An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

The Blurb:

An Unexplained Death is an obsessive investigation into a mysterious death at the Belvedere—a once-grand hotel—and a poignant, gripping meditation on suicide and voyeurism

“The poster is new. I notice it right away, taped to a utility pole. Beneath the word ‘Missing,’ printed in a bold, high-impact font, are two sepia-toned photographs of a man dressed in a bow tie and tux.”

Most people would keep walking. Maybe they’d pay a bit closer attention to the local news that evening. Mikita Brottman spent ten years sifting through the details of the missing man’s life and disappearance, and his purported suicide by jumping from the roof of her own apartment building, the Belvedere.

As Brottman delves into the murky circumstances surrounding Rey Rivera’s death—which begins to look more and more like a murder—she contemplates the nature of and motives behind suicide, and uncovers a haunting pattern of guests at the Belvedere, when it was still a historic hotel, taking their own lives on the premises. Finally, she fearlessly takes us to the edge of her own morbid curiosity and asks us to consider our own darker impulses and obsessions.

This book was not what I expected. That isn’t a bad thing at all. I had done in expecting scandal and intrigue, and found introspection and analysis (which probably says a lot about me). An Unexplained Death reminds me strongly of Claudia Rowe’s The Spider and the Fly, which was a true-crime book that focused more on the impact of the crime and the killer on the author’s life.

The book deals with the mysterious death of Rey Rivera, who plunged from the roof of the Belvedere in Baltimore in 2006. Brottman, who lived (still lives) in the building, found herself intrigued, then obsessed by the circumstances of Rivera’s death. Add that to the history of the Belvedere itself, which seems to attract suicidal people, and there is a lot to dig into here.

Yet, the book is less about Rivera than about the author’s, and our own, fascination with death and self-destruction. Brottman speaks multiple times of her (unconscious and semi-unwanted) ability to be completely forgettable. She walks through her own story as some sort of ghost, peripheral and ephemeral to those around her. Whether the feeling of invisibleness contributes to her fascination with death and suicide isn’t stated.

Though the tone of the book was unexpected, I found myself swiftly drawn into Brottman’s tale. At times a stark history, at others almost a stream-of-concious musing, I admire Brottman’s ability to look into her dark fascinations and wring a moving story from them. After all, it is part of the human condition to want to gaze into that abyss. Few of us, however, are willing to admit how much we enjoy its pull.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Escape Artists by Neal Bascomb

The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War by Neal Bascomb

The Blurb:

In the winter trenches and flak-filled skies of World War I, soldiers and pilots alike might avoid death, only to find themselves imprisoned in Germany’s archipelago of POW camps, often in abominable conditions. The most infamous was Holzminden, a land-locked Alcatraz of sorts that housed the most troublesome, escape-prone prisoners. Its commandant was a boorish, hate-filled tyrant named Karl Niemeyer who swore that none should ever leave.

Desperate to break out of “Hellminden” and return to the fight, a group of Allied prisoners led by ace pilot (and former Army sapper) David Gray hatch an elaborate escape plan. Their plot demands a risky feat of engineering as well as a bevy of disguises, forged documents, fake walls, and steely resolve. Once beyond the watch towers and round-the-clock patrols, Gray and almost a dozen of his half-starved fellow prisoners must then make a heroic 150 mile dash through enemy-occupied territory towards free Holland.

Drawing on never-before-seen memoirs and letters, Neal Bascomb brings this narrative to cinematic life, amid the twilight of the British Empire and the darkest, most savage hours of the fight against Germany. At turns tragic, funny, inspirational, and nail-biting suspenseful, this is the little-known story of the biggest POW breakout of the Great War.

So have you seen The Great Escape? The 1963 film is a virtual who’s-who of ’60s movie stardom (including Steve McQueen (yay!), James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner). The movie is a dramatization of a real-life mass prison break from a Nazi prison camp during World War II. The Escape Artists tells the story of the men who laid the foundations of such escapes.

World War I brought warfare into a brutal, modern era. The trenches, the gas, the aerial dogfights were new and terrible realities of battle. In addition, the imprisonment of enemy soldiers occurred at a rate previously unheard of. The systems surrounding these mass incarcerations, and the rules of engagement between prisoner and jailer were new and largely untested.

It was drilled into British soldiers and officers that their duty, if captures, was to escape and rejoin the fighting force as soon as possible. Beyond bringing experienced fight men back into the fold, even unsuccessful escape attempts diverted critical enemy resources from the front lines.

