How to Disappear Completely

I used to feel weird that I’ve always had a fascination (obsession) with the darker side of life. I thought there was something wrong with me (Oh shut up! I’m well aware there’s something wrong with me) until I heard that Stephen King used to keep a scrap-book of murder and other mayhem folks are wont to get up to. He had the same worry that I did: that people would think he was nuckin futs by being interested in the unsavory until he figured out it wasn’t an obsession so much as it was a lesson on how to spot maniacs and how to avoid them. I don’t keep a scrap-book of heinous images and the evil that people can do to one another. But I squirrel everything away in my head in storage boxes and occasionally rifle through those packed and dusty boxes the way a raccoon cleans something in water.

James Renner is a fantastic novelist. I came across his novel The Great Forgetting while I was working at the library one day. Then I read his first novel The Man from Primrose Lane. When I get passionate (again, obsessed) with something, I google the hell out of it. I googled James Renner (well that sounded downright filthy) and read that he has a keen interest in true crime that stemmed from his childhood. As a young boy a girl named Amy Mihaljevich was kidnapped and murdered not far from where he lived. The crime has gone unsolved for years. I know what you’re thinking: a novelist who can also write nonfiction? That’s like watching Madonna make attempt after attempt at an acting career. But James Renner wields a deft hand when writing both fiction and nonfiction.

truecrimeaddictRenner’s nonfiction book True Crime Addict opens on a seemingly ordinary Monday. Monday, February 9th, 2004 to be exact. Maura Murray, a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts, wrote an email to her professors saying that there had been a death in her family and she wasn’t going to be able to attend her classes that day.

There had not been a death in her family.

Say what? Tell me more.

Maura emptied her bank account, went to a liquor store, bought booze, and then headed north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was pretty bizarre behavior but many people would knowingly nod their head with a faint smile and remember their own college days of drinking and not knowing whose floor (or bed) they woke up in. At 7:30 that night, Maura Murray crashed into a snow bank hard enough to make the car inoperable. A man who heard the crash came out of his house to inspect what was going on. Maura seemed fine (later he would say he could smell liquor on her) and he went back to his house to call 911. By the time the police arrived, Maura was gone, never to be seen or heard from again.

Most of us leave our mark on things every day without realizing it: a hair stuck to the driver’s headrest, CCTV footage of you from the convenience store where you stopped for bottled water and a bag of Cornuts. Voice mail messages about nothing in particular. We also have to accept that time is a trickster. Both time and memory are tricksters. How can a seemingly ordinary girl be there one minute and then (poof!) be gone?

The police noted a crack in Maura’s windshield, red stains on the car door that looked to be wine (I still want to know why they think it was wine. My first thought would be “My God! Look at all this blood on the door!” But duh. They would have taken samples of it to see if it was human blood). The driver and passenger’s airbags had deployed, an empty beer bottle and a damaged box of Franzia wine was on the rear seat. They found two different Mapquest printouts for Burlington, Vermont and another to Stowe, Vermont. There was also a book about mountain climbing. Her debit and credit cards were left behind as was her cell phone.

In the beginning, the police didn’t see her disappearance as foul play because she had made preparations as if she was headed somewhere by emptying out her bank account, buying booze, and emailing her teachers. But Maura’s family felt something sinister had happened and didn’t buy the idea that she had wanted to disappear.

Maura’s father arrived in the town she disappeared from and you know what? Her dad gave me bad vibes. Not bad vibes as in “He killed her” but something felt off about the guy. Maura’s boyfriend and her father held a press conference and after it the police stated that Maura was now “listed as endangered and possibly suicidal.” How’d they go from “She’s just a missing young woman” to “Oh, she is a danger to herself and suicidal?” An enormous search was then launched to find her.

This is when the crackpots came out of the woodwork as they always do when something horrible happens. Maybe some of them meant well, but some were just mentally unstable. A man gave Maura’s father a rusty knife and told him it belonged to his brother who had a criminal past. There were various Maura sightings that never panned out. At the beginning of March, Maura’s father went home and returned every weekend to help with the search. The police believed there were two scenarios for Maura’s disappearance: She could have crashed into the snow bank and then caught a ride with someone or someone could have abducted her.

