Monday, April 30, 2018

Before We Were Yours. Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate is the type of historical fiction I love. The main characters and stories are fiction, while the framework is based on true events.  The story centers on Georgia Tann’s black market adoption scheme. With the help of government officials and law enforcement, Tann had children removed from their homes, claiming their parents were unfit when, in reality, they were simply poor and unable to fight the system. Sometimes she even kidnapped children, especially if they were blond with blue-eyes. Tann managed to run her “orphanage,” the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, from 1924-1950, destroying an untold number of lives. The story clearly affected Lisa Wingate deeply. Before We Were Yours is a book that was written from the heart.

I had never heard of Georgia Tann or the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and am horrified that such a scheme could continue for so long. I plan to read The Baby Thief by Barbara Bisantz Raymond to learn more. (It was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year in 2007.)  I also found a few sources online:

  • This video tells about Tann and contains many photographs of her and the Tennessee Children's Home Society. It's chilling and well worth viewing.

Before We Were Yours imagines the plight of four girls kidnapped from their river barge home by Tann’s minions while their parents were at the hospital for the birth of twins. Wingate’s description of the Foss’s life on the river shines. You can feel the love and fun of the tightly knit family despite their poverty. Although the book follows the girls, the devastation their parents must have felt was never far from my mind. 

The eldest, Rill, tries desperately to keep the sisters together at Tann’s “orphanage,” to no avail. She shows courage and grit throughout the novel, while at the same time feeling a failure for not holding the family together. She’s one of my favorite characters I’ve encountered in the books I’ve recently read.  

Rill’s narrative alternates with the present-day story of Avery Stafford, a lawyer visiting her South Carolina hometown to care for her ailing father, a prominent senator. She’s being groomed for a career in politics and plans to marry her childhood sweetheart, although they haven’t set a date yet. She’s stifled in the box her family’s put her in, and we see her beginning to resist. At a political event, she’s more intrigued by the elderly woman who approaches her than the photo op. She sets out to discover who the woman is and we gradually learn the connection between her family, the elderly woman, and the Foss children. 

In many novels with intertwined past and present stories, the past is so richly imagined that the present day characters and events suffer. And when a character’s purpose is to uncover the past, it’s difficult to give her a fully satisfying story of her own. Although not as vivid as Rill’s sections, Wingate makes Avery quite compelling. Most readers can empathize with her struggle between her family’s expectations and her desires.

My only complaint with the book is that the present-day whereabouts and connections of the Foss sisters could’ve been made clearer. I ended the book not entirely certain I was correct in my interpretation of the family tree, but that didn’t decrease my overall satisfaction with the book.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

15 Mystery Books Giveaway from Book Riot

Book Riot made a list of the 15 best mysteries published so far this year, and one lucky person can win them all. Entries need to be submitted by May 9. The books look so good, I want to read them all, even if I don't win!
















Friday, April 6, 2018

The Woman in the Window. A.J. Finn

4 out of 5 Stars

In The Woman in the Window, A. J. Finn draws inspiration from classic Hitchcockian suspense films and the slew of successful “Girl” psychological thrillers in his mashup of Rear Window, Girl on a Train, and Gaslight. Although the writing is uneven at times and the story feels familiar, it’s a nice addition to the genre and it’s going to make a terrific movie.

Anna Fox hasn’t left her house for months, due to a crippling case of agoraphobia. The cause of her anxiety is a mystery within the mystery, and its revelation is a gut punch. As a former psychologist, she knows exactly how to treat her condition, but is unable to manage. The irony doesn’t escape her, and she tells the tale with a detached, sardonic, and often very funny voice.

The beginning of the book establishes her routine, which consists of spying on her neighbors, watching classic mystery movies, and consuming large amounts of merlot and prescription pills. The occasional visits from therapists, interactions with the downstairs tenant, and phone calls with her separated husband and daughter are the only things that break the monotony. It seems she could continue in this depressed lifestyle for a long, long time, wandering through her Harlem brownstone in semidarkness. Before long, the five-story house feels claustrophobic, even to the reader.

