July 13, 2018

DITCHING MR. DARCY by Samantha Whitman


What would you do if you crashed your car into a ditch and woke up as the main character of your favorite book?  What if nothing happened the way it was supposed to?  What if you met the dreamiest romantic hero in literary history and yet you fell in love with someone else instead?  What would happen if you never woke up again?  What would happen if you did?  Elizabeth Baker is about to find out.

I wanted to love this book.  I read reviews online and a trusted Austen-themed website gave it kudos.  I wanted to love it so much.  But ultimately I found myself in a back and forth relationship with it - - I enjoyed the beginning and the end but the middle left me a bit wanting.
The good.  I love, love, love books that revisit Pride and Prejudice and its beloved characters.  I really can't get enough.  With Ditching Mr. Darcy, we not only revisit them but have a modern-day girl who is transported into Queen Jane's fictional Meryton, Longbourn, Netherfield, Hunsford, Rosings, and Pemberley.  A most excellent diversion.
Our heroine's discovery, as the fan-favorite Elizabeth Bennet, that life in Regency England is not exactly as the movies showcase is quite funny.  What modern woman wouldn't be worrying about using a chamber pot, brushing their teeth with chalk and salt, performing then-popular dances and, perhaps most especially, pining for their mascara?   Reading of her floundering with daily activities (what? no underwear?) gave me a very real chuckle.  As well as the "reality" of what the P&P characters were truly like, as she found out.
Author Samantha Whitman takes creative license with our P&P standbys and I'm okay with the  majority of it.  I'm not an absolute Austen purist . . . but I found while reading this book that I do have a line in the sand (more on that later.)  Seeing some characters are more adventurous than Austen penned them, or perhaps even portrayed as inaccurately irredeemable, was an interesting twist.
And here it is.  What I struggled with.
First, and maybe most importantly, I had difficulty with our heroine.  I liked Elizabeth Baker as her present day self well enough - - although I didn't understand her very clear and quickly verbalized dislike of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (the Colin Firth version.)  She never explained why she disliked it or held the 2005 version superior.  Everyone has their own tastes, sure, but even a throwaway line about how she saw the 2005 version first could have explained it, especially given that she stated several times how much she didn't like the 1995 P&P.  A minor gripe, really, but it still stuck with me.
Where the heroine lost me was when she found herself as Elizabeth Bennet.  This was a woman who claimed Jane Austen was her favorite author and who adored P&P and yet she got every. single. thing. wrong.  In the very beginning, I could give her a pass for her use of modern words like "okay," "guy," "jerk," etc., but not after she had been in Regency England for more than a few days.  It bugged me that the P&P characters did not take any issue with her terminology, nor question her about it for the most part.   She also continually addressed persons like Caroline Bingley as "Caroline," something that would never have been done or accepted given their (frosty) relationship.  She should have been addressed as "Miss Bingley" and any of the characters, including Caroline Bingley herself, would quickly have questioned Elizabeth's familiarity and lack of propriety.
I also began ticking off mentally how many times Elizabeth gaped, sneered, smirked and rolled her eyes.  And then quit when it became too much.  Again, the real Elizabeth Bennet may have rolled her eyes to her father over the ridiculous uproar in the Bennet household but she never would have done so in mixed company, nor been outright rude as Elizabeth Baker as Elizabeth Bennet was.  I hate to say it but she made Elizabeth Bennet downright unlikable.  I found myself feeling infuriated with her most of the time.
For someone who, again, claimed to be such an aficionado of Jane Austen and her works, she continued to make mistakes that she should not have, which resulted in a major ripple effect on the plotline.  While that can succeed (see Lost in Austen) the result here made me feel discombobulated and I found I didn't appreciate the plot change as I think I was intended to.  Maybe if Elizabeth had intentionally veered off the normal path, telling herself "it's a dream," or "it's not real anyhow," it would have been more tolerable for me.  But as she was somewhat continuously telling herself that certain characters would end up together and/or had to be together per Austen's book, her actions seemed to make little sense.  And telling Wickham upon their first meeting all of his own back story as relayed in P&P?  Just . . . no.  Again, any true Austen fan would know how the story was meant to go down.  I get that this is a variation but . .  I will say, though, that the changes made to Wickham were welcome and most interesting.
I also felt that one of the twists was very obvious to the reader and should have been a little more obvious to Elizabeth, especially given how much she was tearing up the original plotline.
While some of the creative license with characters was enjoyable and welcome, as I mentioned above, one particular change was grievous and I thoroughly disliked it.  Not only did it change the original plotline of P&P immensely but absolutely changed the very character of the person, and not in a good way.  I won't spoil it but given who the character is and the background, this just couldn't happen. Again, I don't consider myself an absolute Austen purist; if you do, you may be horrified by this change (as well as other differences.)
That said, I did thoroughly enjoy how the book came to a conclusion, with many of the P&P characters making a "reappearance."  Truthfully, the ending made me a bit warm and fuzzy, pining for my own leading man;  it did redeem both Elizabeth and the book to a good degree for me, leaving me not totally down on Ditching Mr. Darcy.  It also made me curious as to Samantha Whitman's sequel, the currently named Becoming Mr. Bingley (which I will in all likelihood read once it's released.)
I appreciate that the author took a beloved book and characters and threw a unique spin on them.  Ditching Mr. Darcy was unusual and it was a quick read.  And I love the cover artwork.
If you are looking for some escapism reading and don't mind your original story and characters being turned on their heads, Ditching Mr. Darcy is a solid choice.  Austen purists and those that believe variations should basically follow canon, beware.  It may not be the book for you.
Ditching Mr. Darcy is currently available in both Kindle and paperback form.
FTC Disclosure:  I purchased this book with my own funds.  I was neither paid nor compensated in any fashion for this review.