Twelve years went by without a Maura sighting or any clues to point to what happened to her. I’m sure after twelve years of worrying and waiting her parents would have moved on from hoping she was still alive to wanting her body found so they could have some peace of mind. The lives of everyone involved with Maura Murray ground to a halt. People began to be haunted by what had happened to her after she crashed her car. Before she disappeared she got into trouble with credit fraud, using a “discarded” credit card to buy $79 worth of delivery pizza. Those charges had been dismissed. If she was cleared, why was she running away? I think that something so awful happened that the only thing she could think to do was put miles between herself and that awful thing.

On the anniversary of her disappearance a man with the screen name 112dirtbag posted a video on YouTube. It shows a man laughing maniacally into a camera. At first the guy looks like someone’s grandpa who’s relaxing with his model train set in the basement of his house. But this grandpa has rotted teeth and glasses coated in greasy thumbprints. He still looks like somebody’s grandpa but the kind that keeps dead bodies in corners of the basement. His laughter is a light chuckle at first and then it becomes creepier and more ominous as time goes on. It’s the laugh of someone at 3 A.M. locked away in a windowless room of an asylum. The name 112dirtbag wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people unless they followed the investigation closely. Maura’s father had said that she’d probably been kidnapped by “some dirt bag on Route 112.” The disturbing old guy was taunting Maura’s loved ones, almost telling them that he might either know what happened to Maura or he IS what happened to Maura.

As with many deaths (be it a celebrity or not) each anniversary causes loved ones to play the “What if” game. “What if Maura hadn’t crashed her car that night?” “What if Maura had taken some time off school?”  “What if she had talked to someone about the things going on in her life?”

But Maura Murray will never have children and what will be remembered of her is a car crashed into a snow bank and abandoned by its driver. She will be forever linked to a goblin uploading hyena-like laughter onto the Internet, hinting that he knows what happened to Maura but he’ll never tell. She will be that vanished girl none of us ever get to know.

She will be the girl who disappeared forever.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

lilacgirlsI really liked this story! Set during WWII, this book presents the experiences of three very different women in separate locations but told simultaneously.

First we have Caroline Ferriday in New York working with the French Consulate trying to help the displaced children and families there. Next is Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick working as a courier for the underground resistance. And lastly there is German Doctor Herta Oberheuser.

Kasia and her sister Zuzanna end up getting arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, which is where Herta ends up working. While the separate characters paths finally do cross, it is much later in the tale that we get the full impact of the interactions between them.

I kept waiting for the three stories to tie together. They all seemed so separate from one another at first. My patience paid off, and there was a wonderful denouement in the end! It was truly a wonderful story of courage and hardships.

PAWS to Read at the Everett Public Library

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Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp is a wonderful new picture book. Madeline Finn DOES NOT like to read. Not books. Not magazines. Not even the menu on the ice cream truck. But Madeline Finn DOES want a gold star from her teacher. Stars are for good readers. Stars are for understanding words. And saying them out loud. Fortunately, Madeline Finn meets Bonnie, a library dog. Reading out loud to Bonnie isn’t so bad. When Madeline Finn gets stuck, Bonnie doesn’t mind. Madeline Finn can pet her until she figures the word out. As it turns out, it’s fun to read when you’re not afraid of making mistakes. Bonnie teaches Madeline Finn that it’s okay to go slow. And to keep trying. Just like the sticker says.

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Did you know that the Everett Public Library has just such a program?  It’s called PAWS to Read and happens at the Evergreen Branch on Mondays from 3 to 5 PM and at the Main Library on Tuesdays from 3:30 until 5:00 PM. This program runs through December 13th, 2016, but will start up again in January. We have wonderful dog and human volunteers who come to the library faithfully each week to help our children learn to read.

