Linda Castillo: Gone Missing (2012) Kate Burkholder 4

Gone Missing

Linda Castillo’s Gone Missing is the fourth in her Kate Burkholder series. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author but that wasn’t a problem. Castillo constructed the series in such a way that anyone can pick it up at any time without feeling lost. Downside of this approach is that some elements will be repetitive should one choose to read more of this author. But since this was my first, I was glad to learn a lot about Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and her love interest Detective Tomasetti.

If you know the series, you know it has a very special setting, namely Ohio’s Amish Country. I’ve always been fascinated by the Amish (or any other religious group like them). Apart from being a very gripping read, this book offers a great introduction to the Amish way of life.  What is very important is the fact that Kate Burkholder was Amish. Whenever there is a crime in the Amish community, it’s likely other police forces will ask for her help. Not only because she knows the Amish but because she does speak Pennsylvania Dutch and therefore the Amish are much more likely to talk to her. I had never heard of Pennsylvania Dutch before and the sentences she included all through the book surprised me greatly. I thought it would be like Dutch, but no, not at all – it was almost the exact same language as Swiss. With the exception of a few words, I could understand it all.

A series of missing Amish teenage girls awakens the mistrust of the police. Something cannot be right. When they find blood on one of the locations where one of the girls was last seen, it’s clear that a crime has happened.

Burkholder and Tomasetti who work together on this case know that they have to be quick. The girls may still be alive and could be saved if they manage to find them in time.

The book starts with the suicide of an Amish girl, ten years before the other girls go missing. Once they dig deeper, they notice that there are a few cold cases of girls gone missing, some a long time ago. All these cases appear to be linked.

I can’t reveal too much or the book is spoilt. Just this much – they gather a lot of information and make good progress when suddenly they find out that the culprit might be someone they didn’t suspect at all and this puts them in great danger.

Kate is an interesting character. We learn why she left the Amish life and what has happened to her in the past that makes her so suspicious. Tomasetti is equally damaged and they try to take things very slowly. I thought they worked very well as a couple, both are appealing characters.

Because the case makes them visit a lot of different Amish families we read about different ways. Unfortunately all the Amish families have one thing in common – they are highly patriarchal, the father makes all the decisions.

All the girls go missing during their “rumspringa” – literally that would mean “jumping around”. It’s a time during which they are allowed to be “wild”, to drink, smoke and party before they have to decide whether they want to be baptised and follow the plain life or not.

I really liked the crime aspect and how it was solved and the characters as well, plus the Amish setting was informative and fascinating. I also enjoyed that Kate, having left the Amish, still feels somewhat nostalgic about her childhood and often not only mentions negative but very positive aspects of Amish life. What I liked less were a few cringe worthy passages towards the end when Burkholder speaks about “the blue brotherhood” (meaning the police force and how tight-knit they are)… Brrr. Shudder. Other than that it’s great.

I highly recommend to try the series. I thought Gone Missing was very well constructed and suspenseful. The solution was creepy and, thanks to a final twist, even chilling. For those not sure whether they would like it or not – there is a 60 page short story Long Lost available for the kindle, under 1$. I think it is set between Gone Missing and the next one in the series.

Brian Kimberling: Snapper (2013)


Nathan Lochmueller studies birds, earning just enough money to live on. He drives a glitter-festooned truck, the Gypsy Moth, and he is in love with Lola, a woman so free-spirited and mysterious she can break a man’s heart with a sigh or a shrug. Around them swirls a remarkable cast of characters: the proprietor of Fast Eddie’s Burgers & Beer, the genius behind “Thong Thursdays”; Uncle Dart, a Texan who brings his swagger to Indiana with profound and nearly devastating results; a snapping turtle with a taste for thumbs; a German shepherd who howls backup vocals; and the very charismatic state of Indiana itself. And at the center of it all is Nathan, creeping through the forest to observe the birds he loves and coming to terms with the accidental turns his life has taken.

