We Are All Shipwrecks

cover97800-medium

 

Thank you to Sourcebooks for providing me with an advance copy of Kelly Grey Carlisle’s memoir, We Are All Shipwrecks, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– When Kelly Grey Carlisle was just three weeks old, she was left by her mother in a hotel room dresser drawer. Carlisle’s mother was murdered, her body strangled and dumped in an abandoned lot in Los Angeles. Although it was suspected that her murder was the work of the Hillside Strangler, the case was never solved.

Carlisle was told that her father was unknown and she was taken in by her eccentric grandfather and his much younger wife, Marilyn. Her grandfather could be loving and jovial, but he could also be angry and verbally abusive. When she was young, Carlisle was treated to fancy clothes and meals out, through money earned from her grandfather’s pornography store business. Later in her childhood, money would get tight, as her grandfather decided to pour all available funds into his dream of owning a boat. They ended up living on a boat that was primarily docked in a marina with a group of off-beat and fellow down-on-their-luck neighbors.

Although Carlisle lived with her grandfather and Marilyn. she honors several adults who took an active interest in her childhood and who helped raise her. We Are All Shipwrecks is a memoir of discovering ones roots, while acknowledging the impact of how you were raised.

LIKE– Carlisle’s life is fascinating and heartbreaking. I was most struck by the contradictions and confusions in her life. She sees two very different men in her grandfather; the man who is fun-loving and the man who cuts with his words. She loves Marilyn as if Marilyn was her mother, but is heartbroken to discover Marilyn’s alcoholism. She is curious about the porn business, but later realizes that some of the porn that her grandfather sells involves violence towards women. In particular, there are parallels between strangulation porn and her mother dying by strangulation. Carlisle mentions a guilty feeling of knowing that the porn business funded so much of her childhood, such as private schools and material possessions.

I had a very personal connection to Carlisle’s story. Towards the end of her memoir, she talks about being in her twenties and taking the initiative to research her family. She discovers a relative who mentions that Carlisle’s mom died in a car accident. My father died in a scandalous way and when I was a teenager, I learned that all of my distant relatives on my father’s side thought that he had died in a car accident. It’s a misunderstanding that has caused a huge riff amongst my family. I had chills and a burst of anger when I read this part in Carlisle’s memoir. Although I was raised by my mom, I can also relate to her desperate need to find out information about her family. I went through similar motions as she did, looking up newspaper articles and latching on to whatever information that I could find in our family records. Information is so precious. I was crushed to read that photographs of her mom and grandmother were destroyed when their boat got wrecked in a storm.

Beyond having an incredible story, Carlisle’s descriptive and emotional writing kept me glued to We Are All Shipwrecks. Her life is filled with many unusual characters and situations that are completely unfamiliar to me. I can’t imagine living on a boat. I had no idea that there are places in Los Angeles (my hometown) where there are these floating trailer parks. Carlisle is also only a year older than me, so many aspects of her childhood were familiar.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. Carlisle’s story is unusual and compelling.

RECOMMEND– Yes. I enthusiastically recommend, We Are All Shipwrecks. Carlisle’s story is one that I will not soon forget and I loved her overriding message about it taking a village to raise a child. This is a beautiful tribute to her messy childhood and to the people that she has loved.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death

cover110388-medium

 

Thank you to Scribner for providing me with an advance copy of John Bateson’s book, The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– John Bateson explores the career of coroner Ken Holmes, who worked for California’s Marin County Coroner’s Office for over thirty-six years.

LIKE– Death and the business of it is fascinating. My aunt’s first husband was a coroner in Los Angeles County and although I didn’t know him, I heard of stories from his career via my aunt. Those stories are a big reason that I was drawn to The Education of a Coroner.

Bateson explores many of the cases that Holmes worked on during his career, including tough cases to crack and those that remain unsolved. Included are celebrity cases, suicide jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, and even a case involving a cult. The Education of a Coroner is not gratuitous, but it does include details of death, which can be gory. I know that some readers would not be able to handle the details. They will definitely live in your mind for awhile. Bateson covers all areas of the job, including crime scene protocol, autopsies, trials, and behind the scenes office work. I learned that in many counties, the coroner is an elected position. It should probably worry the general public that in some parts of the country, the coroner is not even required to have any medical experience. With basically zero experience, anyone could be a coroner, even if they shouldn’t be. It’s scary.

