R E V I E W : : Our Crooked Hearts

Our Crooked Hearts
Melisa Albert
Flatiron Books
Publication Date: June 28, 2022

Thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an advanced reading copy of OUR CROOKED HEARTS by Melissa Albert (on sale now). The early reviews mentioned rabbit sacrifice, and so though I loved the cover and was intrigued by the copy, I did not have the stomach to read it. (I had every intention to! My picture was taken as soon as I received a copy!)

When it was announced as the October #totallyteenbuddyread selection, I decided I’d set aside my concerns to participate. Ivy, the teenage protagonist, has just broken up with her boyfriend at a party. On the way home, they almost run over a naked woman who is in the middle of the road. Stranger things ensue: dead rabbits appear around her family’s property, her mother buries jar containing a strange concoction Ivy is sure is made from blood, her mother goes MIA, and she starts having flashes of new memories.

In an earlier timeline, Ivy’s mother Dana and Dana’s best friend Fee, meet Marion who introduces them to witchcraft. Marion uses the spell book of a witch who was killed decades earlier and who might not be the best mentor.

I liked much about the book. Although I preferred the present-day timeline, I did think having Dana and Ivy’s perspective was helpful. Of all the characters, only Ivy had a mother who was present in her life (at least most of the time)—all the others had deceased or missing mothers. How mothers affect children either by their absence or by their mistakes is an interesting part of the book. It’s also set in Chicago, which I think I’ve mentioned before is one of my favorite settings since it’s where I went to college.

One spell cast by a coven required a rabbit sacrifice, and that scene was repeated. I skipped pages until I was sure I was past the violence. I did not like this at all, but I suppose I could tolerate it being in the story since… witches. As for the presence of multiple dead rabbits serving as warnings, I don’t think they were necessary to the story though obviously the author would disagree.

We had a great discussion about the book, so I’m glad I read it for that reason, and if it hadn’t had so many dead rabbits, I probably would have unequivocally liked the book. More and more, I’m heeding content warnings that mention animal cruelty or death. I will go to the “Does the Dog Die?” website if I know there is a canine or kitty character. I have had this stance a lot longer for movies, and it irritates my husband because “it’s just a movie,” but I’ve ruined too many sobbing for him not to go along with it!

Are there any topics that eliminate a book from your consideration?

R E V I E W :: That Summer in Berlin by Lecia Cornwall

That Summer in Berlin
Lecia Cornwall
Publication Date: October 11, 2022

Viviane Alden is much more interested in taking pictures than marrying, but a career in photography is verboten for a woman of her station. Still, she secretly sells her impressive images to newspapers. When her mother presses her to find a suitable match, Viviane agrees instead to chaperone her sister Julia as she visits Germany for the summer, culminating in a trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the games in which Jesse Owens won four gold medals.

Although Winston Churchill was already predicting a second major war, and some suspected Hitler was putting together an army and mass producing arms, most had no stomach for another conflict in the region and were placated by the new ruler’s reassurances. Tom, a journalist and acquaintance of Viviane, is pressed into service by the English government trying to learn as much as possible about Germany’s secrets while covering the games. Familiar with Viviane’s skills, Tom asks her to partner with him to expose the truth. She agrees: as an upper class English woman on holiday, she would be above suspicion.

Guests of Count Georg von Schroeder, Viviane and Julia are given VIP treatment. Not only is von Schroeder respected, his wife aspires to position her sons, Otto, an SS officer, and Felix, a scientist, to succeed in the new regime. In contrast, Georg hopes the English debutantes will temper his sons’ extreme views.

Viviane knows of Hitler’s hateful sentiments and has heard of rumors of work and killing camps, but with an influx of foreign visitors, all antisemitic messaging has been removed. Still, she is determined to collect valuable photographs. She’s confident her nationality will keep her safe, but getting intelligence requires risk. At the same time, her principles are tested when she is asked to provide assistance that could put her life in danger.

That Summer in Berlin highlighted the seductive appeal of Hitler’s pageantry and propaganda to both Germans and English while showing how Germans were surveilled and punished if they did not conform (and though despite that some resisted). It illustrates the nurturing and complicity with totalitarianism, an issue increasingly important.

Determined, headstrong, and principled, Viviane is as fetching a character as Julia is frustrating. The final scenes before the epilogue have a Bourne-Identity-level action and intensity.

Thanks so much to @netgalley and @berkleypub for an advanced reading copy of the book and to @berittalksbooks for organizing the #berkleywritesstrongwomen #berkleybuddyreads!

B O O K R E V I E W : Sign Here by Claudia Lux

Sign Here
by Claudia Lux
On sale today!

Working in Hell is, well, hell. The temperature is never quite right, puddles of indeterminate depth randomly appear, coworkers are horrible and bosses worse, Jägermeister is the only drink besides water available, and don’t even ask about the food. Peyton Trip has suffered through these discomforts (and worse) for eons, but he has a plan—he just needs to get one member of the Harrison family to sign away their soul. Cal, a new recruit to the Deals department, has her own secret schemes that could undermine Pey’s carefully laid groundwork.