Snapper was one of the books I took to Morocco with me. I ended up not reading that much. It was impossible. I read on the plane and a little bit in the evenings but that was about it and the only book I could properly concentrate on during those moments was Catching Fire. I started Snapper but reading about Indiana in a country like Morocco seemed weird. As soon as I was back I continued reading and finished it in one sitting.

Snapper is one of those books that needs reviews as the blurb is misleading and might attract the wrong people while those who would enjoy it don’t even think about getting it. A quick look at the us amazon site confirmed this.

Snapper reads more like a series of vignettes and episodes than like a novel. Most of the times I had a feeling I was reading a memoir in the vein of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Once past the surprise to find a very unusual novel I enjoyed reading it a great deal as the voice is wonderful. It’s not as hilarious as the jacket cover promises but it’s amusing.

The stories all take place during the narrator’s childhood and early adulthood and end when he meets his future wife and becomes a father.

The book is as much about Indiana as it is about the narrator. The chapters jump back and forth in time, some characters like Lola the woman he’s in love with and Shane his best friend return, others only play a role in one story.

Nathan studies birds, that’s why he spends a lot of time outdoors. But even as a kid he loved to be outdoors and we get a lot of great descriptions of the flora and fauna of the place. What makes it funny is that Kimberling lets Nathan link the wonderful outdoors with criticism of poaching, carrying guns and many other topics. The stories he tells are funny anecdotes, descriptive evocations of a place but there is always a deeper meaning there as well.

I enjoyed Snapper a great deal. I think it is a wonderful book, entertaining, witty and told by a very endearing narrator with an original voice. Just don’t expect a traditional novel.

Here’s an example to illustrate Nathan’s voice

I doubt anyone outside Southern Indiana knows what a stripper pit is. They don’t exist anywhere else. This is sometimes embarrassing for me in conversations, if I say I spent many happy adolescent hours there. People think I’m talking about Thong Thursday’s at Fast Eddie’s. The British Broadcasting Corporation once sent a reporter by boat to Eansville to investigate the wild ways of the inhabitants – the kind of thing they used to do in “deepest Africa”, I think. We are Hoosiers after all.

On a technical level a stripper pit is what remains of a bituminous coal mine, but strip mining is not like other mining. Picture vast granite cliffs with coniferous trees, deep lakes of calm cerulean blue – imagine a majestic Norwegian fjord somehow misplaced among rolling cornfields -that is what a stripper pit looks like. At the bottom of those lakes you’ll find old refrigerators and stolen cars and bags of kittens. It is Southern Indiana.

Thanks a lot to Pantheon and Schocken Books for a review copy.

Karen Thompson Walker: The Age of Miracles (2012)

The Age of Miracles

Ever since Jacquelin Cangro reviewed The Age of Miracles, I felt like reading it. I assumed I would like it but I didn’t expect that I would love it so much. It may seem odd to love an “end of the world” story but The Age of Miracles is so much more. It’s as much the story of a disaster as a coming-of-age tale, an exploration of how we adapt to change and a meditation on the fragility of life on earth. Plus the tone of the whole book is lovely and nostalgic.

The Age of Miracles is told by 11-year-old Julia, an only child who is a bit of a loner and a keen observer. Suddenly, one day, they hear on the news that the rotation of the earth has slowed down and as a result the days have grown longer. At first this is minimal but gradually the days and nights extend until, at the end of the novel 72 hour days are followed by 72 hour nights.

The consequences are massive. Many animals and plants die. After a few months, it’s dangerous to go out during daytime as the sun’s radiation can be fatal. Plants only grow in hot houses, people need protection at all times.

Early on the government decides to disregard daylight and to stay on the usual 24 hour clock time. Opposing groups find this unacceptable and adjust to the sunlight. They stay awake longer, sleep longer. Soon there is hostility between those groups and most of the day timers flee after a while and live in communes outside of the cities.

