Book Review: THE RUMOR, a harmless piece of gossip turned deadly

Kara, Lesley - The Rumor (1)The Rumor
Lesley Kara

In 1969, while playing with a group of neighborhood children, ten-year-old Sally McGowen killed five-year-old Robbie Harris. She was convicted of manslaughter and when released disappeared while Harris’s family stayed in the public spotlight, the subject of scrutiny whenever a birthday or the anniversary of his death approached. His mother and sister never understood why Sally wasn’t convicted of murder and how she was able to leave prison and live a normal life.

Decades later, single mother Joanna Critchley, having relocated to the small seaside town where she grew up, struggles with finances and raising her child, Alfie, who was bullied in his previous school and who hasn’t yet made friends. Additionally, she has a complicated relationship with Alfie’s father, Matthew, an investigative journalist.

One afternoon while waiting for Alfie outside his elementary school, Joanna hears a rumor from another mother that Sally McGowen is living in their town under an assumed identity. That night at book club, she lets the rumor slip, and a few days later, another woman from book club tells her she thinks she knows who Sally McGowen is.

Determined to make friends with the other mothers, Joanna sees this information as currency, and she tells them her secret which gains her entry into the exclusive babysitting circle and access to playdates and birthday parties for Alfie. At the same time, someone has used the information to begin a campaign of terror which soon turns on Joanna and Alfie. Joanna, with help from Matthew, must find out the true identity of Sally to protect herself and her son before it’s too late.

The Rumor is a fast, engaging read with an interesting mystery that also questions if child perpetrators can be rehabilitated and how living under an assumed identity affects a person’s mental health. At times, though, I didn’t like the style. Joanna often made pronouncements, almost like she was breaking the “fourth wall” in which she would say “Oh, no” or “Oh, well.” Additionally, I felt very unmoored when it came to the setting. I could never quite figure out where the book was taking place, wondering where a small seaside town might be close enough to a large city to make sense in the context of the narrative. Ultimately, enough clues pointed to Boston as the big city. In the acknowledgements, Kara thanks someone for helping her adapt the manuscript for an American audience. I wondered if it originally was set in the UK, which might explain why the setting seemed awkward.

This is an ideal “airplane read” for mystery lovers: low commitment, entertaining, and undemanding.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: A PHILOSOPHY OF RUIN asks if personal destruction comes from free will or determinism

Mancusi, Nicholas - A Philosophy of RuinA Philosophy of Ruin
Nicholas Mancusi

Oscar Boatwright is shocked when he receives a call that his mother died on a flight from Hawaii to California. His parents live in Indiana, and he had no idea that they were coming to visit him, much less that they’d been in Hawaii. Soon, he learns the purpose behind their trip. His mother, Delia, suffering lifelong depression, had fallen under the spell of self-help guru Paul St. Germaine. Starting slow, she watched all of his video seminars, then started attending seminars in Hawaii, and finally paid extra for special session with St. Germaine himself. Because this seemed to help Delia, Lee consented.

However, these expensive sessions have not only stripped the elder Boatwrights of their entire savings; they also owe over $20,000. An assistant professor of philosophy who barely makes over $20,000 a year before taxes, Oscar isn’t in much of a position to help his father. He hoped his older sister Grace, married to a wealthy businessman, might contribute, but at the funeral, he learns that she is getting divorced and planned to ask her parents for help with her legal bills.

Oscar illegally downloads St. Germaine’s video lectures and learns that his lessons revolve around embracing insignificance and rejecting free will. Not only is he angry with this man who he felt cheated his parents out of their money; he is offended that St. Germaine is perverting his field, philosophy, with conclusions based on false premises and faulty evidence.

Meanwhile, the term has begun and Oscar revs up to teach his Intro to Philosophy class and grade the many papers his students submit. In his free time, when not watching St. Germaine’s lectures, he spends time with his one friend, Sundeep, another professor in his department. Sundeep convinces him to attend a guest lecture, and the lecturer enjoys the graduate school groupies so insists on dinner at a bar instead of a restaurant. Oscar drinks heavily, and early that morning wakes up with a young woman in his bed.

