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Posts Tagged ‘sexual abuse’

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.

BLEED FOR ME by Michael Robotham: Book Review

Joseph O’Loughlin, a psychologist who is the protagonist in Bleed For Me, has a lot to contend with. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, is separated from his wife through no desire of his own, and his fourteen-year-old daughter Charlie can barely tolerate him.  And things are going to get worse for him, a lot worse.

Julianne, Joe’s estranged wife, calls him at 11:00 p.m., saying that Charlie’s best friend Sienna has appeared at her door, covered in blood.  Joe rushes over, just in time to see Sienna run from the house.  He follows her through the woods and into a nearby lake, pulling her out before she goes underwater permanently.  Sienna is rushed to a nearby hospital, and as Joe returns to his former home he is told by a neighbor that Sienna’s father, a retired homicide detective, has been murdered and the police think Sienna committed the crime.

Zoe, Sienna’s older sister, confirms that their father sexually abused them, but she is adamant that Sienna didn’t kill him.  However, the police see it differently, and Sienna is arrested and slated for trial.

Joe goes to talk to Gordon Ellis, the drama teacher at Charlie and Sienna’s school. Although Gordon is popular with all the girls, when Joe questioned Sienna at the hospital she refused to talk about him.  Gordon says he thought there might be a problem at Sienna’s house and arranged for the girl to see a counselor.  Joe has a “gut feeling”–that Sienna is protecting somebody and that Gordon knows more than he’s telling.  No proof, just a feeling that there’s something between the two of them, something inappropriate.

Sienna has also been close to the counselor at school, Annie Robinson.  Annie says she knew Gordon Ellis in college but wasn’t close to him.  She calls Gordon “too handsome for his own good” and promises to look into any conversations at school about possible sexual misconduct between Gordon and the female students.

One of the reasons that Julianne left Joe and wants a divorce is her feeling that he can’t separate himself from his work and his clients. And that certainly seems to be the case here.  His car is run off the road, his dog is killed, but still he persists in trying to help Sienna; true, she’s not a patient, but her closeness to his daughter makes her seem to Joe as nearly a member of his family.

Bleed for Me is a beautifully crafted, incredibly suspenseful book.  It’s not an easy read, dealing with parental sexual abuse and other sexual perversions, things that are unfortunately all too common in today’s news.  But the emotions of all the characters ring true–their fears, desires, lusts, loves–all the emotions that make us human.

You can read more about Michael Robotham at his web site.

I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE by Laura Lippman: Book Review

Not a traditional mystery, not exactly a thriller, I’d Know You Anywhere is a fascinating psychological study of the aftermath of a crime.  Laura Lippman, master storyteller in both the Tess Monaghan series and stand-alone novels, examines life “before and after” the kidnapping of a fifteen-year-old girl more than twenty years before the novel opens.

Elizabeth Benedict is walking along a country road when she comes across Walter Bowman, just a few years older than herself.  Within a couple of minutes he manages to drag her into his truck and drive off with her.  Elizabeth will turn out to be the only girl who survives Walter’s abductions.

All Walter wants is a girlfriend. He’s good-looking, muscular, has green eyes, but yet he can’t seem to attract any girl at all.  But he keeps trying.  He picks up girls on lonely roads, has a few minutes of conversation with them, realizes they’re not interested and are afraid of him, sexually assaults them, and kills them.  It’s not really his fault, he assures himself; if only one had agreed to be his girlfriend, his search would be over and he wouldn’t be forced to keep looking for others.

The novel opens as Eliza (the name she took after her abduction) and family return from several years in London–her husband, Peter; their teenage daughter; and their younger son.  It’s a typical American family living in the suburban Washington area, made even more typical by their visit to a local pound to get a dog.  But only Peter knows Eliza’s history.

Shortly after Eliza’s return to the States, she receives a letter that Walter has written. It’s been forwarded to her by a friend of his, Barbara LaFortuny, who is a vehement opponent of the death penalty.  Walter has been on Virginia’s death row for twenty-two years, a record in that twice he made it as far as the death house, only to receive last-minute reprieves.  Now with Barbara’s aid he reconnects with Eliza, first by writing to her and then by getting her to agree to be on his phone call list.  Walter has a powerful motive–as his only surviving victim, her help will be invaluable in commuting his death sentence once again.  He’s due to be electrocuted the following month, and this time it looks as if the sentence will be carried out–unless he can persuade Eliza to do his bidding.

The novel switches voices many times. First it’s the grown woman Eliza, then the twenty-something Walter, then the teenage Elizabeth, then Barbara, then the inmate Walter.  Adult Eliza would like to put this all behind her, as she has been successful in doing up to this point; teenage Walter wants some girl, blond, slim, and beautiful, to be his girlfriend; teenage Elizabeth wants to placate Walter in order to stay alive; Barbara wants to force Eliza to help commute Walter’s death sentence to life imprisonment; inmate Walter wants to live.

As always, Laura Lippman has written an outstanding novel. Has Eliza’s attempt to keep her past private colored her entire adult life?   Should she agree to be in contact with her kidnapper?  Has Walter ever understood the damage he did to her, as well as to the girls he killed?  Has Barbara’s own experience in being the victim of a crime given her insight into the justice system or simply moved her rigidity from her private life into a more public forum?  The novel asks these questions but leaves it up to the reader to answer them.  Or not.

You can read more about Laura Lippman at her web site.