Unaware that they are marks, the Harrisons—Silas, Lily, Sean, and Mickey, along with Mickey’s new (and first) best friend, Ruth—travel to their summer house in New Hampshire where generations of the family have vacationed. Pey, though, might not be the biggest threat to the family; instead it could be the secrets in their midst.

Sign Here has such an original premise with details that make hell such a vivid setting (though very disturbing when considering Downstairs where the worst punishment is carried out). The comedy is dark Vonnegut-style rather than LOL humor.

At fourteen, Mickey undergoes the ups and downs of adolescence, idolizing the confident and more experienced Ruth who also makes indelible impressions on the rest of the family as cracks in their relationships allow the past to infect the present.

Pey is a fiendish and manipulative narrator, though sympathetic enough I hoped he escaped hell while Cal thinks she is the smartest person in the room and may be right.

I really enjoyed the book and its messages about love, trust, and redemption. It was a very satisfying read though not light-hearted as I expected. Recommended for readers who enjoy family drama, mysteries, and a touch of something new, and different.

A U D I O B O O K R E V I E W : The Killer’s Shadow by John E. Douglas

In The Killer’s Shadow: The FBI’s Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer, the original mindhunter, John E Douglas and his writing partner Mark Olshaker outline the crimes of Joseph Paul Franklin, a white nationalist serial killer who terrorized Jews, Blacks, and interracial couples for a three-year period in the late 1970s.

Douglas became involved after authorities had identified Franklin but before he’d been captured, so the case challenged the BAU to use profiling not to figure out who committed crimes but to help find him. Franklin was driven to kill those he deemed inferior, and he crossed the country supporting himself through bank robberies and plasma donations so he could enact his twisted mission.

Unlike many serial murderers, Franklin adapted to the situation, using a variety of methods, primarily long-range rifles but also pistols and bombs. An alert blood bank attendant contacted the police, leading to Franklin’s arrest and a string of trials, one in Missouri which led to the death penalty. Douglas’s profile helped lawmakers interrogate Franklin effectively; later, he interviewed the imprisoned Franklin.

Although Franklin’s crimes were committed over forty years ago, they are important to understand, hopefully to prevent similar mission-driven killers from operating in the future. The rhetoric of hate groups provides the fuel for these killers, and in turn, the fear is that the killers will inspire others with similar abhorrent views to copy the violence.

Douglas’s book analyzes this threat and contextualizes it in terms of Trump and MAGA using as examples the Charlottesville white nationalist rally when Hames Allen Fields killed one and injured thirty-five when driving into counterprotesters and the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church mass shooting in Charleston.

Holt McCallany narrates the audiobook, and I thought he did a good job channeling Douglas as well as giving Franklin a fitting voice when quoted.

The link between antisemitic and racist language and violence means it’s crucial to deprive the speech of oxygen to grow, and it’s why Ye’s comments can’t be ignored and why Adidas must cut ties with him.

The Killer’s Shadow is another excellent true crime volume from John Douglas, and the themes are sadly as relevant today as when Franklin committed his crimes.

NOTE: This morning (10/25), Adidas announced it was ending it’s partnership with Ye effective immediately.

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B O O K R E V I E W :: Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson

Thank you so much to @berkleyromance /@berkleypub for sending me a copy of Love in the Time of Serial Killers by Alicia Thompson which goes on sale tomorrow, August 16, 2022.

When Phoebe Walsh moves to Florida for the summer to prepare her late father’s house for sale, she also plans to finish her dissertation. She’s turned her lifelong obsession with true crime into a research topic, analyzing the genre for her thesis. With murders, cons, and others crimes always on her mind, she can be forgiven for being less than trusting or thinking Sam, her next door neighbor who keeps strange hours and has a soundproof garage might just be a serial killer.

Actually doing any writing may be a challenge as Phoebe stays busy wrangling her always positive but not always responsible little brother, Connor, reconnecting with her childhood best friend, dealing with her complicated feelings about her father with whom she hadn’t spoken in years, and evaluating Sam’s threat level. Returning to her hometown, though, gives Phoebe a new perspective on her future, her relationships, and the things that truly scare her.

I found this book delightful and laughed out loud several times. Phoebe was very relatable to me with her preference for messy buns and leggings. Because I have a PhD, I also empathized with Phoebe’s issues with her advisor and struggling to convey her thoughts on paper. As much as I liked Phoebe, I got so frustrated with her, but I appreciated her character arc. Sam, Connor, and Allison were all great characters, too!

Though I love true crime, I don’t love it as much as Phoebe! She does see the world through a suspecting lens and often discusses cases, many familiar to me. Readers should no that no murders are committed during the book. Alicia Thompson provides content warnings at the beginning of the book, and I’d encourage readers to preview those.

I enjoyed this so much, I can even imagine rereading it soon. I’d definitely recommend to romance fans.