenomenal job bringing the words to life. (When I read her biography, I learned she’s recorded almost 400 audiobooks!)

Published by Knopf Doubleday

Book Review: HEAVEN, MY HOME, an East Texas mystery set against the casual racism emboldened by Trump’s victory

aHeaven, My Home
A Highway 59 Novel

Attica Locke

In the wake of Trump’s election victory, Ranger Darren Matthews travels down Highway 59 to Jefferson, Texas, where nine-year-old Levi King, son of an imprisoned Aryan Brotherhood captain, has gone missing. Strangely, only Levi’s father and sister plead for the boy’s return. Local law enforcement assume he’s dead, his own grandmother, one of the town leaders, remains eerily distant, and Matthews’ boss only wants him to find evidence to implicate his father.

Matthews, though, realizes the local denizens are obfuscating at every turn. An elderly black man, Leroy Page, claims to have seen Levi the night he disappeared, making him the last person to see him. Leroy becomes a suspect, but Matthews doubts his guilt. He’s driven to find out what really happened to Levi, and perhaps escape his mother’s hold having a secret that could bury his career, even if it means making a devil’s bargain. Powerful forces in Jefferson, however, are intent on seeing him fail.

Heaven, My Home is compulsively readable with a compelling and serpentine mystery reaching back to the antebellum era. It brought in just enough Bluebird, Bluebird to both satisfy and whet curiosity. Background to the mystery is the town of Jefferson, a failed port city which capitalizes on its past, hosting ghost tours that visit the sites where white women died but conveniently ignoring the deaths of blacks before and after slavery. The book shows how racism can be so seamlessly institutionalized, those with privilege can see it only if looking, but people of color are subject to large and small aggressions. Furthermore, it hints at the practical and personal consequences of Trump’s victory which we’ve sadly seen play out over the past couple of years. Darren also has to confront his own biases and his tendency to view black men of a certain age as though they are the same as his uncles.

I did overwhelmingly enjoy the book, but something that worked less for me was the introduction of so many characters who weren’t utilized in the story, for example, a group of Matthews’ fellow Rangers who sound interesting but only appeared in a single scene. Likewise, I felt Levi’s sister, Dana, was savvy and observant, while Leroy’s neighbors, the Goodfellows, were important to the plot, but not as developed as I might have preferred.

Complex and flawed, Matthews presents a welcome alternative to the mystery protagonists who are male detectives, overconfident, and undeterred by rules or procedures. His Eastern Texas district, rural, conservative, and often racist, obstructs his ability to successfully navigate his investigations. Even when he is doing the wrong thing, I want events to work out for him. I recommend this series for readers who enjoy mysteries and who want to understand small town racism. I can’t wait for the next installment!

Thanks to NetGalley and Serpentine Books for providing an advanced readers copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: DARK AGE, War, Politics, and a High Body Count in Red Rising Book 5

Dark Age
Red Rising Book 5

Pierce Brown

The Rising is in shatters, leaving untold dead as the colors clash. Darrow remains above Mercury to defend the planet against the Golds while his closest allies are hundreds of thousands of miles away. Sevro has returned to his family, abandoning the Republic, while Virginia attempts to convince the senate to send troops to help Darrow and the few soldiers he has with him. Yet even her sophisticated spy network cannot identify the network of enemies arrayed against her and her husband. Pax and Electra, daughter of Sevro and Victra, have been kidnapped, and Ephraim, a mercenary-for-hire, represents their only chance for escape.

Meanwhile, Lysander au Lune, grandson of Octavia, the Sovereign disposed by the Rising, has returned to society after ten years in exile determined to bring peace by uniting the warring Gold factions, and to do that, he must defeat Darrow. With the Republic unstable, Sefi the Quiet, Queen of the Obsidians, sees an opportunity to expand her powers on Mars, even though it might mean breaking ties with her previous allies.

Lyria, a red from Mars, and Volga, an Obsidian, accomplices to the kidnapping of Pax and Electra, find themselves entangled with Victra, Electra’s mother. Yet, their importance to the Republic is unknown even to them, and they must decide whether to act in self-preservation or risk sacrificing themselves for the greater good. All alliances are in play, and no one can be trusted as the fate of the Republic and Society turn on the machinations of the world’s power-brokers in front of and behind the scenes.

Dark Age, aptly named, finds the heroes we’ve gotten to know over the past four books in dire straits. Like the other books in the Red Rising series, Dark Age depicts violence graphically, but it seemed more intense in this book to me, perhaps because of my state of mind, perhaps because it truly was relentless with a high body count, or maybe because the page count reached almost 800. There were two truly abhorrent scenes of violence against animals which make sense narratively but which I had to skip.

Like Iron Gold, Dark Age has multiple narrators, and I enjoyed some of the viewpoints more than others, as usually happens with more than one point of view character. The first section of the book, told alternatively from Darrow and Lysander’s perspectives, traces the battle for Mercury. This was the least interesting part of the book to me, unfortunate since it made the beginning a slog. I find that Darrow and Lysander have very similar voices, and their basic conflict has been ongoing for so long, I find it rather dull by this time. Furthermore, I do not like the trajectory of Lysander’s character.