The next day, he is mortified to learn that that the young woman, Dawn, is a student in one of his classes. Although he tries to extricate himself from the entanglement to protect his career, he is undeniably drawn to her and unsuccessful in cutting personal ties. Their relationship becomes even more complicated when she tells him that she is a drug dealer and needs him to make a pick-up for him. He’ll earn a large sum, but if he refuses, she might report their sexual encounters.

Oscar knows that he shouldn’t agree, but he fears the consequences of refusing, he’s tempted by the money, and he’s seduced by the danger. Once he picks up the package, though, the danger is greater than he imagined, and his training as a philosophy instructor certainly is insufficient when confronting rival drug dealers and partners he can’t trust.

Although Oscar had adamantly rejected St. Germaine’s message, his trajectory since his mother died questioned the very foundations of his life philosophy. Was he in control of his behavior, making decisions that led him from point to point? Or was his free will a myth, his path established long ago and out of his control?

Setting a philosophy professor against a self-help guru offered a new and interesting take on the concept of free will, but A Philosophy of Ruin did not take full use of the opportunity. The kind of questions I would expect Oscar to ask due to his academic training were missing. The dialectic between free will and determinism formed the overarching theme of the novel, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t addressed in this way.

At times, Oscar was a sympathetic character, and Mancusi’s prose to describe his inner dialogue was so spot on, I thought he was describing my own thoughts. As Oscar descended deeper into ruin, though, he was less fathomable, though I suppose that’s the point.

As a character, though she had potential, Dawn never fully came together for me since it was never quite clear what her motives were and if she was being sincere or manipulative. She did show, however, that she was willing to make sacrifices for her partners.

Though his foray into drug dealing might be the biggest danger he faces, Oscar’s largest challenge is coming to terms with St. Germaine and his ideas, and his final accounting as well as the ending of the book, including his father’s role, were unsatisfying to me.

That said, A Philosophy of Ruin, a quick read, offers a portrait of an ordinary and even boring man whose life quickly diverges into an otherworldly disaster provoking the question: at what point can personal tragedy be averted?

Thanks to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: TURBULENCE, a literary relay race around the globe

Turbulence: A Novel
by David Szalay

A woman in her seventies takes a plane ride from London home to Madrid after visiting her son who is being treated for prostate cancer. Normally reticent on flights, the woman, terrified of flying, drinks bloody marys and keeps to herself. However, after ten minutes of extreme turbulence, she and her row mate begin to talk. When she passes out, he quickly goes to the flight attendant who calls for a doctor’s help.

The unexpected turbulence that causes the woman and her row mate, Cheikh, to interact creates ripples that initiate what amounts to a literary relay race as readers follow a figurative baton around the world. Emphasizing the connectedness of today’s society, the book is structured around flights. Whereas the first chapter ended in Madrid, the second picks up there following a character that somehow had contact with whomever enjoyed the point of view of the previous chapter in a type of benign contagion. In some author’s hands, organizing around flights might be gimmicky, but here, it feels a natural reflection of how accessible travel has become.

Crossing the globe as it does, Turbulence contains a diversity of characters in different settings, socioeconomic conditions, and internal and external conflicts. Although characters come from a range of countries and within those countries live in different environments, to my mind, the prose rang authentic and often eye-opening.

Personally, I love books that have separate but slightly connected chapters so I was biased towards the book, but as with all books of this structure some characters are so interesting they seem short-changed and as if their story is incomplete and some characters aren’t as interesting or as well-developed as others.

While most of the characters are named, a few aren’t, and I’m not sure there is a significance to that if any, and what is says about these characters, both women, regardless. Also, throughout the book, the impact of privilege born of wealth weaves into each chapter. Although not all of the wealthy are white, all of the poor are people of color.

