Reviews of what you should be reading next.

Tag: California


In the vein of Dr. Judy Melinek’s Working Stiff, an account of the hair-raising and heartbreaking cases handled by the coroner of Marin County, California throughout his four decades on the job—from high-profile deaths to serial killers, to Golden Gate Bridge suicides.
Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion. He also learned about different kinds of firearms, all types of drugs—prescription and illegal—and about certain unexpected and potentially fatal phenomena such as autoeroticism.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Thanks to NetGalley for this ARC!

Fans of true crime will love this book. Coroner Ken Holmes’ cases are described in great, gory detail, along with his thought process for cause of death. Some go unsolved, but all of them are a part of him.

Holmes is a self-deprecating man, which helped him move up the ladder within his department. As each case unfolds, the author portrays him with the right amount of confidence and respect. Some cases are more convoluted than others, so I am not sure who is at fault when the particulars get confusing. There were times where I had to read over the cast of characters a few times in order to determine who killed who, who had the motive, and other items of note. That is really the only caveat I have about this book – otherwise it’s an enjoyable, if dark, read. There are plenty of cases to appeal to everyone’s interest, whether it be prurient or otherwise. Holmes has an outstanding memory and usually has a philosophical turn when sharing his stories.

I got the impression that he is proud of his work, pays great attention to detail, and truly cares about those affected by the victim’s death. He emphasizes personal contact and shows empathy to those left behind.

Any book that teaches me something is a gem. In reading THE EDUCATION OF A CORONER I learned about rigor mortis (starts at the jaw, which is the strongest muscle in the body), suicide (apparently the Golden Gate Bridge was a mecca for those seeking to shuffle off this mortal coil) and government (how to work your way up through the ranks).

This was an excellent departure for the norm for me, and a thoroughly wonderful experience. If you have an interest in true crime or want to know what really happens during an investigation, pick this up. You won’t be sorry.

You can grab your copy [easyazon_link identifier=”1501168223″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

Pumpkin Farmer by Michael Hughes PLUS GIVEAWAY


The year is 1979. Malaise, stagflation, turmoil in the Middle East, and a gas crunch; these things are but background noise for what unfolds when a lovesick businessman and a sociopathic drifter cross paths. John Nix, business manager of a Silicon Valley semiconductor startup, picks up Horace Fullworth, a ne’er-do -well heir of a wealthy California family, who has returned to San Francisco after surviving the Jonestown Massacre.
After John discovers his girlfriend cheating, he drives to a bar in the small rustic town of La Honda. He meets Ellie O’Neil, a pretty young woman he offers to drive home. Feeling misled by her, he leaves her on the side of the road, where Horace finds her. John hears that Ellie has gone missing and is overcome with guilt. His struggle with his conscience leads him back to those rugged coastal foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Thanks to the author for giving me this review copy! I’m going to pass it on to one lucky reader: see bottom of post on how to enter.

Horace Fullworth flies back to California after surviving the Jonestown Massacre. He is curiously empty inside, devoid of feeling or conscience. John Nix becomes extremely depressed after walking in on his girlfriend in bed with another man. Their stories are intertwined when a girl named Ellie goes missing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgic atmosphere of California circa 1979–Harvey Milk, reduced emissions, smoking on airplanes, and Dallas on TV. Hughes does an exemplary job of setting the reader right back to those days, and that was one of my favorite things about the book. The mood is dark and murky, and happiness is just out of reach for the characters.

John spends a lot of time drinking and wishing he was a stronger man, while Horace is enjoying the life of a sociopath, living for himself and trying not to give in to those feelings and urges that lurk below the surface. I grew a bit weary of John’s self pity, and by the time things really started happening, the book was almost half over. This resulted in a rush to the end that felt a bit lopsided to me. The way the story was told needed better timing, but the plot itself was captivating and kept me focused.

