Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood

In Florida, a stolen car, a missing woman and a conflagration draw a writer from out of town to ruminate on the darker side of human relationships in this thoughtful melding of true crime, memoir and speculation.

As Love and Death in the Sunshine State opens, Cutter Wood has just graduated from college and is on a family vacation to the island of Anna Maria, near Tampa Bay, Fla. Afterward, he returns home to wait tables, expecting never to think of the place again–until he finds out about a fire at his Anna Maria motel.

A woman named Sabine Musil-Buehler, co-owner of the motel, has been missing for several weeks. Her car is recovered, with blood on its seats and a stranger behind the wheel. Police name three persons of interest: Sabine’s husband, her boyfriend and the man who stole the car.

Wood is fascinated. He is drawn back to Anna Maria. As he enters graduate school and begins a romantic relationship, which stales and sours, he pulls apart the relationship that might have killed Sabine. Love and Death in the Sunshine State, Wood’s debut, is a memoir of post-college ennui; an investigation into a likely murder; an exploration of the light and dark sides of human connection; and an imaginative account of what might have happened to Sabine. Wood blurs genre boundaries, eventually offering a hybrid form that best suits his mind’s wanderings.

He visits with the principal characters and neighbors, and the man most people think killed Sabine. Her boyfriend Bill is in prison on a parole violation; he corresponds with Wood, as he once courted Sabine through the mail and on weekly furloughs. About that courtship, Wood writes, “There is something holy in a friendship born like this in letters.” His own correspondence is less satisfying. “I knew that Bill had lied to me, but I knew, too, that even if he’d told me everything he remembered, it would hardly answer all the questions I had.” This approaches the heart of the book: the question of truth versus fact, of what is unknowable.

Along the way, Wood profiles a handful of characters. Sabine is a German immigrant seeking sunny days and a hospitality career. Bill is an ex-con seeking support and comfort. These protagonists are joined by Sabine’s husband, her coworkers at the hotel, Wood’s girlfriend and others. And the narrator: a young man seeking art and love, frustrated by the “vanishingly small increments” through which love can turn to “if not cruelty, some precursor of that emotion.”

Wood deserves credit for a narrative voice that prizes honesty over flattery, or self-flattery. His book is essentially an examination, not only of Sabine and of her murderer’s emotions and motivations, but of the narrator himself, of universal human flaws. It is an often lovely evocation of place and culture: the gritty, small-town life of Anna Maria, its beautiful backdrop and trivial treacheries. His writing style starts out a little overblown, but soon settles into a meditative tone appropriate to his subject. In the end, Love and Death is a memorable, thought-provoking work of true crime and imagination.


This review originally ran in the March 27, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 shoes.

Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain

Justin St. Germain’s Son of a Gun is a compelling, heart-breaking piece of personal narrative, and it is told beautifully, with restraint and with artistry and structure. The first observation is one any reader might make; the second is the more subtle observation of a reader looking for writing tricks. This is a book that works beautifully on both levels.

The narrator was raised by a complicated woman named Debbie. She was a soldier, a strong woman who made impulsive decisions and charged ahead, took care of herself and her two sons through all kinds of hardship; she had poor judgment in choosing romantic partners, was married five times with many relationships in between, for which she was harshly judged in turn. When Justin was 20, she was murdered by her most recent husband, Ray, a former cop with the requisite mustache and mirrored sunglasses. Until then, Justin had thought Ray the most harmless one of the bunch.

This memoir is the story of Justin’s mother’s death: his shock and grief, his anger, the violent end of Debbie and, later, of Ray. It ranges between these individual instances of gun violence and others, personal and societal, as Justin visits with Debbie’s former partners, goes shopping at a gun show, and cycles back over and over again to Tombstone. Oh, did I leave that part out? Justin and his brother Josh were raised in Tombstone, Arizona, a town whose very existence depends on the legends of Wild West shoot-outs.

