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Posts Tagged ‘newspaper reporter’

THE CHILD by Fiona Barton: Book Review

Who is the mother of the child whose corpse is found years after its burial?  There are four women in The Child, and each one has a story to tell.

The novel begins with Emma, a forty-something woman with a history of mental illness.  Married to a wonderful man and employed as an editor for celebrity memoirs, she constantly relives a past that threatens to overwhelm her.

Kate is a journalist at the Daily Post, a London newspaper, always looking for the next story.  A small piece from a competing paper catches her eye with its headline “Baby’s Body Found.”  She believes she has found the big scoop she is looking for in the piece about a baby’s skeleton unearthed while contractors were demolishing old houses.

Angela is getting ready for March 20th, the anniversary of the day her newborn daughter was taken from her room at the hospital, never to be seen again.  It’s been decades since the abduction, and she’s married with two other children, but of course she’s never forgotten the infant she’d had for less than twenty-four hours.

Jude is Emma’s mother, a single mother with her own emotional problems.  She and her daughter once had a close relationship, but that ended when Jude met Will and determined that he was more important to her than her own daughter.  After years of separation, the mother and daughter have reconciled, but their tenuous, tense relationship always leaves one or both unhappy or angry.

The book follows the paths of these four women over a period of a week.  The story of the Building Site Baby has grabbed Kate, and she gets permission from her reluctant editor to go to the run-down neighborhood where the corpse was found and try to interview any people still living there who had been residents at the time the baby was believed to have been buried.

The Child is Fiona Barton’s second mystery, and two of the characters appeared in The Widow as well, both in the same jobs they held in the earlier novel.  At a farewell function for a fellow journalist, Kate sees Bob Sparkes, a police detective she met while covering another story.  She tells him about her interest in the baby, and Bob is quickly drawn into the story because of his own interest in missing children.  Now, hoping for some assistance from the police, Kate is even more eager to find out the truth about the infant who has been buried for years.

Fiona Barton was a journalist in London for many years, and on her website she says that the ideas for both The Widow and The Child came from news stories she’d read.  In both novels she has taken the painful subjects of domestic abuse and child kidnapping and turned them into beautifully written, suspenseful thrillers with believable characters whose painful secrets and emotional problems will grip the reader from the first page.

You can read more about Fiona Barton at her website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.


RUN YOU DOWN by Julia Dahl: Book Review

One of the best things about reading books is that they take you to new and different places, giving you the opportunity to learn things that perhaps you’d never thought about before.  Some people believe that this is true only for non-fiction, but I don’t agree.  I’ve read many novels, including mysteries, that have transported me to communities and introduced me to cultures I’d never have encountered otherwise.

Julia Dahl’s Run You Down takes the reader to the sect of the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in New York.  Rebekah Roberts, the heroine of Ms. Dahl’s debut novel Invisible City, is one of the book’s two narrators.  The other is her mother, Aviva Kagan, who was a teenager when she fled an Orthodox Jewish enclave in Brooklyn for the wider world more than twenty years earlier.  She became pregnant, left the infant Rebekah with the child’s father, and disappeared from her daughter’s and her boyfriend’s lives.

Rebekah, now a journalist, didn’t know until recently if her mother was alive.  Even now that she has been given the necessary contact information, Rebekah isn’t sure if she wants to be in touch.  What kind of mother would walk away from her child?  Though Rebekah was brought up in a happy home by her father and stepmother, she still has questions and feelings about her mother that she both does and doesn’t want answered.  Now the murder of a Haredi woman in Roseville, New York looks as if it might bring Rebekah and Aviva together after all these years.

Because of her coverage of the murder of another woman a few months earlier, Rebekah’s name is known to the Haredim.  She’s asked by her friend Saul Katz to meet with the husband of Pessie Goldin, a young mother who allegedly drowned in her bathtub.

Levi Goldin doesn’t believe that his wife died that way, but he’s been thwarted in his attempt to find the answers to his questions by Pessie’s parents and the police chief of Roseville.  Pessie’s parents are worried that their daughter may have committed suicide, a grave offense in their religion, as well as being concerned that the shame of any investigation would hurt their younger daughters’ chances of successful marriages.

They would rather believe, or at least have others believe, that her death was a tragic accident, that she fell while bathing and drowned.  But why is the police chief of the town so reluctant to investigate Pessie’s death?

The other narrator, Aviva Kagan, tells the story of her unhappiness with her religious upbringing and her escape from it.  But that escape didn’t turn out the way she thought it would, and her life has been a search for belonging, from Brooklyn to Florida, back to Brooklyn, then to Israel, and finally to the Jews in Roseville.  But she has never found the peace she’s searched for; even her reunion with her youngest brother, Sam, has brought trouble into her life.

Run You Down is a penetrating look into the closed society of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox.  Its positive aspects, its sense of community and family closeness is balanced by its negative ones, its paralyzing fear of outsiders and its unwillingness to show any of its imperfections to the Christian world.  Both Rebekah and Aviva are fascinating protagonists, both with engrossing stories that have shaped their lives.

You can read more about Julia Dahl at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads on her web site.





OREGON HILL by Howard Owen: Book Review

Willie Mays Black’s life is a little precarious these days. The newspaper he’s been at for most of his professional life is cutting jobs right and left; he has three broken marriages behind him; his relationship with his college-age daughter is minimal at best; he needs a roommate to help pay his rent; and now he’s following a story that is beginning to remind him of the worst mistake he ever made in his journalistic career.

