Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana. The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. However, that belief is full of inaccuracies. Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana. Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink. In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain. I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review). When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.
Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts. Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen. Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals. The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in. The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones. The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes. They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies. Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction. Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas. And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.
There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable. Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god. When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in. Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members. He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of the People’s Temple. He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it. He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it. The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs. Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave. And many wanted to. Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide. Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison. Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid. It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.
Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction. Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment. A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over. Highly recommended.
5 out of 5 stars
Em Johnson, manager of the Tiki Goddess Bar on Kauai, never intended to get involved in one murder investigation, let alone two. But when the hunky fire dancing detective Roland Sharpe asks for her help looking into some suspicious deaths in a high-profile, competitive halau (hula group), she just can’t say no. Before she knows it, she’s entering the geriatric Hula Maidens halau into the biggest hula competition on the island to help her get in where she can snoop.
I’ve dipped my toe in a few cozy series, but this is the first one that’s managed to call me back for a second helping. They’re all entertaining in their own way, but this series is also unique and engaging enough to keep me coming back for more, and thankfully those unique elements stayed strong in the second entry.
Em is a good cozy mystery heroine. She’s smart and willing to help but isn’t running amok destroying the police department’s days. She only helps when asked and even then, she’s a bit reluctant to disrupt her life. On the other hand, when she does help, she’s good at it. She lends insight that it makes sense only she would have, such as being able to infiltrate the halau competition. This lets both her and the inevitably hunky police detective she’s helping seem smart and efficient. She also has that every woman quality that lets the reader insert herself into the story.
The setting is perfect escapism. A Hawaiian seaside tiki bar that feels like Hawaii’s answer to Cheers. If Cheers had a set of geriatric hula dancers who started “rehearsing” aka drinking before noon. Not to mention an aging hippie who thinks he’s engaged to a dolphin. The setting represents both the beauty of Hawaii and the diversity of Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture. I certainly learned a few words of Hawaiian along the way in addition to thinking fondly of how nice it would be to live in a place with such tropical beauty.
The plot was multifaceted and engaging. Every character really has their own life and they manage to intertwine just the right amount. The murders (and attempted murders) happened at the right frequency and managed to be a surprise at least part of the time. The murder weapons are creative and well-thought-out. The plot is not predictable but it’s also not entirely off the wall. I felt surprised but also to a certain level knew that I could have figured it out if I’d thought a bit more. That’s the perfect amount of mystery in my book.
This would have been five stars, but there is one part of the book that I thought was in very poor taste at best. This is not a plot spoiler, as it is not necessary to the mystery at all. At one point, Little Estelle (the eldest of the Hula Maidens), climbs into a man’s car and basically throws herself at him. If the genders were reversed, this would definitely be read as a creepy old man assaulting a pleasant young woman. But since it’s an old woman it’s written for laughs. I get it that Little Estelle is presented as a horny, senile old woman, but there’s a way to write that that doesn’t verge into sexual assault territory. I just don’t find that sort of thing funny, and even though I get it that the intention was oh that silly old woman, it didn’t sit well to me. If this was my first Landis book, I probably would have stopped reading. I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book is 1,000 times more humorous and creative than those few pages. But I am disappointed that Landis chose to write Little Estelle that way. Others might find it more humorous than I did. I just don’t see such things as a laughing matter.
Most cozy books come with an arts and crafts do at home type project. This series includes drink recipes. I’m pleased to say that this book has even more drink recipes at the end than the first one, although I have yet to try mixing any myself. They are creative and fun-looking, though, and let the reader feel a bit like the Tiki Goddess could really exist.
Overall, this is an engaging, humorous cozy mystery. Readers of the first book will enjoy their return to the world of the Tiki Goddess. I am anticipating the next entry in the series, although I do hope that Landis will improve the characterization of Little Estelle.
4 out of 5 stars
In near future Michigan, a geneticist is murdered by his pet caline–a new pet created by gene splicing to have all the best characteristics of dogs and cats combined and guaranteed to be docile. His widow doesn’t believe that their beloved pet could possibly have done the killing so she hires private investigator Aidra Scott to prove her innocence. But as Aidra digs deeper into the mystery she finds far more intrigue than the possibility of a framed pet. This intrigue could rock a nation already debating geneticism.
I was intrigued primarily by the idea of calines. As an animal lover I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the idea of a caline. While the calines are pulled off well, they are not the focus of the book. This is definitely a near future scifi mystery, and it’s well-done.
The plot is a typical murder mystery with a twist. The pet is possibly framed, and the pet was created in a lab by geneticists. While I had my suspicions about whodunit early on, I must admit I wasn’t entirely right, plus there was an added twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. The plot will definitely keep you reading, even if you’ve read a lot of mysteries.