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The dogs act as an incentive for the children to read more and to read better. Dogs are viewed as a non-threatening entity to promote reading, writing, and increased interaction and social skills in the child. As a result, children experience higher reading levels and higher levels of word recognition as well as word comprehension.

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The dogs used in this program are especially calm and unobtrusive and settle in as part of the class. The children view the dogs as lovable and non-judgmental, which are the keys to success in this program. Children report that the dogs give them confidence because the dog does not make fun of them if they read slowly or mess up pronouncing a word. The dogs are great listeners and give the child a sense of comfort while reading. Children have been known to practice with their personal pets at home in preparation for the Paws to Read dogs.

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Come on down to the library just like Madeline Finn and meet our PAWS to Read dogs. They’re awesome!

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Libby

holdinguptheuniverseA few years ago I was having lunch with two co-workers. They each agreed that they would take one year off of their lives if they could be skinny. Not thin but skinny. There’s a great distinction if you listen closely. No lightweight myself, I said if I traded a year off my life for anything it would be to become a bestselling novelist. That was when I was in my twenties. Now at the end of my 30s I’d trade a year of my life just to be a happy human being. Or human. Ba-dum-hiss. I’m here all week. Tip your waitress.

Jennifer Niven’s book Holding Up the Universe is a novel that absolutely does not fit the YA cliché of “Our eyes met across a crowded room and I knew he saw me for who I really am.” That crap never happens in real life. I meet eyes with someone across a crowded room and my first thought is usually ‘What the !@ck are you looking at?’ Well, that’s my first thought, quickly followed by ‘I’d better get out of that guy’s line of sight so he can see the beautiful creature who must be standing right behind me.’

In Holding Up the Universe, Libby is a self-proclaimed fat girl but she is NOT who she used to be: “America’s Fattest Teen” the teen who was over 600 pounds and had to be cut out of her house. Being surrounded by firefighters who cut a wall in the side of her house to get her out was her wake up call. My wake up call came in the voice of the demon from The Exorcist: ‘You’re almost 40! What have you done with your life? Nothing!’ Oh to have a demon possess me. Hop on in pal. You’re going to find one unhappy person with obsessive thoughts that’ll keep you awake all night.

After her mother’s death, Libby and her father are on their own. He homeschools her and she tries to start a new life. And then she decides she wants to go to public high school. And she prays no one remembers her as “America’s Fattest Teen.” I tell you, I wish I had even a quarter of this girl’s self-esteem. My mom once told me that when I walk into a room and feel nervous as hell I needed to walk in like I owned the damn place. Libby walks into every room with over the top confidence, even when classmates make cow noises around her.

Enter Jack, a cocky high school jock with an afro full of charm. But he has a secret. He can’t recognize faces. He has a condition called prosopagnosia. He’s literally face blind. And he’s the only one who knows about it. He becomes adept at recognizing a physical marker about a person: the way they wear their hair or the way their voice sounds. His own two brothers could come up to him on the street and he wouldn’t know who they were.

Jack can only keep his secret safe for so long before people get suspicious. He meets Libby because one of his friends decides to pull a mega cruel joke called ‘Fat Girl Rodeo.’ You latch onto an overweight person and whoever stays on the longest wins. Wins at being the world’s biggest asshole. But it wasn’t Libby the boy latched onto but another heavyset girl. When Libby finds out about it she chases down the boy. Everyone is amazed at how fast she can run. She vaulted a fence to go after him. That’s my kind of girl! I once vaulted a baby gate to chase my brother. It didn’t end well.

Libby confronts the group of boys involved in the ‘Fat Girl Rodeo.’ Not to be outdone by his douchey friends, Jack whispers to Libby “I’m sorry” before launching himself onto her. When Libby manages to pry him off she punches him in the mouth and down he goes. They both get detention and spend the next few weeks reluctantly getting to know each other. Jack starts to look forward to seeing Libby and this confuses him. He has a gorgeous girlfriend. At least he thinks he does. He doesn’t recognize her when she comes up to him.

