Book Review: Birthdays of a Princess by Helga Zeiner

birthdaysAnother from ireadabookonce.com:

This book is billed as a “psychological thriller”.  Add “emotional” and “disturbing” to that list as well.  Here is the synopsis:

Almost from age one, Tiara has been a star of the American Child Beauty Circuit. When she grows too old to win anymore, her mother leaves Texas and returns to Vancouver. Tiara is twelve years old, she refuses to attend school or interact with other children, becoming more and more reclusive. Her relationship with her mother deteriorates and they become estranged.

 One morning, three years later, Tiara’s mother is shocked to find her daughter the subject of a big story on the morning news. A violent assault has just occurred at a local coffee shop and it seems Tiara is the perpetrator. The brutal and seemingly unprovoked assault lands her in the Burnaby Secure Youth Centre for a court ordered psychological assessment.

 When the police investigate the incident they begin to slowly unravel her confused and dark childhood. They discover her history as a child beauty queen star, managed by her mother and aunt while living in Texas. It also becomes increasingly apparent that explicit photos of Tiara were taken and posted to many internet sites The photos seem to capture Tiara over many years and lead the detectives to wonder whether she is the victim rather than the perpetrator.

 Tiara herself cannot provide any insight. She has buried the memories of her childhood deep in her sub-consciousness, and even if she could remember, she is deeply traumatized and unresponsive. Any attempts by the authorities to probe result in more withdrawal and unexplained expressions of grief and anger.

 Carefully guided by the adolescent forensic psychiatrist in charge at the Secure Youth Centre, she begins to write a journal, anchoring her memories on her birthdays as she remembers them. At the same time, her mother tries to explain the past from her own perspective, insisting she only wanted the best for her daughter and refusing to acknowledge any responsibility at all for what Tiara has experienced. It becomes very obvious that Tiara has been greatly damaged by her childhood.

 

Slowly the two story-lines merge until they arrive at the moment when mother and daughter recall the trauma that eventually leads to the attack. Tiara begins to understand the horrific nature of her abnormal childhood. She allows the psychiatrist to read the notes in her journal, subconsciously guiding him toward the truth.
But the truth is not clear cut. Tiara is guilty of aggravated assault. Even the detectives can’t find motive to explain her action, which means the judicial system has no choice but to keep her locked up as a dangerous juvenile criminal. Tiara remembers much of her past but she has no idea why she stabbed a strange woman in a coffee shop. Her mental isolation doesn’t allow her to confront this important question. Only the psychiatrist, with the assistance of the detectives who keep digging in the past, might be able to unlock the secret buried in her soul.

And they are successful, but in a way they never expected. When Tia remembers all that had happened and what had motivated her to attack another human being, the final answer, the solution to the puzzle, surprises them all.

I need to clarify that I usually steer clear of this subject matter.  I am still dealing with lingering PTSD as a result of my own sexual assault(s) in high school.  There is a term that we survivors use for things that cause us to have a flashback or nightmares.  We call them triggers.  And I do want to stress that this book is one major trigger for anyone who has suffered any kind of sexual assault or exploitation.

That said, it is right on the money regarding PTSD type symptoms.  For that reason, I kept on reading.  I wanted to see if the portrayal of Tiara’s symptoms was accurate.

This book starts with the assault that she commits, a heinous crime where she stabbed a woman repeatedly in the face, dislodging an eyeball and putting her in a coma.  The story then slowly weaves back and forth between Tiara’s journal entries while in custody and the investigation from the law enforcement point of view.  It also peeks in on her mother and her memories and issues.

To help the psychiatrist treating her understand why she committed a gruesome assault, Tiara starts writing down memories, starting with her birthdays.  She starts an entry for each of her birthdays and often the months leading up to it.

Through this technique, she is able to remember.  Remember a lot.  And the memories aren’t pretty.  I found this quote to be 100% accurate:  “I have turned on a tap and now the memories are gushing out under enormous pressure.”  That is almost exactly how I described it.  I went 8 years with ignoring the memories and hoping they would just go away.

Through these memories, the reader realizes just how disturbing Tiara’s childhood was.  Absolutely heinous crimes were committed against this poor girl.  You almost feel that she is justified in committing her crime, once you learn the identity of her victim.

Many emotions rolled through me while reading this book.  Sadness, anger, frustration, despair.  I already didn’t like pagents and I can’t stand to see the tiny little outfits young cheerleaders and dancers wear.  This book solidified the fact that my child will never, ever be in a pagent.  Ever.