That said, there was at least one dead-end in the plot that I found frustrating. Aidra goes to visit the fringe group that protests genetic manipulation and gets tossed out on her ass, but we never really find out why the group was so hostile or much else about that angle into the whole thing really. Between that and the twist at the end, I was left wondering if a follow-up novel is intended, although all signs indicate the authors don’t intend to write one. If they don’t, I must say I found that the plot left me hanging a bit.
The main character is a single mother of a young teenage boy. This is different from what we see in a lot of mystery, and I enjoyed the new perspective. The cast was also quite diverse, which is appropriate for the setting. The characters were fairly well-rounded for a mystery novel. One thing that did bug me is that some Britishisms slipped into the American text. Long-time readers know that this is an issue that really bugs this particular reviewer. The authors (M. H. Mead is a pen-name for a pair of writers) try to explain this away by mentioning that Aidra is originally from the UK. While that explains some of her own Britishisms, it doesn’t explain why they sneak into the narration.
Overall, this is a fun scifi mystery. It consists of an interesting germ of an idea with a few plot twists to keep the reader guessing. It could use a few more tweaks, but fans of the mystery genre will enjoy it.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy provided by authors in exchange for my honest review.
Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war. In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching. In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits. Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator. They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.
My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French. In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives. It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime. I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.
So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others? Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age. She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays. Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels. Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries. This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation. Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team. In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women. Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well. Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.
French unfurls the story well. He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well. A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel. I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were. I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class. In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important. It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:
Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)
I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking. It took a bit to truly get into the story. A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice. At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl. But that’s not the story at all. The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people. It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.
Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism. It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.
4 out of 5 stars
Sophie Mae and her best friend decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as soon as the opportunity popped up in their small town. One day when they’re volunteering at the farm, a dead body is found in the compost heap. Sophie Mae is determined not to get involved this time, after all, she’s got enough on her plate with her soap making business and trying to make a baby with her husband, Detective Barr. But Barr’s boss asks her to help identify the body by talking to the folks in the community , and she just can’t say no.
Cozy mysteries consist of a mystery (that’s not too explicit or bloody) paired with an unlikely investigator, some sort of crafting, a good dose of humor, and a punny title. In other words, they were basically made for me. (Some even come with recipes!) So when this one popped up on NetGalley, I snatched it up, and I’m so glad I did! McRae successfully pulls together everything that makes a cozy great.
The plot is excellent. The murder mystery isn’t too gory, but is also realistic. The body is found in a compost heap, yes, but it’s just a dead body. There aren’t slashed off heads hanging out in tea kettles or something. Everyone is appropriately disturbed by the finding. There’s no ho-hum just another day element at play. Although I admit I had figured out whodunit before the end, the why and when were still a mystery. Plus I never felt that Sophie Mae was being stupid and just missing something. Why it was taking her a bit to see whodunit made total sense. I also really appreciate that GLBTQ people are included in the plot without a big deal being made out of it. They are just another character, which is just how I like my diversity in genre literature.
The characters are fairly three-dimensional for a cozy. Everyone had something I liked and didn’t like about their personality, even the heroine, which is key to characters seeming realistic. There were also a wide variety of people present from Sophie Mae’s best friend’s daughter to an elderly friend of the family. This range is something that is often missing in literature, and I liked seeing it here.
What I really come to cozies for, though, I admit, is the integration of crafting. In this case the theme is participating in a CSA, so parts of the book are devoted to how a CSA works from acquiring your weekly allotment to figuring out how to use it to cooking with it. I really appreciated the quips about having so much of a certain produce that they’re coming out your ears. I also really enjoyed the scenes that discussed taking real time out to cook dinner and what that feels like, such as talking about how garlic smells when you first throw it into a hot pan. I know not all readers enjoy this, but honestly that’s part of the point of a cozy. Taking the time to linger on crafts and talents that take time to cultivate but are well worth it, and McRae incorporated this element very smoothly into the book. I do wish some recipes or CSA tips had been included, but it’s possible I just didn’t see them since I had an advanced copy.
Overall this book has a dash of everything enjoyable about a cozy mystery. Recommended to cozy fans, particularly those in or considering a CSA.
4 out of 5 stars
A gruesome murder has thrown a British county up-in-arms, and Leo Curtice finds himself the attorney randomly assigned to defend the murderer–a 12 year old boy who killed and sexually assaulted an 11 year old girl. He finds himself seeking to understand what would make a 12 year old kill and finding more empathy for the boy than those around him think is allowable. Meanwhile, threats start coming in against his own family, including his 15 year old daughter.
This is a ripped from the headlines style novel that falls far short of others in its genre. Apparently, Britain has a real problem with child murderers. The thing is, though, when you’re writing a ripped from the headlines type story, your fictional version needs to bring something to the table that the real life stories and newspaper articles can’t or don’t. Room by Emma Donoghue is an excellent example of this. Telling the story from the perspective of the boy raised in the room his kidnapped mother is held hostage in was a truly unique and mind-blowing way to get a new perspective on the rash of kidnappings and hostage situations in the US. This story, on the other hand, is told from the perspective of a defense attorney, which is almost exactly what you would get in the press. There is nothing new or fresh. Curtice sympathizes with the boy killer, but that is not true fresh perspective.