Julia describes all this in great detail. She’s worried but is also surprised how quickly people get used to these changes. But there are many other things on her mind. She was always a loner but the slowing makes her lose even more friends. She is secretly in love with Seth Moreno who is also a loner  which makes it difficult for them to become friends but once they overcome some obstacles, they spend every minute together.

The tone of Julia’s voice and some hints, indicate that she tells this story looking back. It’s the grown-up Julia who tells about the year during which the biggest changes, in the outside world and in her personal world, take place. It’s the year of her first love, of the near collapse of her parent’s marriage and also the year in which everything anyone took for granted disappears forever.

I know that some people found the book alarming because it obviously touches on subjects like climate change and natural disasters. I was more touched by Julia’s personal story, by the tone of her voice which was infused with sorrow. There are as many scenes of great beauty as there are scenes of damage and loss. Ultimately this is a melancholic story about a long goodbye, goodbye from people, things and habits.

When I started reading, I was a bit afraid, the book would be gimmicky. It’s not. It’s a quiet, moving tale. The unusual event is just a means to tell a much deeper story; a story of change, loss and sorrow inherent to all of our lives.

Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds (2012) Literature and War Readalong January 2013

Kevin Power’s book The Yellow Birds is oddly lyrical and beautiful. Why oddly? Because it is a book about war, about killing people, about young recruits facing their own and their country’s demons, about torture and killing of innocent people, old men, women and children, animals, a book about a young man losing his best friend, about guilt, mistakes and trauma but still it is lyrical and beautiful and that is odd.

The Yellow Birds is a first person narrative. Private Bartle tells his story in chapters alternating between 2004, Al Tafar, Iraq and 2005, Richmond, Virginia, interrupted by the one or the other chapter set in other places in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

The 21 year-old Bartle joins up in 2003. He meets Murph who is only 18 then. They are trained and led by the hardened tough-guy Sgt Sterling. In 2004 they are shipped to Al Tafar, Iraq. The two young men, become attached to each other from the beginning, and once they are in Iraq, that friendship intensifies.

At the beginning of the story, the young Privates are detached. They kill because they have to kill. They are constantly under attack but that’s how it is. The heat bothers them more than the killing as such. However, the longer they stay, the more the war gets to them and finally a tragedy happens.

We know from the beginning that Murph dies but we don’t know how, we only know the circumstances must have been terrible and that Bartle feels guilty. The truth is unveiled slowly.

There is a lot I liked in this novel and a lot I didn’t. The descriptions are wonderful; we are there and see the landscape, we feel what it must have been like to fight in this terrain, the dry orchards, the city, a place swarming with soldiers and civilians, being attacked constantly without ever knowing where the enemy will come from. The horror of killing civilians and animals. I thought Powers captured this very well.

There are lyrical scenes like this

I try so hard now to remember if I saw hint of what was coming, if there was some shadow over him, some way I could have known he was so close to being killed. In  my memory of those days on the rooftop, he is half a ghost. But I didn’t see it then, and couldn’t. No one can see that, I guess I’m glad I didn’t k now, because we were happy that morning in Al Tafar, in September. Our relief was coming. The day was full of light and warm. We slept. (p. 24/25)

I had a problem with the fact that the book was much more about a friendship than about the war as such. Bartle returns traumatized. It could appear that what is traumatizing about a war is that you lose your best friends. That’s a crude simplification. It certainly makes matters worse but it’s not the only reason for PTSD.

I’ve read a lot of articles about the high suicide rates among US troops and veterans of this war, much higher, it seems, than in any other war. I would have wished that this was addressed. I would also have liked that we learned more about the war in Iraq. Surely it’s not only the terrain that makes this war different from others.

Despite my reservations, this is a beautiful book, with a surprisingly gentle atmosphere, pervaded by a floating mood. There are graphic scenes and they are hard to stomach. Each country has a predilection for certain types of torture and unfortunately we get a descriptive sample of what that is in this region.