Bascomb has given us a lively, riveting history of some truly remarkable men. The sheer ingenuity of their escape attempts (which were many) is something to behold. These men displayed bravery under pressure, creativity in the face of hardship, and an unflagging determination to escape from their captors. When WWII began, the most successful of these escape artists would go on to tutor a whole new generation of soldiers in the art of prison break.

This is a history book for military buffs, but also for anyone who enjoys a good adventure story. The fact that all this really happened only makes it that much more enthralling.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Adrift by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

Adrift: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It by Brian Murphy and Toula Vlahou

This is the story of a small packet sailing ship, the John Rutledge, which set off across the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York in the winter of 1856. The ship, carrying cargo and Irish emigrants, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic, and only one soul would live to tell the tale.

There are quite a few best-selling narrative non-fiction books about famous shipwrecks, such as Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Heart of the Sea, and numerous books about the sinking of the Titanic. These ships have become legend, and the stories have a great deal of primary information and research behind them.

In Adrift, Murphy has given us a smaller tragedy. The sinking of the John Rutledge is one of many tragic stories lost on the shoals of history, and the careful research needed to bring it back into the light should be commended. Murphy has delved into private journals, newspaper clippings, family lore, and shipping records. What is more, he has compiled this information into a gripping, narrative story.

Fans of narrative nonfiction and tales of maritime derring-do will find a lot to admire in Murphy’s careful research and close attention to detail. History buffs cannot help but rejoice when another largely unknown story is pulled from the depths of the historical record.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species by Carlos Magdalena

Carlos Magdalena is a botanist at Kew Botanical Gardens in London with an eye towards resurrecting endangered and extinct plants. This book is a memoir of Magdalena’s life and a look at the plants he holds most dear. From tiny islands off the coast of Madagascar, to the Australian outback, to the jungles and arid mountain deserts of South America, Magdalena introduces us to plants, endangered or outright extinct in their natural habitats, some only still surviving through one or two specimens kept in institutions like Kew.

This is a fascinating book. Magdalena’s passion for his subject shines through in every line. And he doesn’t limit himself to environmental concerns, either. The thorny questions about ownership and repatriation in a post-colonial world are also addressed, and highlight just how difficult it can be to save and propagate some of these species. How do you balance local concerns with scientific study? If a native plant is found to have medicinal or commercial uses, who owns the rights to said plant? What about those plants which were “collected” by naturalists during the 18th and 19th centuries, the heyday of colonialism, do they still belong to their native people?

Any one with interest in botany, plant life, conservation, and/or environmentalism will enjoy this book. In The Plant Messiah, Carlos Magdalena reminds us multiple times that our very existence is dependent on the health of the flora around us. It behooves us to treat them as essential parts of life on Earth.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Once in a Great City by David Maraniss

Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss

This is a love story to a once-great city, told by a native son. Maraniss here chooses to focus his attention to 1962-1963, banner years for auto capital Detroit. Ford was on top of its game and looking to revolutionize the American sports car with the Mustang; Motown was hot and setting off a string of number one hits by artists who would become legends; the struggles of the civil rights movement were bolstered by a forward-looking local government and strong black community. Everything seemed poised to keep Detroit on top for decades to come.

Of course, today we know the realities of its current incarnation. But Maraniss here delivers us a loving, lingering look at a city that was a beacon for many across the country. Maraniss’ tales weaves in and out of politics, industry, music, religion, civil rights, law and order, and crime, we see how the biggest and smallest players of Detroit lived their intermingled lives, how small connections and deep alliances helped to shape the city of Detroit. This book is all the more fascinating considering the depth of the city’s fall from grace. Seeing such a vivid portrait of the city in its heyday makes it all the more obvious what has been lost.

This book is great for both history buffs and for those interested in current events. There is quite a bit in this book which echoes modern day issues and struggles. This book makes you want to root for Detroit, to hope that it’s future could hold even a fraction of the vivacity of its past.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Life of Death by Ralph R. Rossell

The Life of Death: The Bare Bones of Undertaking by Ralph R. Rossell

Ralph Rossell grew up in his family’s Funeral home, helping his father and uncle in the day-to-day of the business. After most of a lifetime in the business, Rossell inadvertently started on the path to this book by joining a facebook group where residents of Flushing, Michigan could share reminisces of their town. Unsurprisingly, Rossell’s stories found a ready audience and The Life of Death was born.

