Book Review – American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

American Fire
Monica Hesse

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Between November 2012 and April 2013, someone began burning down the rural community of Accomack County, Virginia. On the strip of land called the Eastern Shore, nearly every night, more than eighty-six random fires were set to abandoned buildings, garages, and cars. Firefighters were exhausted and investigators were baffled. Who was responsible? It turned out to be former volunteer firefighter Charlie Smith and his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick. Police finally caught Smith in the act. He immediately confessed and claimed he did it for love, all at Bundick’s direction.

I haven’t spoiled anything here because the story behind this true crime mystery is how Smith and Bundick’s relationship went from love to arson and how law enforcement and the community were fooled. Hesse first wrote an investigative article for The Washington Post, but felt there was a bigger story. In American Fire, she chronicles the lovers’ relationship and how it changed. In addition, she describes a once-prosperous area in the early 1900s, when railroad companies made it possible to transport farmers’ produce. Once trucking replaced railroads, Accomack County suffered, but the people who stayed developed a tough resilience.

Hesse describes those who remained, people whose families had lived for generations on the shore. Now, in modern Accomack County, everyone knows everyone and whether they’re a “Born Here,” a “Come Here,” or a “Been Here.” Not surprisingly, firefighters also go way back, joining as apprentices to their fathers or older relatives. As they fought Smith and Bundick’s fires, their camaraderie kept them going, bolstered by the community who regularly stocked their makeshift firehouse kitchens.

The author includes plenty of information about the investigation, who was involved and an interesting group of profilers. As with other good true crime stories, readers get to know the personalities in the community and those behind the sheriff, state police, fire chiefs, fire marshals, firefighters, and other specialists. I also enjoyed learning about the community’s sometimes wild speculations and its self-appointed investigators.

Hesse takes you through the arrests and trials and I liked following the initial interrogations and courtroom testimonies. The whole story sparked my interest (get it?) and made me want to look up all the news after I finished. She also includes some pictures at the end, which I always appreciate because I like to see the faces behind the names.

I also liked that this was not a violent true crime story. No one was hurt and no one’s homes were destroyed. Just old structures. I recommend American Fire to readers who like investigative stories and psychological studies.

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Book Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief
Kirk Wallace Johnson

In 2009, Edwin Rist, a college student and flautist for London’s Royal Academy of Music, broke into the British Natural History Tring Museum and stole 299 bird skins and feathers from sixteen different rare species, valued at $1 million. Why? He was obsessed with fly-tying, a cultish hobby in which people (not fishermen) from around the world sought rare and colorful feathers to create elaborate fishing lures. These feathers weren’t just rare, they were from protected and some extinct species that had been collected by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who had carefully preserved and labeled a massive number of birds. Wallace’s expeditions and collections led to the theory of biogeography, a way of understanding the geographic distribution of species, and his samples have been used in many important scientific studies about changes in the environment over hundreds of years.

Once Rist got his haul back to his apartment, he began plucking the feathers, putting them in baggies and selling them on eBay so that he could buy a new flute. A year and a half later, he was arrested and immediately confessed. Rist was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and received a suspended sentence. He graduated, changed his name and moved to Germany. While some of the bird skins were recovered intact, others had been plucked and sold to fly-tiers all over the world.

The Feather Thief is the story of the author’s own obsession with the crime, his desire to understand Rist’s motives and recover the missing bird skins. To give perspective, Johnson first describes the theft and then Wallace’s expeditions. He also writes about the period of time following Wallace’s return, beginning in the 1860s, when feathers became the craze in women’s fashion. Their high demand endangered many bird species, leading to bans on poaching and the feather trade. He also explains the art of fly-tying, the secretive online network of tiers and how they communicate on various forums.

After Johnson’s numerous requests, Rist agreed to an interview and it is here where readers get a look at the person who committed this unusual theft. Was the crime premeditated? Was the Asperger’s diagnosis valid or did Rist fake the syndrome to get the diagnosis? Did someone help him with the heist? Where are the missing feathers?

Johnson writes an interesting story about a strange crime and the quirkiness of an offshoot of the fly-tying hobby. Although I knew about fly-fishing, I’d never heard of fly-tiers who don’t fish, who spend crazy amounts of time and money seeking rare feathers to create lures that they keep for their own collections.

I enjoyed The Feather Thief and recommend it to readers who like true crime stories and character studies.

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Book Club Mom’s Books of 2021

I’m a little late in sharing this, but if you’d like to see what I read in 2021, here they are!

