Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Never See Them Again [Phelps]

Book: Never See Them Again
Author: M. William Phelps

Review: In July 2003, a horrible tragedy struck the community of Clear Lake, Texas. Two teenage girls and two young men were viciously gunned down in the middle of the afternoon in a quiet suburban neighborhood. The only possible witnesses were some neighbors who saw a young male and female walking toward the house on the afternoon of the murder. Three of the victims appeared to have been assassinated by someone they knew (2 appeared to be watching tv while shot while a third was standing next to the fireplace) while the 4th was shot multiple times and then pistol whipped to death. Almost three years after the tragedy, police finally arrested one of the main suspects: a classmate and supposedly 'best friend' of the girls.

This was an equally horrifying and fascinating read. This tragedy took place a few miles from my house and like the other true crime I recently read, I haven't stopped thinking about the victims, their families and the families of the perpetrators. What I really enjoyed about Phelps is that he focused mostly on the investigation. He really delved into the challenges of investigating a case (lack of resources, investigators being moved to other cases and in this instance, natural disasters). For this particular case, there was pretty much zero forensic evidence to help identify the killers. They police didn't have the weapons and the primary evidence was neighbors seeing two people walking toward the house.  Although the police were diligent about following leads, I don't believe they would have found the killers except for the fact that the killers talked about the murders to a few people who eventually turned them in. And I believe that if the one murderer arrested (the other killed himself when he found out the police were onto him) had invoked her right to counsel, she may have gotten off. My main complaint with this book is that during the trial section, Phelps inserted her own personal thoughts during defense sections which wasn't needed. Readers know the girl is crazy and making up stories. Otherwise, very interesting read for true crime fans. I will definitely check out more books by Phelps. 

Grade: B

The Marriage Bargain [Probst]

Book: The Marriage Bargain [Marriage to a Billionaire]
Author: Jennifer Probst

Review: Alexa is in desperate need of cash. Her parents are about to lose their house and she doesn't make enough as a bookstore owner to help them out. Nick, a childhood friend of Alexa, is in need of a wife to maintain control of his company (due to a stipulation in his uncles will). Alexa and Nick enter a marriage of convenience: he agrees to give Alexa $250k (he believes she needs the money to finance an expansion of her book store) if she stays married to him for a year. It is supposed to be a marriage in name only, but once Alexa and Nick move in together, sparks fly. Can they be honest with each other about their feelings and turn the marriage into a real one?

This is a cute, predictable romance novel. Although Nick did not seem like a billionaire (this is definitely nit picking but he had a shower curtain...I feel like someone with that much money would have a nice, modern shower with glass walls), he and Alexa really balanced each other out. I laughed at loud several times (there is a chapter about shelter dogs she is trying to hide from Nick) that was especially funny. This is the first in a new series and I plan to read the next one when it comes out.

Grade: B

The Third Floor [Grace]

Book: The Third Floor
Author: Judi Loren Grace

Review: It's 1962. A young girl from a small town in California is sent to live in a home for unwed mothers. Told in part through letters to a friend back home, she describes daily life at the home and how each girl eventually goes to the third floor to give birth, give up their babies and return to their previous life like nothing ever happened. 

I didn't realize this was non-fiction when I decided to read this. After discovering it was, it made the story that much more powerful. I was shocked at how naive 15 year old Judi was, the complete lack of sex education (she didn't even know she had sex) and the way she was treated by her doctor when they discovered she was pregnant (rude and condescending). The girls in the home were constantly told how "bad" they were and none of them even know what the birthing process entailed (they didn't know "how" the baby came out). I was literally shocked that Judi's mother and older sister made the decision to either keep the baby and name the child (and Judi went with whatever they wanted). I was truly heartbroken for Judi reading what happened to her mother and her father's ultimate betrayal. 

This was a slow, albeit boring read at times, but I really enjoyed this novel. 

Grade: B

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder [Casey]

Book: A Descent Into Hell: The True Story of an Altar Boy, a Cheerleader, and a Twisted Texas Murder
Author: Kathryn Casey

Review: I lived in Austin right before this tragedy happened so I thought it would be an interesting read. First off, the title of this true crime novel is misleading. Jennifer Cave was a cheerleader many years before the murder happened and Colton Pitonyak was several years removed from his days as an altar boy. The title should reference something about the dangers of drugs. 

Cave, a pretty redhead, grew up in Texas and became a party girl in high school. She moved to San Marcos and later Austin for college, dropping in and out of classes while moving from job to job. Colton Pitonyak was an upper middle class kid from Arkansas who moved to Austin for a scholarship at University of Texas' business school. Pitonyak quickly spiraled downward into the drug scene, both using and selling. These two met at a party and developed an unhealthy relationship. Pitonyak wanted to date Cave, while she kept him in the friend zone and used him for free drugs. Cave told friends on numerous occasions that she didn't feel safe around Pitonyak and foreshadowed her own fate that he would one day kill her. Her concerns proved correct when their relationship ended in tragedy. After a night of partying on 6th Street, Pitonyak killed Cave, dismembered her body and attempted to flee to Mexico with his crazy pseudo girlfriend, Laura Hall. Pitonyak was quickly caught and convicted of murder while Hall was convicted of tampering with evidence. 