Some of the cases were fascinating, especially the way that Holmes worked with the evidence to eventually solve a crime. Truly, no two cases were alike. I appreciate that the book touches on the sensitive subject of how Holmes spoke to the families of the deceased. I can appreciate that the job of a coroner is someone who wears many hats and speaking with loved ones must be among the toughest parts of the job; certainly not something that everyone would be able to handle.

DISLIKE– The pacing was occasionally sluggish, which I attribute to my unequal interested in all of the cases. Perhaps Bateson included too many cases, as not all were equally interesting or impactful. Less could have been more.

RECOMMEND– If your curious about the job of a coroner and if you like reading about various cases, then I highly recommend Bateson’s The Education of a Coroner. It’s not for the squeamish, but if you can stomach it, it’s an important look into a profession that greatly impacts our society.

See What I Have Done

cover103536-medium

 

Thank You to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s novel, See What I Have Done, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTSee What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s historical fiction retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden case. Schmidt alternates between the narration of Lizzie, Emma Borden (Lizzie’s older sister), Bridget ( a disgruntled Irish housekeeper), and Benjamin ( a stranger hired by Lizzie’s uncle to intimidate and possibly kill Andrew Borden). Although Lizzie was arrested, tried, and eventually acquitted of killing her father and stepmother, was she the one with the best motive? Who was really guilty in this still unsolved case?

LIKE- I love both true crime and historical fiction, so I was eager to read Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Like most people, I’ve heard of the Lizzie Borden story and I know the gruesome school-yard rhyme about her whacking her parents with an axe, however while reading this novel, I realized that I didn’t know much about Borden or her family history. For example, I always thought this took place on a farm, but although Andrew Borden had an interest in farming, they were not primarily farmers. The Borden family was wealthy and Lizzie had even been sent on a “Grand Tour” to Europe. I suppose the fact that they were a prominent family, made this case all the more shocking.

I liked how Schmidt focused on the sister dynamic between Lizzie and Emma. It’s fraught with tension, jealousy, and even fear. I found it interesting that after such a close relationship, even sharing a house after Lizzie was released from jail, that they became estranged. This twist leads me to believe that Emma felt that her sister likely committed the murder and perhaps felt nervous for her own safety. Schmidt writes Lizzie as someone calculating and unstable. Although other people had motive to murder the Bordens, it seems like Lizzie is the most likely culprit.

Schmidt’s writing style is effortless to read. She is masterful at setting scenes and using rich sensory images. It’s quite gruesome when she gets to the details of the murder, specifically the carnage.

DISLIKE– Schmidt overlaps many of the plot points to show a different view with a switch in character perspective, and although this is often effective, it can also feel repetitive. I wish there had been more on the actual trial and Lizzie’s perspective when she was in jail. These are minor complaints though, because overall, I was captivated by Schmidt’s novel.

RECOMMEND – Yes, especially for true crime and historical fiction fans. If you even have the slightest interest in Lizzie Borden, See What I Have Done is a must read.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder

cover104601-medium

 

Thank You to Simon & Schuster for providing me with an advance copy of Carolyn Murnick’s book, The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Carolyn Murnick and Ashley Ellerin were childhood best friends growing up in New Jersey during the 1980’s. They were inseparable as children, but when they became adults, their lives went drastically different directions. Murnick moved to New York City and lived in a tiny railroad apartment, while starting a career in journalism. Ellerin moved to Los Angeles and lived in a Hollywood Hills home with the money she earned as a stripper. She went to wild parties and dated celebrity Ashton Kutcher.

The last time Murnick saw her friend, they struggled to regain their connection. They were still friends, but had clearly drifted apart. A year later, Ellerin would be murdered, stabbed forty-seven times in her Hollywood home.

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is Murnick’s examination of her friendship with Ellerin and her coming to terms with never quite knowing what happened to her best friend. Murnick attends the trial of Michael Gargiulo, the accused murderer, and becomes obsessed with finding out not only why Ellerin was murdered, but who Ellerin had become prior to her death.

LIKEThe Hot One is a compelling blend of memoir and true crime. With so much information readily available on the internet, Murnick falls down a rabbit hole when trying to figure out what happened to Ellerin. I found this quest to be highly relatable. I’ve had my own unsolved life mysteries (none anywhere near as dramatic as a murder!), but issues that no amount of research can resolve, yet ones that are impossible to let go. I felt connected to Murnick’s obsession and with the hold it had on her.