It must be difficult for an author to give a character motion in such a closed setting, but Finn’s abundance of synonyms jarred after a few unusual instances. Anna surges, steals, stalks, subsides, slopes, scurries, scuttles, and shuffles into rooms. She pivots and pours, keels and clops, wades, lurches, ebbs, travels, trips, treads, trudges, fumbles and flies around her house. Sometimes the thesaurus needs to go back on the shelf and a character should simply walk. The odd word choices drew me out of the story.

Things start moving when the Russell family moves into the neighborhood, giving Anna something new to watch through the powerful zoom lens of her camera. The teenage son, Ethan, and later his mother, Jane, visit Anna and she soon suspects the family’s dysfunctional. One day, she hears a scream from their house, then days later, while spying on them, she sees Jane murdered.

Or does she? The police are skeptical about her story, especially since her blood alcohol level is twice the legal limit and her meds can cause hallucinations. The Russells deny anything happened, and a new Jane Russell is conjured from Boston.  The frustration Anna feels at being dismissed felt visceral to me, perhaps even more so with all the #metoo stories of women not being believed in the news. But the police raise good questions. Perhaps Anna’s confusing the Hitchcock movies she adores with reality.

The way the truth comes out disappointed me, although I believe it’s a common method in Hitchcock films. And parts of the villain’s persona didn’t gel with me. Would this person really “giggle” so often while disclosing the evil plans? And some of the methods used to unhinge Anna seemed a stretch. But the plot is tight, which is satisfying.

A real strength of the book is the descriptions of Anna’s panic attacks when she attempts to step outside the house. Her stream-of-conscious thoughts place us right beside her, experiencing her fear.  “And then it bulges toward me, swelling, now rushing, a boulder flung from a catapult; slams me with such force, walloping my gut, that I fold. My mouth opens like a window. Wind whips into it.” Powerful writing. Knowing Anna’s backstory, we root for her to conquer her fear, and when she does, it’s almost more satisfying than a well-plotted mystery becoming clear.

But not as satisfying as hearing the previously dismissive detective tell her, “I owe you an apology.”

Friday, March 16, 2018

Films in The Woman in the Window. A.J. Finn

Anna in The Woman in the Window is a film buff and mentions many old black-and-white thrillers. Gaslight and Vertigo have the most references, and Rear Window is a must with Jimmy Stewart as a spying neighbor. 

I haven't seen many of the films, so I made a list as they appeared in the book, with any relevant comments Anna makes. Page numbers are from the hardcover edition.

Happy Viewing!

Films in The Woman in the Window

The Man Who Knew Too Much
: "This evening selection, for the umpteenth time. I am the woman who viewed too much." (4)

Out of the Past

"'I like it dim,' I say. 'Like my men,' I want to add." (17)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: 
"Jane Russell! My physical therapist had never heard of her. 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' I said. 'Not in my experience,' she replied. Bina's younger; perhaps that's it." (22)

Les Diabolique: A rat-bastard husband, his 'little ruin' of a wife, a mistress, a murder, a vanished corpse. Can you beat a vanished corpse?” (26)

The Fallen Idol
: "--the doomed butler; the fateful paper plane." (30)

Ministry of Fear

The 39 Steps

" We'd watch a movie at least once a week--all the vintage suspense flicks from my childhood." (35):
  • Double Indemnity
  • Gaslight
  • Saboteur
  • The Big Clock
The Thin Man Franchise
  • Best: The Original
  • Worst: Song of the Thin Man
"Best Hitchcock films not made by Hitchcock." (35):
  • Le Boucher: "The early Claude Chabrol that Hitch, according to lore, wished he's directed."
  • Dark Passage: "with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall--a San Francisco valentine, all velveteen with fog, and antecedent to any movie in which a character goes under the knife to disguise himself." 
  • Niagara: "starring Marilyn Monroe."
  • Charade: "starring Audrey Hepburn."
  • Sudden Fear: "starring Joan Crawford's Eyebrows."
  • Wait Until Dark: "Hepburn again, a blind woman stranded in her basement apartment."
"Movies that postdate Hitch:" (35):
  • The Vanishing: "With its sucker-punch finale."
  • Frantic: "Polanski's ode to the master."
  • Side Effects: "Which begins as a Big Pharma screed before slithering like an eel into another genre altogether."
"Popular film misquotes:" (35)
  • Casablanca: "'Play it again, Sam,' allegedly, except neither Bogie nor Bergman ever said it.
  • Frankenstein: "'He's alive': Frankenstein doesn't gender his monster; cruelly, it's just 'It's alive.'"
  • "'Elementary, my dear Watson' does crop up in the first Holmes of the talkie era, but appears nowhere in the Conan Doyle canon."