July 9, 2018

HUNTING CHARLES MANSON: THE QUEST FOR JUSTICE IN THE DAYS OF HELTER SKELTER by Lis Wiehl and Caitlin Rother



As Helter Skelter was the first true crime book I ever read, and one that will permanently sit on my list of best true crime books, I have a lifelong interest (sounds better than fascination) in the so-called Manson murders.  No book can truly be held up to Helter Skelter, nor should it.

Hunting Charles Manson is a notable and strong entry of the books on the infamous summer of 1969.  It doesn't cover as much ground as Helter Skelter, which gives us a lot of information on the criminal trial, but it also doesn't have its intimidating (for some) page count.

Hunting Charles Manson starts with background information on Manson himself, giving the reader an exploration of his home life, mindset and how he started down the road that would lead him to the Haight-Ashbury and the birth of "The Family."  I found the sections of the inception of The Family particularly interesting; the result is beneficial insight into why he managed to attract so many females to his coterie who remained loyal to him for years.

Many of his Family members are also given page time.  Rather than being portrayed as merely Manson's bloodthirsty minions, the authors demonstrate they were real people with real lives before becoming part of Manson's contingent.  It will make you think about what might have happened had they never met up with him; was the Family was little more than a drug-addled cult?  The authors' descriptions of daily life on Spahn Ranch are extremely well done.  I could visualize the hot dust blowing on the old movie sets and Family members grouped around, listening to Manson playing guitar.  It brings on a wistfulness -- even sadness -- that this communal living, instead of bringing love and peace, spawned violence and death.

The murders themselves are each recounted.  The details, if you are sensitive, can be agonizing to read and envision.  Gary Hinman, Steven Parent, and Donald "Shorty" Shea are often given the short-shrift of the verified Manson victims; Parent is the forgotten victim of the Tate-LaBianca crimes while Hinman and Shea are very nearly forgotten as victims at all.  More details are provided on Hinman and Shea as people versus just murder victims; it makes their loss, and the violent actions of Manson and the Family, all the more poignant and effective.  Thanks to this book being recent and published after Shea's body was discovered, a long-held legend within the Family that Shea had been "chopped up" into pieces and scattered in multiple graves can be discounted as well as providing a solid account as to Shea's final movements and day of life and who was involved in killing him.

The convicted killers' convoluted and tangled web through the legal system is also explored and this is one of two points in the book that I didn't agree with.  Sections on Charles "Tex" Watson, the man involved in every murder save Gary Hinman and the self-professed "right hand man" of Charles Manson, read almost sympathetically.  Even if you do believe that Watson is paying his debt to society and has become a born-again Christian, I cannot forget that he brutally stabbed to death Sharon Tate, who begged for the life of her unborn child, and then went on to marry and father four children while incarcerated.  I find that particular irony distasteful and revolting.  While Watson may have taken so many illegal drugs as to hinder his thinking, it didn't affect his ability to torture and kill and I simply cannot grant any sympathy to him; only to his victims.