A quick but impactful read with an interesting structure, Turbulence should be on the reading list of any fan of literary fiction.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: ONCE UPON A RIVER, a witty and suspenseful commentary on storytelling

On winter solstice, a severely injured man, presumably from a boat wreck, stumbled into the Swan, an inn renowned for storytelling, carrying a bundle. Once over the threshold, the man whom no one recognized passed out. The son of the landlady caught the bundle. At first, he thought it was a doll, but soon it was clear the boy was holding not a doll but a dead girl of around four. After the local nurse, Rita, tended to the stranger, she visited the girl’s body in the storeroom. Everyone had a sense of déjà vu when Rita came back into the winter drinking room cradling the girl—who was now alive.

Three local families lay claim to the girl who is mute from the trauma. Anthony and Helen Vaughn, wealthy landowners, believe the girl is their daughter Amelia who was kidnapped two years ago when she was two. Robert and Bess Armstrong just learned their son Robin had a four-year-old daughter, Alice, and they thought the girl from the river was the granddaughter they’d never met. Lily White, maid for the parson, insisted the girl was her sister, even though the math didn’t quite add up.

Once Upon a River has the suspenseful pacing of a mystery as the secrets of the three family’s are slowly uncovered to reveal the truth of the river girl’s true identity. As expected from the title, the novel draws from fairy tales, placing it within the realm of magical realism. Setterfield inventively uses the novel to comment on the process of storytelling, and her observations are not only insightful, they are also witty. Henry Daunt, a photographer, provides a counterpoint with his visual memory.

Given the large number of characters, it’s impossible to expect that they all have the same level of development. Robert and Bess Armstrong and Rita Sunday were intriguing and complex characters with interesting backstories. I was also very fascinated by Daunt and the Vaughns and would have liked to know even more about them.

While Once Upon a River feels like it’s set out of time, the river of the title is the Thames, and it references Oxford and London. Characters travel by train and also mock the recently published On the Origin of Species (1859), so it seems possible the novel could take place in the 1860s.

This book is beautifully written and usual though the mystery framing it gives it a familiar structure. I definitely recommend it for readers who enjoy literary fiction and / or magical realism.

Book Review: THE LAST STONE, Lloyd Welch speaks

The Last Stone
Mark Bowden

In April 1975, sisters Kate and Sheila went missing from Wheaton Plaza, a suburban shopping mall in Washington D.C. Despite significant publicity and major effort on the part of law enforcement, the girls were never located. Generations of cold case detectives returned to the files hoping new eyes and new technologies would uncover a lead and bring resolution to the family.

In 2013, after two years on the cold case squad, Lloyd Welch came to the attention of Sergeant Chris Homrock as a possible witness. But when lead interrogator Dave Davis questioned Lloyd, he presented more like a suspect than a bystander with information. That initial interview began a two year relationship in which the detectives, aided both by the FBI and law enforcement in Virginia, attempted to expose Welch’s many falsehoods while they also tried to uncover new evidence. In so doing, the detectives not only visited Lloyd nine times interrogating him hours at a stretch; they also dove into the Welch family history which was full of crime, abuse, and a history of secrecy.

I enjoy reading true crime and I think Mark Bowden, who was a junior reporter covering the Lyon sisters’ abduction, has a history of accessible, well-researched books. The Last Stone focused on the interviews with Lloyd who was the detectives’ “last stone” after all other leads ran dry. Bowden quotes extensively from them, and while I’m sure this isn’t true, it felt like they made up at least 80% of the book.

The book does illustrate how detectives might approach a suspect who has nothing to gain from talking but who is the only source of information. Lloyd Welch, though, was such an inveterate liar that there was no clear resolution, and after reading the book, I felt disgusted by this brush with evil in a way I usually don’t when reading true crime.

I also wished that Bowden had included more information about his approach to the material. He mentioned interviewing the detectives and family members and even recounted a visit with Welch himself, but I wanted to know how he got access to the police records and went about reviewing them.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in The Last Stone and felt like I needed a long, hot shower to wash off the ick of not just Lloyd but his entire creepy family. I would only recommend this to readers who are very interested in this particular case or in interview techniques.