All in all I would say, this novel is far more a moving, even heart-breaking story of a friendship under exceptional circumstances – namely during a war – than a novel about the war in Iraq. If you come to the book with these expectations, you will find a well crafted novel with many beautiful scenes and a powerful story about loss.

Other reviews

A Fiction Habit

Danielle – A Work in Progress


Judith – Reader in the Wilderness

Uncertain Somewhere

Savvy Verse and Wit

TBM (50 Year Project)

Tony’s Book World


The Yellow Birds was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is The Flowers of War aka Jingling Shisan Chai by Chinsese writer Geling Yan. Discussion starts on Thursday 28 February, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Philip Roth: Nemesis (2010)


There have been a few reviews of Philip Roth books recently (on Babbling Books here and here and on Book Around the Corner here) and because I commented on the one or the other posts saying that I didn’t like him, Leroy suggested I read Nemesis. The premise of the book sounded very interesting and so I finally read it. While I cannot say I’m a convert, I can still say that this is a very fine book and one that’s topical, well written and thought-provoking too.

The first thing I noticed, was that you can feel that this is an assured writer. You can feel it for many reasons. The most important one was that the writing seemed so effortless. It’s free of artificiality, flows nicely, contains many well captured scenes and the way it is told is quite wonderful. The book is told by a first person narrator, who appears only very briefly and then disappears and blends into the background of the story he tells. It isn’t his story and we will have to wait almost until the end of the book to find out who tells it and why. This is artful, and that’s why Nemesis is a great example that it’s worth to finish books because some really need all the pages to become a whole and to fully reveal their meaning.

It’s the summer of 1944. A scorching summer in Newark, New Jersey. Bucky Cantor is a young man, a physical education teacher who just graduated and starts his first job as a playground supervisor in the Jewish neighbourhood of Newark. It’s a summer job to which he has been looking forward to and which he executes with a lot of energy, enthusiasm and passion. Bucky is a small but strong and muscular man and if he wasn’t so terribly short-sighted he would be off fighting against the Germans like his best buddies Jake and Dave.

Bucky lives with his grandmother. His mother died in childbirth, his father, a thief, disappeared and the beloved grandfather has just passed away. But Bucky is by no means lonely as he has a fiancé, Marcia,  who comes from a rich Jewish family who accepts him and loves him just as much as Marcia herself does. Things look promising for Bucky if it wasn’t for a nasty, evil God, as Bucky sees it,  who decides to send the plague, in form of a polio epidemic, on Newark and the Jewish neighbourhood in which Bucky lives and works.This is 11 years before the vaccine is invented and Polio is a devastating disease. It’s not entirely clear how you contract it and while some forms are mild, most are not only crippling but can lead to death.

Roth does a great job at describing the panic, sadness, shock and horror that follow the outbreak of this epidemic. It has an absolutely devastating effect on the community of Newark and underlying racial and social tensions break out with a horrifying force.

While Nemesis tells the story of a disaster which strikes a whole community it also tells one man’s story and how he copes with disaster.

What I found amazing is the way Roth showed that in the end it’s far less important what befalls us but what really counts is how we deal with it. I can’t reveal too much or the book would be spoilt, let’s just say, that when guilt and blame come into the equation a bad situation can turn into a nightmare.

Disaster and how we cope with it isn’t the only theme in the novel. There are others like loss, regret and guilt which are all equally well illustrated.

Nemesis is a book which takes a while to develop its full aroma. I could imagine that the one or the other reader would find it a bit slow at first but it’s worth reading until  the end. While I’m still no Philip Roth enthusiast, I really liked this book and think I might pick up another of his novels some day.

Noam Shpancer: The Good Psychologist (2010)

A witty, absorbing novel on the days and ways of a cognitive behaviour therapist whose life outstrips his theories.