The other point in the book that I didn't agree with - - and this is more my opinion than anything else -- is a motive for the Tate murders put forward in Hunting Charles Manson.  I've heard of the motive previously and this book does an excellent job in breaking it down and presenting it.  The problem I have with it is that it doesn't explain how and why Steven Parent became a victim, if you believe that Parent was the first person on Cielo Drive to die that night.  (And there has never been evidence to suggest otherwise.)  But again, that's simply my opinion and motive is something we may likely never get a firm answer on, especially now that Manson is dead.

Hunting Charles Manson does something that many books in the Manson library have not been able to do and that's provide a fresh look on crimes that have been written about, debated and dissected for nearly fifty years.    I appreciated the view inside Manson's life for the last ten or so years of it -- something rarely written about.  I also like that Ms. Wiehl and Ms. Rother showed the determination and strength of Debra Tate, Anthony DiMaria and Kay Martley as they attend and have attended parole hearings for years, speaking not so much of the ugliness their loved one experienced at the hand of Manson, et al. but of the precious memories they have of the precious people that were.

Hunting Charles Manson is an excellent resource for exploring the psyche of Manson in our quest to answer why.  Why did he turn out the way he did?  Why did he want strangers butchered?  Why does he continue to fascinate today?

I have been a fan of Caitlin Rother's books for years and made it a point to get this book solely based on her as an author.  As with her previous books, Ms. Rother presents the story and attempts to get into the mind of madness and answer the questions that puzzle those of us who have been fortunate enough to remain distant from the crime.  She is always respectful of the victims and their survivors, not glorifying the violence or the offender, and that is one reason I am a fan.  She's also a darn good writer.  For more information on Caitlin Rother and her books, go here.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Hunting Charles Manson for true crime buffs or readers looking for information on Manson and his crimes.  The fact the book features information from as recent as early 2018 is a bonus.

Hunting Charles Manson is available for purchase at major booksellers as well as Audible if you prefer audiobooks.

FTC Disclosure:  The review copy of this book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.  The provision of this book did not affect the outcome of my review.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review.  


July 7, 2018

I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN'S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER by Michelle McNamara



As a true crime aficionado (which sounds very strange to anyone who doesn’t read true crime because why would you enjoy reading about people being killed?) I had heard of The Golden State Killer aka The East Area Rapist aka The Original Night Stalker. Not only did this guy have a lot of victims, he also had a lot of aliases. Having lived in southern California for a number of years, the case was often revisited in the local media and newspapers on anniversaries of the attacks and/or deaths and I followed them. I also recently watched Investigation Discovery’s “documentary” on the rapist-murderer and then Googled for more info. Leading me to Ms. McNamara’s book, which I reserved at my local library as requester number 37. No joke.

A week or so ago, my number finally came up and I was able to pick up my copy. As luck would have it, a suspect was arrested in connection with the case days after. So while reading, I was somewhat anxiously looking to see if the suspect’s name was mentioned.

So, let’s get to my thoughts on the book.

Unlike some, or most, true crime books, this one does not progress in a chronological order. For instance, it starts with a 1981 murder rather than the actual start of the crime spree in the 1970s. The book continues to jump around, from the 1970s and 1980s to present day, throughout the book. If you prefer things orderly, this may upset you. If you don’t have an issue with the order of things, it may still be confusing. (Raising my hand here.)

This is obviously not a spoiler since it happened in 2016, but Ms. McNamara died before she finished the book. At times, the writing seemed disjointed and I attribute that to her early death. Some of the chapters do end or begin with notations that the verbage was taken from her notes, which were more of a draft, and it does read that way in part.

This also shouldn’t be a spoiler, given the book’s publication date compared with the suspect arrest, but there is no true ending. The case was still officially unsolved at publication meaning a somewhat unsatisfactory ending. For some readers, that’s a no-go.

My biggest issue with I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is that it fizzled for me by the halfway point. The reading just felt laborious and I caught myself alternating between speed reading (to get to “the good stuff”) and my mind wandering.