I appreciate St. Germain’s title, because it reinvents an old and meaningless saying in a fresh new way: making the point that he is indeed a son of a gun, of a gun culture that engineered his mother’s demise. I also appreciate the way he handled his own character, the narrator, in a spare way that acknowledges (for example) the problematic way in which the 20-year-old reacts to his mother’s murder. He does not always behave well, but who would?

It’s a hell of a sad story, one that recalls my recent read Love and Death in the Sunshine State by Cutter Wood (review to come), and A Woman on the Edge of Time. It’s a hell of a story, in the first place, and at the same time, tragically, nothing out of the ordinary: a 2017 CDC report concluded that nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by a current or former intimate partner. St. Germain does deal with this larger context, although his primary concern (understandably) remains personal.

A hell of a story, but also artfully told. I often think that creative writing, the kind I’m studying, has two parts: an interesting story, and the artful telling of it. A book can become successful, can please or entertain and sell, with either one or the other of those elements, but the best books have both a good story and a good telling. One of the key features of this book, I think, is the narrative restraint. Anytime a writer handles a story this close to home and this fraught–emotional, violent, graphic–it’s difficult to keep a calm perspective, and yet not be cold and distant. St. Germain walks that line. Another strength is the weaving in of the external, if you will, theme material: the history of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral (which St. Germain informs us actually took place “in a vacant lot to the north, between a back alley and what is now the highway. But try putting that on a T-shirt”). This is a classic gift to the writer from the universe: that he was brought up in Tombstone, that Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and the O.K. offer such a backdrop for his story and his reflections on it. This braided-in information is almost too perfect for his story; but this is why we say fact is stranger than fiction. It allows a very neat context for the narrator to think about not only his personal tragedy, but the larger cultural implications.

I was riveted as I read this book, all the way through in a day, because this story has momentum, suspense and crafted pacing. I was heartbroken for the characters, and struck by St. Germain’s gestures at the larger world. It’s a very fine book.


Rating: 8 arcane alphanumerics.

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

A journalist with trauma of her own exchanges a torrent of letters with a serial killer in this absorbing, suspenseful memoir.

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Claudia Rowe is a careworn reporter in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when a local man confesses to the rape and murder of a series of missing women. The case has journalistic potential, but there is more to the story. As Rowe and killer Kendall Francois communicate in letters and phone calls and during prison visits, the journalist’s life goes into a tailspin. Her boyfriend leaves, taking their dog; she moves to the woods and lives in a barn like a hermit. As her obsession with Francois grows, Rowe delves into her own past, a troubled childhood and damaged relationships leading to what she sees as a lifelong fascination with brutality.

Chasing violence and fear has led her to a serial killer who can seem like a big teddy bear as well as a disturbed predator. Rowe yearns to understand where a man like this comes from, how a murderer is made, and the intricacies of race and class in Poughkeepsie and beyond. She puzzles over Francois’s family home, so stuffed with rot and detritus and denial that decomposing bodies went unnoticed. What she learns is that Francois may not be a riddle she can solve.

The Spider and the Fly is a work of personal exploration, as much about Rowe’s growth as an individual as it is about Francois’s crimes. The reflective tone and dogged probing into the ugliest of human behaviors enrich this blend of true crime, memoir and suspense. Looking into darkness, Rowe gains some understanding and some release.


This review originally ran in the February 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cans of grapefruit juice.

notes on podcasts & a DNF

I’ve started a new job, part-time on the weekends, serving beer in the taproom of a craft brewery a few towns over. It’s great! but I have a good bit of a commute again now. I haven’t listened to an audiobook since school started in January, because I haven’t wanted to crowd my brain any more than it already is (or get my stories crossed). So Liz has recommended a few podcasts for me. She is super into the podcasts, so I know she restrained herself, by starting me off with just six. On my last few drives to and from the brewery, I have really enjoyed listening. I’m going to try to stick to just a few sentences per story here…

Another Round, Episode 85: The Same Stuff as Stars (with Amanda Nguyen).