I seem to be drawn to books with psychologists as characters lately. No wonder I picked up The Good Psychologist when I saw it in a book shop. After a few moments of puzzlement I enjoyed it a lot. It’s unusual. One could call it literary non-fiction, if that genre even exists. What puzzled me was that the main character is always just called “the psychologist”. Like some of his patients, he has no name but is referred to via his profession. The other thing that surprised me is that you have a feeling not only to be in the therapy sessions with him but also in class where he teaches his students.  Shpancer, a first-time novelist, is a professor and therapist and both professions are the topic of this book. It is important to know that the specializations of his character are the same he has, namely anxiety disorders and depression. The method is cognitive behavioural therapy. I was completely absorbed by the novel. If you have ever wondered what it is like to be in therapy, this book will show you. If you are interested in psychology, you will enjoy it and should you suffer from anxiety disorders, I think this book may help you or at least show you that there is a possibility to be cured.

Eager therapists, the people-persons who drip with goodwill and sympathy, theirs is a false promise, and theirs is a wounding touch, he will say later in class. A therapist who rushes to help forgets to listen and therefore cannot understand, and therefore cannot see. The eager therapist, the one who is determined to offer salvation, involves himself and seeks his own salvation.The good psychologist keeps his distance and does not involve himself in the results of his work. The right distance allows a deep and clear gaze. The good psychologist reserves the business of closeness for family members and beloved pets and leaves the business of salvation to religious officials and street corner eccentrics.

The Good Psychologist tells the story of a middle-aged, single psychologist who also teaches evening classes. His life is rather lonely but that’s how he wants it to be. He is in love with a woman who is married to a very sick man. They had an affair and because she wasn’t able to conceive from her husband, she asked the psychologist whether he would be willing to let her have his child. After she gets pregnant, she breaks the affair off and doesn’t want to see him anymore. Still they stay in touch professionally and she is the one he turns to when he needs advice with one of his clients.

Tiffany is a stripper who cannot dance anymore. Like most of the people who come for therapy to the psychologist, she has panic attacks. Her biggest fear is that she will never be able to dance again and will not earn enough money to get her child from her abusive husband where the girl stays at the moment.

The chapters alternate between chapters in the therapy room, the class room and at the therapist’s home. We see how he treats with the method of cognitive behavioural therapy, how he teaches his students the principles and how he applies them in his own life.

Tonight we will discuss a common confusion among young therapists, he announces to the class. Mental health – to the extent that there is such a thing as mental  and such a thing as health – is not a destination but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going. The therapist is like a driving instructor not a chauffeur.

I found this highly fascinating. The psychologist is constantly questioning the “cranky Viennese” (Freud) and introduces other names and concepts. Maybe this sounds very heavy-handed and theoretical but it’s well done. We learn that the biggest difference between psychoanalysis, the way Freud taught it, and CBT, is how different the importance of childhood is perceived. CBT therapists do not think that childhood is that important. They show their clients that it’s their thought processes they have to change. This is illustrated in many different ways and I was more than once amazed or surprised about different insights.

Try this exercise: switch all your daily buts with ands. Jennifer – he turns to her – instead of telling your fiancé, I love you but you’re driving me mad, tell him, I love you and you are driving me mad.

What I loved about this book is the fact that the psychologist never sounds smug. He isn’t a know-it-all. He is a man who struggles in his own life but who is genuinely kind. He does make mistakes and we see how he handles them.

The Good Psychologist is highly readable, informative, fascinating and it introduced me to a fictional character that I would enjoy meeting in real life.

Needless to say that this book is very quotable. Just like in Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, there is a great quote on every page. I just picked a very few and hope they give an impression.

Here write this down. The goal of therapy is to provide the client with the tools to nurture and maintain psychological health. We help him practice the correct use of the tools: acceptance of emotions, rational examination of thoughts; to consciously confront erroneous patterns of response and embrace the flow of correct healthy patterns.