It’s also problematic when you google about child murderers in Britain and the stories that come up are far more fascinating than the novel you just read. Stories like Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, two ten year olds who tortured and murdered a two year old. Or Mary Bell an eleven year old who killed and tortured other children without remorse. In contrast our story here is about a twelve year old boy who hits on an eleven year old, is rebuffed, and proceeds to knock her down, bludgeon her, and assault her with a stick. Horrible? Yes. But with far more motive than two ten year olds abducting and killing a two year old. See the difference? The true to life stories push us to question and understand human development and behavior. The fake one seems rather easily written off as a vicious twelve year old who can’t handle the word no from a girl he likes. It’s as if the author was trying to play off of a phenomenon in Britain but missed the crux of what makes it so fascinating. Twelve is hardly a youth in the way that ten is.
Then there is the whole side-plot about Curtice’s daughter. From the beginning of the book you think she was murdered eventually somehow in some connection with the case. Wanting to find out how this occurred is what keeps the reader interested and the plot moving in spite of the problems addressed earlier. This, though, is ultimately a red herring of a plot point. The daughter was a runaway. Yes, the father didn’t know it at first, but she just ran away because of all the stress from the case. That’s it. As a reader, it felt like Lelic played a dirty trick on me, and I really didn’t like that.
Ultimately, Lelic tried to write a ripped from the headlines style story akin to Room, but he failed on all of the points that made Room such a hit. There is no unique viewpoint, no valid suspense, no daring willingness to take things even further in fiction than they went in real life. The book is a disappointment.
2 out of 5 stars
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks. She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam. She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out. She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside. Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list. And what a book! If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.
Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project. Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more. Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong. She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her. I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:
She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)
That’s one of the wonderful things about this book. It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head. Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles. Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.
Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield. Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome. I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature. Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world. At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things. Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton. But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week. If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid. Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad. Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.
Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel. I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies. I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done. It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome. It is absolutely a worthwhile read.
Source: Public Library
- How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
- Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind. Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
- Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies. What do you think of this assessment?
Everyone’s favorite hard-boiled private eye Marlowe is back, and this time he’s been hired to track down a respectable entrepreneur’s wild wife. She sent a telegram weeks ago stating she was going to marry her boy toy, Lavery, but Lavery was spotted in Hollywood and claims to have no idea where Mrs. Kingsley is. The last place she was known to be was at the Kingsleys’ lake-side country cottage, so that small town is where Marlowe starts his investigation.
I first encountered Chandler in a film noir class I took in undergrad at Brandeis. Ok, so that class was my first encounter with noir too, but it introduced a whole new genre to me to fall in love with. The cores of the genre just scream my name from the hard-boiled, alcoholic detective with a “work bottle” of whiskey in his office drawer to the ever-present femme fatale. *sighs* Can I live in that world? Can I? Anyway, so whenever I stumble upon a Chandler book in a used bookstore, I absolutely must buy it. There’s simply no question. This will probably continue until I have collected them all.
The entries are always narrated by Marlowe, and The Lady in the Lake does not fail to smoothly represent everything there is to love about him. He’s darkly cynical yet possesses a striking wit even in the face of getting a beat-down from the cops (which happens in pretty much every book. Lots of dirty cops in Marlowe’s world). Without Marlowe’s voice and ever-present intelligence, the books would not be what they are. Thankfully, his presence is just as perfect here as in the other Chandler books.
So what about the story? Well, this time the story is not set entirely in LA. A solid half of it is in the countryside. While I enjoyed those scenes, I must admit I did miss the LA grittiness a bit. Although the scene where the grieving husband drags his wife’s corpse out of the lake on his back was every bit as gritty as any city scene.
The mystery made so much sense in the end that I was kicking myself for not figuring it out. I still can’t believe I didn’t figure it out! How Chandler came up with these twists and turns and managed to write them without giving it away is beyond me. I doubt anyone will be disappointed with the mystery. I literally had no idea what was going on into Marlowe explained everything in the classic film noir wrap-up scene.
The femme fatale was a weak point in this entry, however. I think this is why I really liked it but didn’t love it. She just didn’t seem sexy enough. Violent, yes. Brutal, yes. But sexy? Ehhhh. Personally I always perceive the femme fatale as a gorgeous black widow spider, and well this one just failed a bit on the gorgeous glamor aspect. She was still a femme fatale, but perhaps a bit disappointing.
Overall, I truly enjoyed my time in Marlowe’s world with this entry. Marlowe is someone whose presence it is always worth being in, regardless of whether his surroundings are perfect or not. I recommend this to noir fans, highly. Those new to the genre, I recommend start with The Big Sleep.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Harvard Books used book cellar