The Searcher by Tana French – 4 stars

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn – 5 stars

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders – 3 stars

Cary Grant – A Brilliant Disguise by Scott Eyman – 5 stars

The Perfect Wife by Blake Pierce – 3 stars

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing – 4 stars

Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane – 4 stars

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – 4 stars

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 4.5 stars

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – 4 stars

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – 5 stars

Rabbit, Run by John Updike – 5 stars

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards – 3 stars

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison – 5 stars

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin – 3 stars

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt – 4.5 stars

The Last Flight by Julie Clark – 3.5 stars

The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham – 4.5 stars

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth – 4 stars

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner – 3 stars

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland – 3.5 stars

The Bone Hunger by Carrie Rubin – 4.5 stars

My Brief History by Stephen Hawking – 4 stars

The Early Stories of Truman Capote – 5 stars

The Lost Man by Jane Harper – 4 stars

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – 4.5 stars

“The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell – 4 stars

Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney – 3 stars

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz – 3.5 stars

The Stranger in the Mirror by Liv Constantine – 3 stars

We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet – 3.5 stars

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – 4 stars

The Lying Room by Nicci French – 3.5 stars

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – 3 stars

The Address by Fiona Davis – 4 stars

Furious Hours by Casey Cep – 5 stars

The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford – 3.5 stars

There There by Tommy Orange – 5 stars

Elizabeth and Monty by Charles Casillo – 3.5 stars

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell – 5 stars

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – 4 stars

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – 5 stars

Defending Jacob by William Landay – 3.5 stars

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – 5 stars

Capote’s Women by Laurence Leamer – 3 stars

Date with Death by Julia Chapman – 3.5 stars

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen – 4.5 stars

If you’d like to see what I’ve read in other years, you can follow these links which are also in tabs at the top of the page:

Books of 2013

Books of 2014

Books of 2015

Books of 2016

Books of 2017

Books of 2018

Books of 2019

Books of 2020

I didn’t read as many books this year, but some of them were long ones! I feel like I’d gotten away from reading longer books, so reading these reminded me of the nice feeling of really sinking into a story like The Thorn Birds.

Stay tuned for an updated list of my all-time top reads. I went from Top 10 to Top 15 a few years ago. I’m probably going to have to up it to 20 because I read some great books in 2021. Do you have lists of all-time favorite books? What’s your number one favorite? If you don’t know by now, my all-time favorite book is Youngblood Hawke by Herman Wouk. That’s a long one too!

Leave a comment and tell me your favorites 🙂

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Book Review: Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
Casey Cep

Rating: 5 out of 5.

While looking for true crimes for my library job, Furious Hours popped up on every list I found. The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Dallas Morning News and The Economist named it one of the best books of 2019 and President Barack Obama selected it as one of his favorite books of the same year.

During the 1970s in Nixburg, Alabama, five relatives of the Reverend Willie Maxwell died under suspicious circumstances, after which Maxwell cashed in on multiple life insurance policies. Although he was never charged with their murders, the insurance companies contested the claims. A fast-talking lawyer/politician named Tom Radney represented Maxwell and they won a majority of the disputes. Family members and citizens in Nixburg were terrified Maxwell had policies on them too. And rumors of voodoo abounded. At the funeral of the fifth family member, an outraged Robert Burns shot and killed Maxwell. Radney stepped in as his lawyer and the jury found Burns not guilty.

Cep divides this fascinating book into three parts. The first section provides an historical background of Nixburg, Alabama and the Maxwell family, their early days as sharecroppers, of Willie Maxwell’s service in the army and his first marriage. She details the family members’ deaths and Maxwell’s relationship with Tom Radney.

In the second part, Cep describes Tom Radney’s political career as a progressive Democrat in Alabama amid a climate of tense racial politics. While attending the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Radney made a series of progressive comments and angered folks in Alabama. For months, he and his family were barraged by death threats. Radney eventually withdrew from seeking election and hung up a shingle in Alexander City, though he continued to support civil rights, integration and Democratic politics.

Part three of Furious Hours brings Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, into the story. After the book’s enormous success, Lee’s writing career had stalled. In 1965, Truman Capote asked his childhood friend to help him research In Cold Blood. This experience reignited Lee’s interest in law and crime. When Lee heard about the Maxwell murders, she moved to Alexander City, attended the trial, conducted interviews, and befriended Tom Radney. She then returned to New York to start a book that she never finished. Cep looks at what happened.

Cep writes early on that there are two mysteries in her story. The first is “what would become of the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

I enjoyed reading how Cep connected Maxwell, Radney and Lee, about Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote and her stalled writing career. I recommend Furious Hours to readers who enjoy true crime and biographies.

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On YouTube today – about to start a new book, plus my new “library”

Hi Everyone,

I’m on YouTube today, talking about a book I’m about to start reading, and showing off my new “library” – I hope you’ll take a look!

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.

Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.