Star Wars: "(I'm only human.)" (44)

"I inspect the spines:" (44)
  • Night and the City
  • Whirlpool
  • Murder, My Sweet

Night Must Fall: "'It's a good one to start with. Suspenseful, but not scary.'"

Laura: "It shouldn't work: Clifton Webb gorging on the scenery, Vincent Price test-driving a southern accent, the oil-and-vinegar leads. But work it does, and oh, that music." (46)

Vertigo: "I visit my film site. Andrew is online; he posted a link to a Pauline Kael essay on Vertigo--'stupid' and 'shallow.'" (50)

The Third Man: "Best noir to hold hands through? (The Third Man. The last shout alone." (50)

Spellbound: "I think of Dr. Brulov: 'My dear girl, you cannot keep bumping your head on against reality and saying it is not there.'" (84)

Dead Calm: "'I think in Dead Calm they were in the Pacific...Also, they went sailing to recover from an accident...And then they tried to rescue a psychopath who tried to kill them.'" (87)

Rebecca: "Later that evening I'm drowsing through Rebecca when the buzzer rings. I shed my blanket, straggle to the door. 'Why don't you go,' Judith Anderson sneers behind me. 'Why don't you leave Manderley.'" (95)

Strangers on a Train: "And now last night swirls in my brain, strobe-light dazzly, like the carousel scene from Strangers on a Train." (100)

Rope: "(under-rated)" (115)

North by Northwest

The Lady Vanishes

Gaslight: "Ingrid Bergman, never more luscious, slowly going insane." (129)

Dark Passage: "Bogie and Bacall making bedroom eyes across a coffee table." (142)..."The sugary scene--Bogie doped up, specters revolving before him, un unholy carousel. (144)

The Addams Family: "Lurching--isn't that how Jane Russell described me, that day at the door?...Lurch. From The Addams Family. The gangly butler." (143)

"We're at my desk, scrolling through twenty-two pages of Jane Russell photographs:
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: "pendulous with jewels"
  • The Outlaw "dishabille in a haystack"
  • Hot Blood: "swirling in a gypsy skirt."
"What would I do if I were on that screen, a character in one of my films?"
  • Shadow of a Doubt: "I would leave the house to investigate, like Teresa Wright."
  • Rear Window: "I would summon a friend, like Jimmy Stewart."
  • Signs
  • Rosemary's Baby: "'Ka-pow, out of your mind,' I think. I feel myself frown." (304)
"I saw a movie. I saw an old thriller resurrected, brought to bloody Technicolor life. I saw Rear Window; I saw Body Double; I saw Blow-Up. I saw a showreel, archive footage from a hundred peeping-Tom thrillers." (316)

Gaslight: "'If I dream things when I'm awake, I'm going out of my mind.' That was it." (316)

Vertigo: "Mistaken identity--or rather, taken identity. I know the dialogue by heart; strangely, it'll soothe me." (326)

"Tomorrow I'll revisit some favorite films:" (339)
  • Midnight Lace
  • Foreign Correspondent: "The windmill scene at least."
  • 23 Paces to Baker Street
  • Vertigo: "I napped through my last viewing."
Vertigo: "I settle into the sofa, skip back to the beginning, to that lethal lunge-and-plunge rooftop sequence. Jimmy Stewart rises into frame, scaling a ladder." (350)

Whirlpool: "It felt like hypnosis, like Gene Tierney." (353)
Gaslight: "It felt like insanity, like Ingrid Bergman." (353)

Gaslight: "'Don't tell me it was a dream, that he never came here.'" (371)

Rosemary’s Baby "'This is no dream! This is really happening!--Mia Farrow.'" (371)

Shadow of a Doubt: "Screenplay by Thornton Wilder, and Hitch's personal favorite among his own films: a naive young woman learns that her hero isn't who he pretends to be...She remains oblivious a bit too long for my liking, frankly." (394)
That Darn Cat! "'That darn cat,' he says. 'I loved that movie as a kid.'" (399)