Not that there was nothing positive about the book. I appreciated that Ms. McNamara excellently explained not only how the perpetrator got away with so many assault for so many years but, as a reader, plopped you down in the Sacramento area circa 1970s. She also shared facts about the cases that had not been previously disclosed, again helping the reader to understand the nature of the time, place and attacks.

One of my greatest pet peeves about true crime writing is the negligence of the author to make the victims into real people rather than just a list of deceased persons. Ms. McNamara does reveal characteristics of the victims, good and bad, showing their humanity. She also writes of the domino effect the rapes and murders have on the survivors – – marriages destroyed and family members left devastated, without justice for their loved ones.

I greatly admire Michelle McNamara. She was a lifelong writer and she also wrote a true crime blog (True Crime Diary), so her passion was real. She was definitely a ride-or-die chick. (Heck, look at the byline of her book: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer.) To say she threw herself into this investigation 100% is no understatement. She lived and breathed this case, which couldn’t have been easy. By the way, she is also the person who coined the nickname “Golden State Killer.”

However, while I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has some solid parts and is timely, I was left disappointed. I felt the book had the potential to be smashing, and a wonderful tribute to Ms. McNamara, but it fell short. Perhaps having the book organized into chronological order would have changed my view. I’m conflicted on this one because Ms. McNamara is a good writer and she tackles a fascinating subject but this one just didn’t work for me.

The book's summary claims the book is destined to become a true crime classic but I must disagree. It simply cannot be put in the same category as Helter Skelter, Fatal Vision or many of Ann Rule’s single-case books. I also don’t feel that In Cold Blood is a classic so maybe I just have no idea.

I'll Be Gone In The Dark is available for purchase at major booksellers and via Audible, if audiobooks are your thing.

FTC Disclosure:  I obtained this book at my local public library.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review. 



July 5, 2018

HARRY: LIFE, LOSS, AND LOVE by Katie Nicholl



With royal wedding hysteria still at a fever pitch, this seemed the perfect time to read a tome about Henry Charles Albert David of Wales.  I had first heard of Katie Nicholl's biography on Prince Harry back in November, at the time his engagement to Meghan Markle was announced.  Ms. Nicholl, considered an authority on royal affairs, was interviewed about the milestone engagement and this book was mentioned.
I have long been fascinated with the British royal family, starting, I suspect, with Lady Diana Spencer's engagement to Prince Charles.  That event was the fodder of young girls' dreams of princesses and perfect love - - something we would eventually learn was not the case with the Prince and Princess of Wales.  The older and more serious Prince was mismatched from the beginning with the young and self-professed "naughty" Diana.
Harry, their second son and the "spare" to the English throne, has always been a subject of fascination for the media.  As the "spare" and never seriously considered to be in line for the throne (especially now that William and Kate have three children) Harry has been given more leeway and breathing room and, as such, has gotten into more trouble than William ever considered.
Only twelve at the time of his mother's untimely death, Ms. Nicholl explores that Harry has been hungry for maternal love and a family of his own.  His youth is briefly touched upon, with the majority of the book dealing with his adolescence and adulthood.   Ms. Nicholl does not shy away from Harry's poor deeds and missteps (dressing in a Nazi uniform, anyone?) or bad habits, such as indulging in drinking and smoking. To Meghan Markle's credit, it appears that the prince has either altered or given up these habits entirely.
Harry's romantic life is covered in great detail; most important is the fierce media coverage and speculation being a matter of extreme frustration and unhappiness for him.  His two  most serious relationships prior to Ms. Markle, that of Chelsea Davy and Cressida Bona, were both broken down by not only the ceaseless media coverage but also the lifestyle that must accompany being with a senior member of the Royal Family.  In these tales, Harry is seen as less of a playboy and more of a man who is both enabled and hindered by his position in life.
His meeting of Ms. Markle, as well as their long-distance relationship, is recounted in good detail here. Ms. Nicholl states that Harry apparently knew that Meghan was "the one" from their first meeting and the two do appear to have much in common, especially their dedication to humanitarian efforts.
It was heartwarming to read of Harry coming of age in his late twenties/early thirties and realizing he wanted to follow the path of his esteemed mother.  Recounting interviews that he and William gave in which they spoke of Diana give great insight into both young men, who have turned out surprisingly down to earth and humble.  Harry speaks of the pain of losing his mother at a young age and how he was not allowed or able to fully express that grief, even to this day.   He also speaks of wanting to do his mother's memory justice by his actions.  Rest assured, Harry.  You are.
I found Harry: Life, Loss, and Love a well-researched, written and interesting read.  There were a few dry parts but overall, I think Ms. Nicholl presented a well-rounded view of Prince Harry, as well as some insight into Meghan Markle.  With the recent rash of Harry and Meghan books flooding the market, Ms. Nicholl's biography is a solid source of information.  Pick it up to get your post-wedding fix, or to learn a little more about Prince Harry.
Connect with author Katie Nicholl on her website (Katienicholl.com) or via Twitter (@katienicholl).
FTC Disclosure:  I obtained this book at my local public library.  I was neither paid nor compensated for this review.