This was my first Kathryn Casey book and I like the general way it was arranged. A background on the key players and the events leading up to the crime were the first half, while the back half focused on the court case. I knew nothing about the case prior to reading this so I had no preconceived notions. The general writing style was almost too casual for my taste but it was very readable. 

It is clear that Casey did a lot of research and became extremely close to the Jennifer Cave's mother, almost too closer perhaps. Almost every person who interacted with Jennifer thought she was the sweetest person ever, while Colton was practically portrayed as the devil. There was some attempt to humanize Colton during his time in Austin but it seemed halfhearted (In Casey's defense, I think his parents declined to be interviewed for the book). While I have no doubt that Jennifer was a sweet person, it is clear she was a drug addict (a fact her mother seemed unable to admit) who would have been homeless if not for the charity and kindness of her friends. She engaged in reckless behavior that was alarming, including several months before her murder, she was living with her boyfriend and doing drugs while his young daughter was napping. She was attempting to clean up her life and started a new job at a law firm the day before her murder. Her mother believes she was turning everything around-we'll never know the truth but I think the depth of her addiction too great for her to quit on her own willpower.  Colton certainly seemed so deep into his addiction that his endgame was prison by one means or another. 

I also disagree with Casey's theory on how the murder happened. At his trial, Colton claimed he was high on meth for a week and does not remember killing Jennifer, but must have by accident because she was his friend and he had no reason to kill her. Prosecutors were never able to determine a motive. Casey claims the motive was that Colton wanted a romantic relationship with Jennifer and she didn't (I would think that the detectives assigned to the case would have asked that question when interviewing witnesses). Casey's hypothesis is that Colton forced Jennifer to his apartment with a knife, she told him she was trying to break out of the drug scene, did not want to date him and he shot and murdered her.  I believe she went to his apartment willingly to do drugs (pot and meth were found in her system) and he shot her by accident. She was shot in the arm and the bullet then traveled to her chest and killed her immediately. His attorney's didn't seem to highlight this fact but it seems odd that someone would purposefully try to kill someone by shooting them through the arm. His actions following her death are incomprehensible and it is shameful that under the Texas penal code they only warrant a misdemeanor. The extent of Hall's participation in the dismemberment will never been known (her DNA was found on only four items in Colton's apartment related to the crime but she bragged about her actions to several 'friends' including making statements about the case on facebook of all places). It is frightening to think that Laura Hall will be out of prison in just a few years. 

My heart goes out to both the Cave family and Pitonyak family. I cannot imagine the horror of a child being taken before their time in such a manner, nor knowing that you raised a child who could do something like this to another human being. As a parent, this book resonated with me. I have two young children and the drug use/abuse by Jennifer, Colton and their various friends is absolutely frightening. 

Grade: B 

Appointment with Death [Christie]

Book: Appointment with Death [Hercule Poirot #19]
Author: Agatha Christie 

Review: While vacationing in Jerusalem, Poirot overhears a young American tell his sister that their mother has to be killed. Poirot later meets the family (the Boynton's) and discovers they are lead by a sadistic tyrant of a mother who uses emotional abuse to control her children. When Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies, Poirot vows to prove her death was murder and identify the murderer within 24 hours. 

Happy dance-I figured this one out!! Actually, I think most people reading this would figure it out. There was an important clue that was referenced several times so it was pretty clear who it was. I did enjoy the entire cast of characters, including the various Boynton children. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the eldest step-child Lennox and his wife Nadine, and how she was attempting to break him free of his mother. Overall, another enjoyable Christie read. 

Grade: B

Lord Edgware Dies [Christie]

Book: Lord Edgware Dies [Hercule Poirot #9]
Author: Agatha Christie

Review: Actress Jane Wilkinson engages the services of Hercule Poirot to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to agree to a divorce so she can marry another man. When Poirot meets with Edgware, he says he agreed to a divorce months before and wrote to Jane about it. Jane claims she never received a letter from him. Shortly thereafter, a woman resembling Wilkinson arrives at Lord Edgware's house unannounced and murders him. Poirot and Hastings are on the case. Those who know Wilkinson claim she has no morals and would certainly murder her husband if it served her needs. However, she was at a dinner party when the murder took place and there are several witnesses who can place her there. Poirot navigates fact from fiction to solve the murder.

I really enjoyed this book. Christie did a great job introducing a cast of shady characters and important clues that I could not figure out (especially a pair of eyeglasses). I love the tag team of Poirot and Hastings. This is a good one for mystery lovers. 

Grade: B