This book is a bit of a mystery and thriller in addition to the issues regarding sexual assault.  I read it in two days.  It kept me drawn in and the character of Tiara is so real.

I’m sure those who haven’t had similar experiences might find this book informative, and it accurately portrays what survivors go through.  But if you can’t stomach lurid details it might be wise to skip it.

Book Review: Gabe’s Plan

Gabe’s Plan by Andrew Stock (2012)

Genre: fiction, suspense, criminal justice

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cover art

A little bio about Andrew, per his Goodreads profile:

Andrew Stock is the co-screenwriter of The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (Paramount, 2009). He has Ph.D. in Political Theory from the University of Colorado and a law degree from the University of Texas. He currently works as an attorney for a non-profit organization in North Platte, Nebraska, where he lives. Gabe’s Plan is his first novel.

*Let me preempt by saying I entered the Goodreads book give-away for Andrew’s book. He contacted me via Goodreads and offered to send me a free copy of the book if I’d be willing to write a review, which is no problem for me. I was pleasantly surprised and quite excited that an author sought me out since I’ve just embarked on this book blogging journey. However, Andrew’s kindness has no affect on the content or opinions of this review. Enjoy!

When I first saw the cover art, I was expecting a quant, heartwarming story of some fool man scheming up a romantic plan to win back his heartbroken woman…until I read the book synopsis. Holy Hera! I knew it would be a good read, with repressed lovers, mental health issues and vengeance at the core. I did feel the synopsis said a little too much, but I had a feeling Stock has some unsuspected twists up his sleeve.

Reading the first chapter, I wasn’t expecting quite the content it contained. Fair warning: this is most definitely NOT a “teen” (young adult) book. Expect derogatory, homophobic and sexual commentary like “pulling down panties and spreading”, “new swinging dick,” “fuck his drunk brains out” and blowing a wad. I feel like this is my somewhat douche-y brother talking. So if you are surprised or shocked by that type of language, you can take it in style or take offense – but I encourage you to keep reading.

“…on this painted sky morning, Gabe was certain the American people would wake up ready to send Bush back to Texas, where everything is bigger, including the size of the dipshit in its politics.”

Although the book starts off with Gabe casting his presidential election vote at his elementary school and knowing from the synopsis that he is the DA, I didn’t think there would be much of a political influence. I have to ask myself, Is this a little of the author’s barbing opinion coming out? I wasn’t sure, but I am a Texan born and bred, after all. In all seriousness, I often don’t agree with politics or politicians – no matter the party or the person. I believe in doing what is right, and what makes sense. And I have a sense of humor, and that’s how I read this part. So I’d advise taking this book with a little grain of salt if politics are not your cup of tea. Mmmm, salty tea…not so delish. Let’s make it sugar?

In all seriousness, after the flagrant political and douche bag comments, I was ready to chuck the book, but I pressed on. And then I was ready to give a very critical review of the political nature underlying the book. But…it grew on me. If you are ready to toss this book like I was, keep reading. You are indeed in for a treat.

The Main Players:

  • Gabe, an intelligent Iraqi war veteran with a limp (and the story spread all across his small hometown of Pine Springs, Colorado) is no newcomer to politics. Although he is the District Attorney, his father was the mayor of Pine Springs, and his brother is now the sheriff. Gabe has moved back into his childhood home with Mom after his father’s recent death. Unlike his sheriff brother, Gabe is pro-Kerry and hates Bush – who cost him his leg – with a passion. He often wishes his thoughts weren’t so trivial and normal, but more of Einstein quality.
  • Chad, arrogant, spoiled, 5-time big screen (and womanizing) movie star fresh to Pine Springs for some “R and R” at a whopping $15mil estate he bought (why not rent?) has his eye on local  Kaila, who just happens to be carrying the torch for someone else. Quite a challenge, Chaddie. Gabe sure has set Chad off in a fit – all because of Kaila. Let me say this: Chad is an egotistical jackass of a bully. I mean, the man greets his agent, “Hey fag.”
  • Kaila, 23-year-old movie-loving rasta barista, doesn’t want any of Chad because she’s on a mission: finally win over her childhood crush, Gabe, who dropped unmentioned (probably drug-related) charges against her – and she has a plan to get him.
  • Fred, Gabe’s sheriff brother, is pro-Bush and so naive. He’s not a good people-reader. Poor guy. But he is gung-hoe about his job – and seizes opportunities, albeit a little illegally.