July 3, 2018

MRS. DARCY'S DILEMMA: A SEQUEL TO JANE AUSTEN'S 'PRIDE AND PREJUDICE' by Diana Birchall




It seemed a harmless invitation, after all . . .
When Mrs. Darcy invited her sister Lydia's daughters to come for a visit, she felt it was a small kindness she could do for her poor nieces.  Little did she imagine the upheaval that would ensure.  But with her elder son, the Darcys' heir, in danger of losing his heart, a theatrical scandal threatening to engulf them all, and daughter Jane on the verge of her come-out, the Mistress of Pemberley must make some difficult decisions . . .
-- From the back cover of Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma
I'm ashamed to admit that I've had this book, purchased at a Jane Austen talk in L.A. directly from the author herself, in my personal library, unread, for a good three or four years.  Shame on me.  This is what happens when you have a healthy library and a lot of things going on.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma is one of the founding fathers, if you will, of the Jane Austen Fan Fiction and the Pride and Prejudice variations, having been written back in the 90s and published in 2008.  For that reason alone, it's worth picking up.

So let's get into it!

If you are well versed in the JAFF community, you know many of the variations and/or sequels take place immediately following the events in Pride and Prejudice; i.e., the momentous weddings of Jane Bennet to Charles Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet to Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Not so with Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma.  Instead, Diana Birchall cleverly picks up the story twenty-five years after the conclusion of P&P.  This allows the reader to be introduced to a new generation of Darcys, Bingleys, Collinses and Wickhams and puts them smack into the start of Queen Victoria's reign.

I'll admit that I love picking up the P&P story immediately following the weddings, as Jane Austen herself never wrote a sequel and gave us any further glimpses into the lives of the Bingleys, Darcys and Bennets.  That said, and despite my initial hesitation over the timeframe put to use here, I thoroughly enjoyed being taken to the 1830s.  It was gratifying to see Elizabeth and Darcy's children and, most especially, their continuing love for one another on relatively smooth roads.  At least until our book!  Lizzy, of course, has proven to be a most-effective and well-suited mistress of Pemberley;  graceful, caring, and giving Mr. Darcy two sons (the heir and the spare) and a lovely daughter -- most likely to the frustration of Lady Catherine de Bourgh!

While it's a wonderful and unique glance at the Darcys' lives to focus mostly on the Darcy children, it does mean that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy are not the primary characters.  For some, that may prove to be a hurdle . . . and I'll admit that I did miss the two being the romantic center of the story.

Lydia Bennet Wickham's daughters, too, are major players in this tale.  As you can imagine, one daughter very much takes after her mother!  Like the two Darcy sons, I found one Wickham daughter quite agreeable while the other distasteful.  You might expect that with George and Lydia Wickham as parents but Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy?

Readers will also get to revisit with Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam and Caroline Bingley who, I'm gratified to report, has not altered much these twenty-five years.

I was slightly disappointed that Jane and Charles Bingley did not get more time, in the same way that Kitty Bennet, in twenty-five years' time, became more bitter and solitary than one would expect after Lydia's departure in P&P.

That said, Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma was a delightful read.  I zipped through it, hating to put the book down so anxious was I to find out what would befall my favorite characters.  Ms. Birchall's writing was engaging and highly reminiscent of Queen Jane herself.  I'd recommend picking it up and reading it yourself if you'd like to revisit the Darcys!

FTC Disclosure:  I purchased this book with my own funds.  I was neither paid nor compensated in any fashion for this review.