Willie gets to the scene of a brutal murder just as the police do.  There’s a body dangling from a tree, the body of a Virginia Commonwealth University student who has been missing for four days. Gruesome as that discovery is, it’s even worse when the corpse is turned around and everyone sees that the girl’s head is missing.

The police make a quick arrest, a thirty-two-year-old man named Martin Fell who had been dating the dead woman, Isabel Ducharme.  Witnesses saw an argument between the two at a bar, then Isabel walking out alone, shortly followed by Martin.  When it’s discovered that Martin was accused years ago in an assault case, the matter seems open-and-shut.

Then Willie’s number-three ex-wife, Kate, contacts him and tells him that she’s the attorney for Martin and that Martin’s mother wants to see Willie.  The reporter is less than enthused.  And when the mother tells Kate and Willie that her son was with her at the time the murder was committed, Willie thinks to himself, “You’re his mother.  Of course you don’t believe your darling boy chopped a girl’s head off.”  But when Louisa Fell tells him the time her son came to her house that night, Willie realizes that it would have been nearly impossible for him to have murdered Isabel.  Of course, that assumes that Louisa is telling the truth, but it’s enough to make Willie determined to look into the matter.

Willie is an intriguing character. He’s so full of faults it’s a bit hard to know where to begin.  An admitted adulterer, a heavy smoker, a man who can drink to the point of blackouts, a mostly absent father.  It seems as if any reader would be put off by these character traits.  On the other hand, Willie’s a stand-up guy.  He’ll pull himself out of bed in order to rescue his mother’s boyfriend from the roof he’s climbed onto; he’ll insist on writing newspaper stories about Isabel’s murder in his own way, aware that one false step will send him to the unemployment line.

He’s surrounded by other interesting people.  There’s his mother, Peggy, who is still smoking weed day and night; her live-in boyfriend, Les, a former minor league baseball player who is showing the beginnings of dementia; the editor and the publisher of the Richmond paper Willie writes for, both of whom are seemingly more concerned with the paper’s bottom line than with its contents; and Willie’s three former wives.

Oregon Hill is the neighborhood in Richmond where Willie grew up. It’s a place that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the more than forty years since his birth to a marijuana-addled seventeen-year-old girl.  His mother still lives there, but also still in the neighborhood is David Junior Shiflett.  A bully as a boy, he is now the detective who arrested Martin Fell and who still strikes fear into Willie’s heart.

Howard Owen is an established novelist and short story writer.   He’s written the sequel to Oregon Hill, due out next year, and I’m already eager to read it.

You can read more about Howard Owen at his web site.

HELL OR HIGH WATER by Joy Castro: Book Review

In 2008, the city of New Orleans was still reeling from the hurricane that had savaged it three years before. Homes and businesses were devastated, especially in the poorest districts, most particularly the Ninth Ward.  Nola Cespedes, a new reporter on the Times-Picayune, is all too familiar with the problems that the city had faced even before the storm hit.

Brought up by a single mother who emigrated from Cuba and earned her living cleaning the homes of rich white people, Nola has lifted herself out of childhood poverty on the strength of her brains and her mother’s love and belief in her.  But Nola has hidden her past even from her three closest friends, and, it turns out, even from herself.

Nola’s opportunity to break out of the Living and Lagniappe section of the newspaper comes when she’s given an assignment to interview men convicted of sexual crimes.  Over eight hundred men are on the streets of the city–rapists, child molesters, sexual perverts–and Nola’s editor wants her to follow up. She doesn’t want the story, but she has no choice.  And the subject becomes unfortunately current when a young woman is abducted in broad daylight, as was another woman in the city who was found raped and killed.

After reviewing the files of dozens of convicted abusers, Nola decides to interview five of them, although in the end only four of them agree to meet her.  With her stomach churning, Nola tries to find out what makes one man rape and cut, another beat his victims before raping them, a church pastor abuse thirty-two of his parishioners, an elementary school principal rape his female students, and a wealthy New Orleans resident of impeccable heritage force himself on his household help.

In addition, Nola decides to speak to several of the victims of abuse and tell their stories to the paper’s readers.

Outside of work, there’s a lot going on in Nola’s private life.  She meets weekly for dinner with her three closest friends.  But in Nola’s mind, each one of them has things she doesn’t have and has never had–a fiancee, wealthy parents, a homeland she can return to.  Nola believes that if her friends knew the truth about her–her poverty-stricken past, her budget-crunching present–they would pity her, and with that she cannot and will not deal.  So she goes along, pretending. As she puts it to herself, “You silence the parts of yourself that point out how privileged they are, or else they make you feel sordid, small, ashamed.”

Joy Castro has written a fascinating novel about the sexual abuse that is sadly a too-common story. The feeling that no one can be trusted–not clergy or teachers or family members–is all too real in today’s word, just as it is in Hell or High Water.  The author brings that reality home to her readers skillfully, but she also tells the story of a young woman trying to face down her fears and anxieties while continuing with her own life.  The characters in this novel are realistic and compelling.  Some are charming, whom you would like for friends; others are depraved, whom you hope you would never encounter.

You can read more about Joy Castro at her web site.