John Nix’s life was so depressing that Horace seemed positively cheery in comparison. Hughes does an excellent job of showing how John stagnates while everyone around him goes on with their life, things falling their way effortlessly. Even Horace manages to develop a farm, complete with hired help to plant a pumpkin field.

The character of Ellie is a curious one, not as developed as the two man, and this bothered me a little. The plot twists seem a bit forced once you digest all the information revealed towards the end. Ellie is mostly a mystery, and it was hard for me to root for her to be found. Some things about her are made deliberately obtuse, for the purpose of furthering the mystery, but it just frustrated me. I think if the action was more spread out throughout the entire book it would have worked better.

Other than that, PUMPKIN FARMER was an easy to read book that gets its strength from the atmosphere. Choosing the 70’s as the backdrop makes this story work by inciting nostalgia along with the mystery. Times were more innocent back then, and the juxtaposition of these characters is what makes the dichotomy so powerful. The details are exact and mildly comforting (I remember almost everything Hughes describes) as they pop up amongst the drinking binges and self loathing. Hughes captures the emotions of the times well, adding the background naturally, not forcefully. I especially liked the idea of the emotionless Horace harboring the secret desire to become the titular pumpkin farmer. The lesson goes to show that what people appear to be on the surface, is not always the true measure of their souls. Remember this as you read the book.

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

Want your own copy? You can pick it up [easyazon_link identifier=”1612964745″ locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″]here[/easyazon_link].

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

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Many thanks to the author, Caitlin Doughty, for gifting me this book in exchange for this honest review.

When I first learned this was published I knew I had to read it. As an almost-mortician (I was accepted into American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service many years ago but never went) I really wanted to hear what Ms Doughty was going to say. Her writing is wry and emotional, and it’s easy for the reader to understand her quest to find out why death means so much to her.

The story starts out as she finds a job at a crematorium, then goes off to mortuary school in hopes of learning all she can about the funeral industry. Her motives are such that she wants to oppose the general business/embalming aspect of funerals and death; she believes in a “green” disposal, which may mean anything from cremation to being buried in the earth in a biodegradable container. Doughty feels that our attitude towards death is that of an ostrich in the sand; we prefer not to acknowledge it or prepare for it.  This, she feels, is wrong. If you are able to come to terms with your eventual passing you will not have any fear, and it’s a healthier way of living.

The author illustrates this way of thinking in each of her anecdotes. Beware–this book is not for the faint of heart, as there is a good deal of description of dead bodies, what happens when you get cremated, and some near death experiences of Doughty’s. However, that does not overshadow the main thrust of the story; we can feel Doughty’s mistrust and discomfort at the funeral industry, and are able to learn why she thinks that way.

An incident that happened at a shopping mall when the author was younger sets the background for so much discussion of mortality: she watched and heard a young girl fall to her death from the second floor of a mall, and that stayed with her for many years. She developed tics and habits, to “ward off” death coming for her, and then realized that she could come to terms with it, as we all should. She feels that Americans especially are in denial about death, whereas in other parts of the world people are more comfortable;  she illustrates this by including snippets of information on death and funerary customs around the globe, which I found interesting and enlightening.

Thinking about the end of your own life may seem depressing to you, but it is important that you get your affairs in order and not be afraid. It’s a lot easier said than done, but Doughty pleads her case well. She exudes a feeling of caring and encouragement, and hammers the point home that this is the one thing that brings us all together, no matter what race, color. creed or species you are.

I enjoyed the mix of humor and pathos in her writing, and would love to see something else in this vein. Doughty can be found at the Order of the Good Death online, and also has her own YouTube channel, known as “Ask A Mortician”. She is exactly what the funeral industry needs: an honest voice that demonstrates caring and empathy. I’d be honored to let Ms. Doughty handle my end of life care–would you? Read this book and let me know what you think. You can pick up your own copy [easyazon_link asin=”0393240231″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”gimmethatbook-20″ add_to_cart=”yes” cloaking=”default” localization=”yes” popups=”yes”]here.[/easyazon_link]


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