Rossell makes this clear from the beginning that these stories are his recollections and not to be taken as a scholarly endeavor. But many academic books have been written on the subject, and the more personal touch lends a bit of fun to the subject. The stories do have a mid-20th century gloss over them , with the positive and negative connotations of that viewpoint. The stories are by turns poignant, humorous, educational, sad, and joyous. Rossell gives us a good, solid, inside look at at profession many don’t (or don’t want to) know much about. The stories are separated more-or-less by type, and each takes the form of a self-contained vignette. As a result, the book is highly readable and quite entertaining.

Anyone looking for a book about the business of death, told in the reader-friendly format of a personal blog, should check out this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Shallow Graves by Maureen Boyle

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Shallow Graves: The Hunt for the New Bedford Highway Serial Killer by Maureen Boyle

In 1988, the bodies of women began to turn up along the highways outside of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The town had begun as a whaling hub, then changed its industry over to textiles when whaling began to wane. Frederick Douglass had once been a resident of the town, and Moby Dick was based on whaling ships heading out of town. By the 1980s, however, New Bedford was struggling with that near universal blight: drugs and crime. Many of the victims (eleven in all) were troubled women, drug addicts, prostitutes, or both. The pool of potential suspects was vast, from fishermen to white collar workers to itinerant truckers. Nearly all the victims were found months after their bodies had been dumped, and modern forensic science as we now know it was in its infancy.

This is a mystery that remains an ongoing puzzle to this day. Boyle, one of the reporters who first broke the story in 1988, presents the facts to us in an organized, thorough manner. You can tell that this mystery has remained on her mind and in her heart for thirty years. Boyle generally leaves herself out of the narrative, focusing on the investigators, the victims and their families, the suspects, and the local politics. This is a true crime story written against the backdrop of a town in decline, but trying desperately to reinvent itself amidst its troubles. This should resonate strongly with many of us in this day and age, as the specter of heroin abuse and urban/suburban decay continue to blight many communities in this country.

Fans of true crime will enjoy this strong entry to the genre. Even if you don’t usually gravitate towards crime novels, Boyle’s portrayal of New Bedford in the 1980s is worth reading in and of itself.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

 

Book Review: Life and Death in the Andes by Kim McQuarrie

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim McQuarrie
The Andes mountain range in South America runs down the west coast of the continent. The stories and histories of the place are as varied as the peaks themselves. In Life and Death in the Andes, Kim McQuarrie gives us a travelogue and a history book, a sweeping epic and an intimate portrait. 

From the cities of Columbia to southernmost Chile and Argentina, McQuarrie brings us stories of druglords and mummies, weavers and bandits, natives and revolutionaries. Mixing history seamlessly with his own travels, Life and Death in the Andes gives us a unique perspective of life in the Andes mountains. 

History buffs, world travelers, and the curious will find a lot to like in McQuarrie’s easy conversational style. Anyone who wants to go a bit off the beaten trail will enjoy the stories McQuarrie has to tell us.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review. 

Book Review: The Comic Book Story of Video Games by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan

Is there anyone left who doesn’t believe that video games are a legitimate form of entertainment? Advances in graphics and animation, and a focus on storytelling and character development have made video games a truly creative and unique medium. Yet, it seems to be easy for some to dismiss video games as time wasters, or simple orgies of violence, and overlook the artistry involved in their creation.

From the electric innovations of the 19th century, to the sanity consuming Angry Birds and Minecraft, The Comic Book Story of Video Games provides a complex and entertaining look at how we arrived where we are today. Told in an immensely fun graphic novel format, the book sails through the early days of oscilloscopes and simple gameplay, through the silicon valley book, the rise of arcade games and home consoles, the birth and death of Atari, the ridiculously long-lasting success of Nintendo, and the fierce battles in the console wars. 

Graphic novels are a great way to present a nonfiction story. They allow the drier, less flashy bits to be glossed over in a few images, letting the “meat” of the story shine through. Though by necessity less in-depth than a full-length book, they nevertheless provide an accessible and detailed way to tell a story. I would love for more nonfiction to be presented this way.
Most in the gaming world will find this book fascinating. The book is sprinkled with enough gaming Easter eggs to delight gamers, but even more casual gamers (or nongamers) will find this story incredibly interesting.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.