Libby is beginning to have feelings for Jack. You want to know what absofreakinloutely rocks about Libby? Her first thought isn’t ‘He wouldn’t be caught dead dating a fat girl.’ She’s more upset about how she feels about Jack. And Jack is worried that she might not like him. It looks like Jack and Libby will become a couple but is she confident enough?

One secret she doesn’t tell anyone is that she can dance. I mean dance. Not the white girl shuffle I do when I’m ‘dancing.’ It’s full on the stars and the galaxies are aligned and dance she must. It’s Jennifer Beals dancing in Flashdance (yes, I know Jennifer Beals didn’t do her own dancing in Flashdance but that was the first movie that came to mind and I’ll probably think of a better one at 2 in the morning.) Better than Lady Gaga in 13 inch stilettos.

Libby has made her choice. Instead of trying to become invisible and stay beneath the radar, she flaunts her confidence, even after nasty notes are shoved into her locker. She refuses to back down and run away with her tail between her legs.

Fat, skinny, short, tall, weird, boring, Trump supporters-everyone should read this book and learn how it’s done when you’re the girl who had to get cut out of her own house.

Heartwood 6:6 – Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

carmillaI don’t normally read to scare myself, boost my heart rate, or get a jolt of adrenaline, but this time of year I often find myself looking for something a little spooky, dark, or supernatural. This year, the 140-year-old novella Carmilla, one of the earliest vampire tales (predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula), delivered just the dose of gothic elegance I was after.

When a carriage crashes on the road near their Styrian castle, Laura, a young woman, and her father offer their assistance and find themselves taking temporary custody of the weakened Carmilla, a woman in appearance about Laura’s age, as her mother has urgent business she must attend to farther down the road. Laura is thrilled to have found a female companion, and they form a remarkably quick and somewhat seductive intimacy. But early intimations that all is not quite right with the languid guest, who only emerges from her room late in the afternoon, grow more serious when Laura too begins to experience a similar loss in vigor and vitality.

The story moves along quite quickly and is told in an appealingly antiquated style with calm deliberateness and economy (though it does include a bit of unneeded repetition while also leaving a number of things unexplained). What I liked best about the book was Carmilla’s mysterious way of talking about being together forever with Laura, the significance of dreams, and the dreamlike ways in which the vampire would strike. Additionally, avid readers will be happy to see that book learning plays a large role in eventually putting the vampire (and story) to rest.

Boy Scouts, Marital Strife and California Cults: Three Reviews from Sarah

Do you need a good book to read? Of course you do. Get three excellent reading recommendations from Sarah right here.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

thetroopA group of young boy scouts are on a weekend trip on a remote island off Prince Edward Island. An extremely ill and disturbed man makes contact with their camp, and it’s quickly apparent that he is not long for this world. He’s got an insatiable hunger, and as their scout master attempts medical intervention, he inadvertently exposes them all to the pathogen. The pathogen ends up being a genetically modified tape worm, gone viral and out of control. The military has quarantined the island, and unbeknownst to the young boys, they are on their own. This story gave me chills, and the grotesque descriptions of one’s body becoming consumed from the inside are extremely disturbing. Stephen King gave this rave reviews, and I agree.

Carousel Court  by Joe McGinniss Jr.

carouselcourtNick and Phoebe are in a tough place. They moved to Southern California to start over with their small son. Instead of opportunity, they are stuck with an underwater house in a neighborhood besieged with foreclosures. Crime is rampant and morale is low. Phoebe works in medical sales, and is battling her own addiction to painkillers. Nick is making ends meet, working odd jobs and cleaning out bank possessed properties. Their marriage is stressed, and their young son neglected. Each party sets off on their own secretive path to secure the family’s financial footing. Unbeknownst to each other, their choices will soon catapult them into further catastrophe. This reminds me of a modern version of Revolutionary Road, but with more animosity and spite between the spouses.