Despite his womanizing ways, Chad is a “devout Republican and a big-time believer in the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” He has no care for how his overt sexcapades can end up hurting hurting his Hollywood image (or is that his image?) let alone a ton of women, but he cares for the sanctity of marriage. Seriously? What a contradiction! Chad’s “moral grounding” doesn’t hold much water.

Stock has set up a good foil here: Chad and Gabe are opposites. Gabe is an intelligent war veteran-turned-attorney. He is respectable (both in part from his war tour and his current DA job) and due to his position, beyond moral reproach. Chad on the other hand, is a glutton bully with ravishing sexual habits. He’s the kind of douche who will hog the sidewalk and make a gimp war veteran step off the path and into a puddle. This strikes a special cord in me, as the men in my family have all given up of their bodies and abilities to serve our country in almost every branch. Needless to say, I don’t see much growth for Chad. And Gabe’s the kind of guy who will say his peace, yet again be shoehorned because he’ll be late for his DA appointments. But one too many times and… just keep on smirking asshole.

Chad is most definitely threatened by Gabe – he uses multisyllabic words! With Chad and Gabe’s feud over Kaila, Chad may have more monetary influence, but Gabe has more power and the upper hand. I’m not sure that he loves, let alone likes Kaila overmuch, but he’s placing her in the hot seat to pursue his vengeance of Chad the Bully. I’m sure I’ve seen that episode of Cold Case Files; cop frames ex-lover’s paramour and takes him down – and despite my propriety for right and justice…in that sick and twisted way that is human nature, I get it. I really do. It’s relatable – no matter the situation. Someone consistently abuses their powers (whether supposed like Chad’s, or real like Gabe’s) at the expense of others, and karma’s a bitch of a payback.

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Archangel Gabriel, c. 13th century, Anonymous

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, Gabe is caught in a love triangle…or square without one side – and it may just blow his case, which he claims is the “biggest criminal case of the 21st century,” and not just because his assistant wants to be “on Gabe faster than a coyote on a sack of cheeseburgers” to “fuck his drunk brains out.” Now, that made me laugh! But that quickly changed – and just as I predicted, Stock delivers a quite shocking twist, and then another when Gabe creates an imaginary friend, who just might ruin everything…

Despite what the book synopsis says, I was surprised because it’s not so much Gabe pushing for this revenge as it is Kaila…and although Gabe is dealing with some, er, personal issues, he has visits from his hero, past president Abe Lincoln, and a very unlikely series of conversation ensue. I couldn’t help but notice Gabe’s hero of choice, Abe, is juxtaposed next to Gabe’s name after a particularly pivotal point in the book…and makes me think Gabe means Guilty Abe. I also found it interesting that Stock used the name Gabriel for the main character. We all know Gabriel served as a messenger between God and humans in Biblical times. Is this another manifestation of Gabe’s ego?

The time setting of the book is finally revealed in Chapter 9, when Gabe starts recording information about the trial for his next book at his book agent’s request. Although it’s not made clear how much time has passed, it doesn’t seem more than a short few months. His first entry is dated September 2005 after the preliminary hearing, yet at the beginning of the book Bush had just been re-elected, which would have been November 2004. The timing isn’t fully revealed, but it does take a while to get a case to trial.

I think Stock’s personal sense of humor can be found through Gabe’s writing: he juxtaposes Gabe’s free-writing of a college English class and bad grammar with an incredibly long run-on sentence. As an English minor, I can see irony, humor and reality of it.

And the humor continues.

And just as it is always darkest before the dawn, it is always quietest in a courtroom before a witness answers a question about where his penis had been. 

Actually, he probably loved his kids more than Gabe, but they were four and six-years-old and didn’t seem like real people yet – more like talking pets. 

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Norton and Pitt in Fight Club

As I read further into the last few chapters through the thick and heavy, I had an epiphany. Gabe and his imaginary friend remind me starkly of Edward Norton’s role as The Narrator and Brad Pitt’s role as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. I did an extensive writing project on this movie for my freshman English class, so I’m very familiar with the movie. If you’re not, I encourage you to watch it – a few times – after you’ve read Gabe’s Plan to see the connection. I don’t want to give it away and ruin the movie, or the book, for readers, but the closing photo is a hint.

There’s no neat way to wrap up this novel at the time immediately after the trial, so it surprised me that there was an epilogue. After Fred revealed some of his knowledge to brother Gabe, I was sure the closing arguments of the trial would be the ending of the book – clear cut, yet ambiguous.  (I know, what a paradox.) The epilogue is set during right at Obama’s win over McCain in 2008, and Gabe has indeed become a great man. However, you’ll be surprised who he meets…and the outcome of a murder.

-CA

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