The other narrators, Ephraim, Lyria, and Virginia have more interesting, fresher stories to tell in my opinion, though they do cross pass unexpectedly with characters I’d forgotten about from previous books, plus Lyria and Volga are set up to have critical roles in the next book(s) in the series. Victra, in this installment, becomes much more sympathetic, though remains quite a badass. I enjoy the strong female characters. Since they are written by a man, I do find myself prodding the edges of their characterizations for flaws, but if they are there, they are lost to me in the wave of the narrative, so I’m content to enjoy these strong female characters. Some other women on Mars in the Red Hand or affected by it are more one-dimensional, and there are some very creepy older women/younger men, mother/son sexual dynamics at play in certain relationships.

Given the length of the book, I thought the editors would encourage Brown to cut unnecessary scenes and subplots, but I thought there were some which I won’t mention due to spoilers. Additionally, Darrow and Lysander’s internal monologues are very repetitive. As a result, I’m glad they aren’t the primary focus of Dark Age. Younger characters such as Pax and Electra take more of a role, which is good because the body count in this book is very high.

The general fate of key characters is resolved by the end of the book, but not their next moves, and several questions remain for the sequel which I will no doubt read. I will leave you with one spoiler, though. Sophocles, the fox, survives!

Book Review: EMPTY HEARTS, sourcing suicide bombers

E7720DEE-B3BF-4F0B-BBA9-60224924D222Empty Hearts
Juli Zeh
Translated by John Cullen

In 2025, the United States and Russia have formed an alliance making most terrorist groups impotent. France, along with Britain, has left the European Union. Nationalist, anti-immigration political parties have control of countries across the globe as many citizens have moved from despair to apathy.

Britta comforts herself by knowing she’s doing her part—providing a necessary service. She and her colleague Babak run The Bridge, a non-traditional anti-suicide service that uses Lassie, a sophisticated computer algorithm, to identify men with a high risk of suicide for intervention. However, though they have helped many disentangle themselves from suicidal thoughts, this practice actual conceals their true business: providing suicide bombers for terrorist groups.

If one of the clients goes through their twelve-step program and still wishes to die, Britta pairs him with an organization that wants to remind the world they still exist, perhaps ISIS or the Green Party. Since these organizations no longer have the cache they once did, they have trouble recruiting suicide bombers, and The Bridge has a monopoly on supply. When an organization works with The Bridge, they observe rules that benefit all, including a limit to collateral damage.

When a terrorist attack at the Leipzig airport is thwarted by authorities, Britta panics—the bombers, one of whom was killed, one captured—did not come from The Bridge. She divines that this indicates another provider is in operation and that she, Babak, and Julietta, their latest recruit, and only female, are in danger and go into hiding.

Empty Hearts had less action than I expected. However, there was interesting commentary on politics and the danger of apathy. As such, the focus remains on the philosophical themes. I wish there had been a shade more characterization. Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives.

Babak has a fleshed-out backstory, but we see only glimpses of Britta’s past and even fewer insights into Julietta’s motivation. At the same time, Britta is an interesting character, focused on rules and procedure and comfortable being in charge of people and situations even as she has relinquished power in the political realm (though wielding suicide bombers is, I suppose, power enough!). I wish there were more context to these characters and to the CCC and its ominous initiatives (Efficiency Packages) that promote discrimination. I was also disturbed when Richard, Britta’s husband, started pressuring her to be more “wifely.” I suppose I wanted her to object more vehemently.

The ending of the novel surprised me, and it wasn’t the ending I wanted, but I do think it was the right ending which made me think about the book long after I put it away. Empty Hearts starts a little slowly and picks up steam, but its strength is found the philosophical questions it raises about the current state of politics and the implications for the future.

Book Review: THE ANIMAL AWARDS, who wins magical healer? amazing egg? Find out!

Jenkins, Martin - The Animal AwardsToday is National Wildlife Day, a perfect day to share the just published children’s book The Animal Awards written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Tor Freeman.

The Animal Awards uses the entertainment awards ceremony in an innovative way: to present a natural history of unusual animals who would probably not be in a collection together, or maybe not in a book at all. Using categories such as “The Amazing Egg Award”(ostrich), “The Best Bouncer Award” (kangaroo), and “The Magical Healer Award” (axolotl), Freeman introduces fifty animals, insects, and sea creatures.

The book is entertaining and informative with engaging text and charming illustrations. Each “award” spread has a description of the animal on one side with basic information: category (e.g., bird, reptile, insect, or mammal), habitat, lifespan, and diet. In describing why the animal has won the award, Freeman offers a brief profile of the creature with interesting facts. On the facing page, an illustration or series of illustrations exhibits additional facts. In the illustration of the tortoise, for example, winner of “The Centenarian Award,” the illustration compares the lifespan of the tortoise, Greenland shark, black coral, and ocean clam. The illustration page for the lion, winner of “The Marvellous Mane Award,” has four smaller drawings showing what life is like in a lion pride.

In addition to providing a natural history of these interesting animals—also including penguins, elephants, bats, terns, bullfrogs, cheetahs, jellyfish, and so many more—the book sensitively discusses extinction and threats to endangered populations.

The Animal Awards uses humor to convey a wide array of interesting factual information. Although some of the vocabulary or concepts may require the help of a parent, teacher, or guardian to understand on first exposure, I think this is a book that kids will return to again and again for the fun facts and absolutely adorable and informative illustrations. It would be a wonderful gift and addition to a school or home library.

If you would like to know what you can do to help save endangered wildlife today and every day, visit the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Thank you to NetGalley and Frances Lincoln Children’s book for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.