The Girls by Emma Cline

thegirlsIt’s 1969 in Northern California. 14 year old Evie stumbles across a group of free spirited girls living at an abandoned ranch. The girls all adore an older man named Russell and yearn for his affection. He assures them of a new spiritual awakening and offers free love. Evie totters back and forth between drug induced freedom at the ranch and her stereotypical teenage life with high school and bickering parents. She struggles for acceptance, individuality and finding her place in the world. Evie is especially drawn to a charismatic girl named Suzanne, who mesmerizes Evie with her nonchalance and freedom. This is a dark story about influence and power and a superb debut from Emma Cline.

3 Minutes, 4 Seconds

thecallI would die in the Grey Land. If you placed a bet on me, you’d lose all you money. I’d hear the trumpets declaring the game is on and the monsters are hunting me down and I WOULD DIE. Not because I’m weak. Not because I’m not a fighter. I’d die because I’m naked and about to do battle with monsters while naked. If I tried to run I’d catch a boob in the face and knock myself out.

Don’t worry. I promise this will make sense. I think.

In Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call a dark supernatural barrier surrounds Ireland. Planes have dropped from the sky and all life has ground to a halt in the last 25 years. The Sidhe (pronounced “She”) are deadly beautiful creatures that were banished to the Grey Land: a creepy world parallel to ours where there are grotesque living things in the trees and fields of human heads crying out in agony (the place sounds like one big Hieronymus Bosch painting). Seeking revenge for being shoved out of our world, the Sidhe instituted the Call. After the age of 10, all children are assigned to survival colleges where they learn how to fight, protect themselves, and how to kill. They’re even taught that the deceptive beauty of the Sidhe can get them killed. Whenever I imagine the Sidhe in my head all I can see is meth-addled elves straight out of a Tolkien world that are beautiful until you scrape a layer away and find all kinds of ugliness underneath.

In this new world, teenagers have to grow up fast. There’s no time to cultivate relationships or have feelings for anyone and God help you if you get knocked up because that’s not going to save you from the Call. Once called you’ll have 3 minutes and 4 seconds to survive the hunt. In the Grey Land, those few minutes translate into a full day where the Sidhe try to hunt you down and kill you in spectacular ways. It’s rare that anyone survives over there and when they do they come back like wounded war vets with zombie faces. The Sidhe have a sick sense of humor.  Sometimes they’ll show “mercy” and send a teen back alive but with the head of a dog or their backs twisted to the front or limbs swapped around.

Nessa is 14. Her brother had been called years ago and died in the Grey Land. Nessa has twisted legs and walks with the help of crutches. Most of her classmates and teachers think she should have died at birth or been killed because with legs like hers there’s no way she’ll survive. But Nessa is almost supernaturally fast, adapting her disability to become more of a warrior than most of her classmates.

No one knows when they’ll get the Call. You could be sitting down to breakfast in the cafeteria at a table with your friends and all of a sudden Jimmy’s gone, leaving a pile of clothes behind. That’s when the countdown begins, everyone studying their watches and stating the time with nervous voices. I figure the teens go over to the Grey Land naked because there are two times when we’re most vulnerable: while we’re asleep and while we’re naked. And if you sleep naked, you’re doubly vulnerable. When I’m home alone taking a shower and hear a noise all I can think is “Great. I’m going to have to fight someone naked. Maybe I can flash them and make them vomit and make my getaway.”

Nessa trains twice as hard as her classmates because of her legs. She absolutely refuses to think of dying in the Grey Land. Her one weakness is having feelings for a classmate named Anto who is a pacifist and guaranteed to die when he gets the Call. But she’s in love with him and he loves her. What are they going to do? She sees no future with him. The only future she’s talked herself into is the one where she survives the Call and returns to the college as an instructor.

But something is happening at the survival colleges all over Ireland. Whole schools are being wiped out by a mysterious presence and soon that mysterious presence sets its eyes on Nessa’s College.

If you like books about survival and kicking some monster ass, this is your book. If you like books where people have to fight naked, this is your book. If you believe in a parallel world where you are hunted down like a fox with some crazy hounds on your tail, you’ll like this book.

I still think I’d die two seconds after the Call. I can barely run bare foot let alone in my floppy birthday suit.