Personally I do not think there is one therapy that is right for everyone but this sure sounds like one that makes a lot of sense, at least when it comes to anxiety disorders.

If you do not want to read this novel but are interested in the therapy, here is a site that gives a Mini Introduction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Drive – The Book by James Sallis (2006) and The Movie by Nicolas Winding Refn (2011)

James Sallis’ taut neo-noir novel Drive is nothing if not surprising. All the more so should you have seen the movie first and now want to read the novel. I had barely finished the book when I watched the movie and it was extremely interesting to see what and how they changed it. I don’t want to spoil the fun for those who have read the book first and have not seen the movie yet. I will just mention a few differences.

Sallis’ book is extremely well-crafted and has an interesting structure. I know I will read it again, just because of that. The story can be summarized in a few sentences. At the beginning of the book we see Driver in a pool of blood, three dead bodies next to him. How he got there and why will be revealed in bits and pieces during the novel. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time, only revealing a little in each chapter. The chapters can be read like short stories. They work on their own. This structure and the way information is given, only in the smallest of slices, exemplifies one of the main themes of the book.

Life sends us messages all the time – then sits around laughing over how we’re not gonna be able to figure them out.

Driver is a stunt driver for the movies. He is the best. Driving is what he knows best. His reputation is such that he is contacted by some criminals and hired as the driver for getaway cars in robberies. Driver is non-colloquial to the extent that even his delinquent bosses are stunned. Try to be more mono-syllabic and you’d be reduced to complete silence. Driver doesn’t want to know details. He drives. Period. And tells you that. In very short sentences.

Driver and many other people stay nameless all through the book which symbolizes a lot and mirrors an element of his childhood.

Mostly, when she spoke to him at all, she just called him boy. Need any help with the schoolwork, boy? Got enough clothes, boy? You like those little cans of tuna for lunch, right, boy? and crackers?

With a mother like that no wonder Driver never really attaches any meaning to his name or is much interested in elaborate conversation. This doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in people or relationships. He tries to be with people, he does contact people and hang out with them. He even takes care of some. Despite this lack in open communication, Driver’s interior life is far from empty. Passages like the one below are frequent in the novel.

Driver marvelled at the power of our collective dreams. Everything gone to hell, the two oft them become running dogs, and what do they do? They sit there watching a movie.

It’s rare that I’m this fascinated by a crime novel, this amazed by the writing. After having finished it, I could hardly wait to see the movie.

Maybe it’s lucky book and movie do not have a lot in common. Some story lines that are not very important in the book, have a major importance in the movie. The movie has nothing of the staccato rhythm of storytelling of the novel but delivers the story chronologically, leaving out everything about Drivers’ childhood and developing a major love story.

I didn’t mind those liberties at all because you can see book and movie as two separate things, one serving as a draft to the other. This is one of those movies I see myself re-watching many times. I absolutely loved it and one of the major reasons for that is the soundtrack. This is one of those glossy movies in which picture, story, actors and score form a tight whole and each part is perfect. Remove or change one thing and it would crumble. What I liked best was the extremely soulful, almost dreamlike atmosphere the soundtrack created, those beautiful pictures of the illuminated L.A. skyline at night and the surprisingly tender love story. I have often issues with the cast but it’s perfect in this movie. I couldn’t imagine a better Driver than Ryan Gosling or a better person for Irina than Carey Mulligan.

With a director like Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) it was to be expected that the movie would be visually compelling but not shy away from graphic scenes and strong violence.

You can watch this movie, see the differences with the book and still like it, and you can still admire the book as well.

Probably still under the influence of the movie, I haven’t done the book enough justice. If you want to read more focussed reviews, Guy reviewed it here (that’s the one that made me discover the book) and Max reviewed it here.

Thanks to the major success of this film the books by Sallis are now reissued. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Ghost of a Flea. The re-release is due in May 2012.