Even though I lived about fifteen minutes from the murder scene, I don’t remember hearing about this case in the news. It’s gruesome and horrific. Murnick does not spare details. I think the most chilling part is when Murnick decides to visit the crime scene and she stands across the street from Ellerin’s house, in a dog park. Gargiulo had a pitbull that he would take to the dog park and from the dog park, there was the perfect vantage point to spy on Ellerin. Murnick mentions that Gargiulo would have been able to see right into her bathroom. He stalked and hunted her. Other creepy patterns from Garguilo, based on all of his victims, is he liked to pose them and he committed the murders when he had a high chance of being caught, for the thrill. One woman managed to fend him off as he was stabbing her and lived, although she couldn’t positively identify him. Garguilo isn’t a random attacker either, he was Ellerin’s handyman and beyond working at her house, he managed to get himself invited over for social events. Murnick really sets the stage by explaining how she imagined Garguilo hunting Ellerin, waiting for the right moment to strike. It gave me the chills.

DISLIKE– Only that the point in which the memoir ends, does not give us resolution with regard to Gargiulo’s trial. I suppose this mirrors Murnick’s inability to have her own questions answered, but it also makes me wonder if she should have waited to tell this story. It was disappointing to not have this resolution.

RECOMMEND– Yes. If you like true crime and memoir, The Hot One is a compelling read.

The Fact of a Body

1494560518371

 

Thank you to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir, The Fact of a Body, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich blends memoir with true crime, exploring the dark secrets of her own family, alongside the 1992 murder of six-year old Jeremy Guillory in Louisiana.

LIKE– Wow. Marzano-Lesnevich has written a book that I’m positive will forever stick with me. It’s surprising, shocking, and wrought with emotion. I can’t remember ever reading a book that blends memoir with an unrelated true crime. It made for an absolutely fascinating read.

Jeremy Guillory was murdered by Ricky Langley, a twenty-six year old man who had a history of molesting children. Guillory was friends with the children that lived in the home where Langley was renting a room, and one afternoon, Guillory showed up while the other children were gone. Langley allowed Guillory to wait inside the house for his friends to return. Langley felt unable to control himself and he strangled Guillory, hiding the child’s body inside his closet, which would not be discovered for three days. Langley would confess to the crime, although he changed the details of his confession several times. Although Langley was never considered mentally incapacitated, he mentioned being overcome by the spirit of his brother, who was decapitated in a car crash before Langley was born. It seems that Langley did molest Guillory, but it wasn’t proven, and he has confessed, although again, not proven, to molesting several other children over the course of many years. There were three trials for Guillory’s death and Langley was put on and subsequently taken off, death row. Guillory’s mother testified on his behalf during the penalty phase, not wishing for him to be executed.

The true crime aspect of The Fact of a Body, would be interesting enough on its own, but Marzano-Lesnevich has taken a more in-depth approach to examining the case. She looks back at Langley’s family and his troubled upbringing, stemming from a car crash before Langley was even born. This crash would kill two of his siblings and give his mother devastating life-long health problems. When she was pregnant with Langley, she was on heavy medication, the effects of which, surely impacted Langley’s development. The family would struggle with poverty and addiction, never able to get their lives back on track.

Marzano-Lesnevich comes from a very different background, but she finds common ground with the Langley’s and Guillory’s. Her family doesn’t discuss her father’s depression or that her grandfather, has been molesting both Marzano-Lesnevich and her sister, for years. These secrets weigh heavy. Marzano-Lesnevich comes across the Guillory story when she is a summer intern during law school and the particulars of the case, make her reflect on her own family history of mental illness and molestation, on anger and forgiveness.

DISLIKE– Not a single thing. The Fact of a Body is a book that I couldn’t put down. However, I will issue a warning that this story has extremely graphic and upsetting details, that might make it too difficult for some readers. Proceed with caution.

RECOMMEND– Yes, you must read this book. Marzano-Lesnevich has masterfully blended memoir with crime to create an unforgettable story. Her writing is poignant and courageous. I’m certain that The Fact of a Body will shoot to the top of the bestsellers list.