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton discuss rape culture and outer space with Amanda Nguyen, a college student who has founded an advocacy organization for rape survivors, written new legislation and gotten it passed in Massachusetts, and is studying to be an astronaut (wow). All three women have engaging voices & personalities here, and the story is obviously layered and impactful.

Criminal, Episode 63: Rochester, 1991.

Kim Dadou served 17 years for the murder of her boyfriend, who beat her within an inch of her life, which life she was defending when he died; now she’s an advocate for domestic assault victims. Excellent intimate tone and a narrative that is horrific but compelling. Listener is left rooting for Kim, naturally.

Death, Sex & Money, I Was Your Father, Until I Wasn’t.

When a woman he’d slept with called to say she was pregnant, Tony became a father to a little girl he loved deeply–until he found out she wasn’t his after all. He and the biological father discuss their experiences. They are disarming, honest, vulnerable.

Embedded, Police Videos: Flagstaff.

A 2014 video shot from a police officer’s eyeglasses shows his death by shooting, perhaps the first of its kind and a major internet sensation. Kelly McEvers delves into this video and its meaning to various viewers, in particular the families of the officer and the shooter. I appreciate Kelly’s personal approach–sharing her own reactions–and the variety of perspectives she finds.

Death, Sex & Money, Live from the Internet: Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires & You.

(This is the podcast that got Liz & I started on this exchange, because I’m an Isbell fan. I remember listening to the first Death, Sex and Money show with Isbell back in 2014.) Live-recorded call-in show with Anna Sales taking questions for Jason & Amanda about addiction, relationships, and their art. These are two wise, thoughtful, compassionate and smart individuals, and I could listen to them all day (and have).

Other Liz-recommended podcasts I’ve got queued up include Revisionist History, Planet Money, and Radiolab, so stay tuned. And, this one did not come from Liz, but about a year ago I really enjoyed Love + Radio‘s Choir Boy, an interview with a bike-racer-turned-bank-robber. What a weird story, truly stranger than fiction.

In other news, briefly: I had a strong negative reaction to Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention (from Graywolf’s The Art of series). I guess the good news is this book seems to be aimed exclusively at poets, and I am not one. Revell seems to me to be more interested in showing off his vocabulary and convoluted constructions than communicating; I found him deliberately opaque; and a central thesis seems to be that the “craft” of writing is neither teachable nor worthy of teaching—so why this book? Anyway, moving on.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

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Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 letters.

book beginnings on Friday: A Very English Scandal by John Preston

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

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The title of this book alone tickles me.

So begins A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament:

One evening in February 1965, a man with a fondness for mohair suits, an unusually wrinkled face and a faint resemblance to Humphrey Bogart walked into the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons.

I smiled when I read this line, which so tidily sets a scene with those odd descriptive details that bring a character to life. I think this is a great starting sentence, and I’m looking forward to more! Stick around.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

New research on the Patty Hearst case reveals a story as compelling and confounding as ever.

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Jeffrey Toobin (The Run of His Life) brings context, nuance and new sources to a dramatic story in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst by the radical group self-styled as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a media sensation. A nation watched with shock as the victim joined her captors in bank robberies and other crimes. Decades later, Toobin helpfully sets this salacious story against its backdrop: the influence of the Hearst name; the fledgling nature of televised media, particularly live news feeds; and the cultural upheavals underway via the radical political left, especially in the San Francisco area where Hearst lived. Surreally, a bumbling, incompetent SLA plagued by internal strife managed to elude federal investigators for many months. Jim Jones, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan make cameo appearances.

American Heiress avoids firm conclusions about Hearst’s level of agency in her own crimes. As Toobin observes, the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was not yet in use at the time, but psychological coercion was the focus of Hearst’s criminal defense. With the information uncovered, Toobin can reveal only a woman making the best of circumstances, “a clear thinker, if not a deep one.”

While most older readers will have preconceptions about the events, Toobin’s ample research and new sources offer a fresh version. An author’s note states that Hearst declined to comment, and explains the research methods. This history satisfies with its level of detail and emotional distance from a subject who remains mysterious.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots fired.
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