What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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The Monster of Florence: A True Story by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

The Monster of Florence
A True Story
Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi

True Crime


Between 1974 and 1985, citizens of Florence were terrorized by the murders of seven young couples. These crimes, committed by an unknown Monster of Florence, have never been solved, though many have tried. In 2000, Douglas Preston arrived with his family in Florence to write a new mystery, but instead, became fascinated with the Monster and teamed up with Mario Spezi, a well-known and respected Italian journalist, to investigate the murders.

The Monster of Florence is detailed account of the crimes and the investigation, which takes a look at a long-abandoned theory and uncovers a series of corrupt, but powerful Italian officials in charge of the case. Readers meet a confusing mix of magistrates, public ministers, prosecutors, the polizia and Italy’s carabinieri, and learn about these officials’ conflicting personal agendas. With the public’s increasing fear comes a series of arrests and imprisonments of shady suspects, including a false conviction of a violent peasant whose trial is loaded with unreliable witnesses and unsubstantiated claims. Included in this soup of investigators is a popular and sensational internet conspiracy theorist who is sure the crimes are the result of a satanic religious cult, something the government takes seriously.

Preston’s and Spezi’s digging results in a frightening push-back and lands Spezi in jail, just as their book hits the shelves. With Spezi in jail and Preston charged with obstruction of justice, the two journalists are now suspects. How they get out of this tangle is just as confusing as the investigation that got them into trouble.

The first half of the book describes the details of the murders and the second half, Preston’s partnership and friendship with Spezi. Readers will also learn about the ancient city of Florence, its history, art and architecture, as well as the devastating flash flood of the Arno River in 1966, which destroyed millions of pieces of priceless art and books.

Readers who like investigative crime stories will enjoy this account and the continued search for Italy’s infamous serial killer. Casual readers should be warned, however, of the book’s gritty violence.

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What’s in a mystery? Solving the genre

Everyone loves a good story and there’s nothing better than an intriguing mystery. But there are lots of books with the mystery label so how do you define the genre?

In the typical mystery, the main character solves a crime or a series of crimes and the story finishes with a nice tie-in of facts and events. It’s often full of puzzling clues, shady characters and red herrings. Sometimes the characters are amateur sleuths, sometimes they are professional detectives. While some readers like to solve the puzzle ahead of time, others prefer to see the story unfold. Many readers like complex stories, others like a fast-moving plot.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
is an excellent mystery crime story about a town hampered by racism.

Mystery writers understand that readers have different tastes, which has led to many subgenres. The cozy mystery takes place in an intimate setting and leaves out the gory details. Hard boiled and noir mysteries are gritty and violent. Procedurals include a blow-by-blow analysis. Historical mysteries (surprise!) take place in the past.


Second Street Station and Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy are entertaining historical mysteries set in 1890s New York.

A developing subgenre is the science fiction mystery, which places its characters in a supernatural element. Adding to the list are legal and medical mysteries and comic capers. For those who prefer nonfiction, there are plenty of true crime stories. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is one of the most well-known true crime stories and one that I want to read.

And for readers who like happy endings, there is the romantic suspense in which love and justice conquer. If you like this subgenre, check out Everything We Keep by Kerry Lonsdale.

While these mysteries involve solving a crime, thrillers and suspense come from a different angle – in these the protagonist is in high stakes danger from the very beginning. Many twists and turns propel the reader to an exciting conclusion.


If you like medical thrillers, you will enjoy Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin and her earlier book, The Seneca Scourge by Carrie Rubin, which steps into the medical sci-fi world.

No matter the style, writers of all subgenres often create lasting characters that feature in entire series of books. For an avid reader, what’s better than the anticipation of the next story?

In a rut? Expand your scope! Many mysteries include complex characters and dramatic settings and open the genre to readers who might not otherwise venture down the mystery aisle. From classic authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie to modern writers like Michael Connelly, Peter May and Tana French, you are bound to find an exciting story!

Some mysteries and thrillers overlap subgenres, making them hard to label but always great to read!


Death in a Red Canvas Chair and Death in a Dacron Sail by N. A. Granger are a little bit cozy and a little bit medical and a lot of fun to read.

In the Woods by Tana French is a psychological crime story with many interesting characters.

Echo Park by Michael Connelly features the recurring character Harry Bosch, also a popular video series on Amazon. Soon I’ll be reading another by Connelly – The Lincoln Lawyer, Book 1 of the Mikey Haller series.


If you like dramatic landscapes and complex characters you will enjoy The Lewis Trilogy by Peter May. I’ve read The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man and I’m getting ready to read The Chessmen.

Others I’ve recently read include:

Caught by Harlan Coben
The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner

I’m a novice mystery reader and I’m having fun learning more about the genre. The books I’ve listed represent only a fraction of what’s out there. What type of story do you like? What are your favorites?

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