“The Holdout” by Graham Moore

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillersThe Holdout
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Feb. 18, 2020

Let me start off by saying I was surprised that I was disappointed in this book. Not because other reviewers gave “Holdout” five stars. (I don’t actually read other reviews on a book until I have finished my own to ensure that I am not influenced. But, I do check out the stars).  The discrepancy between my review and others did not surprise me, because I often disagree with my peers.  I was surprised to be disappointed because the last two books that I read and reviewed by Moore were both superior historical fiction courtroom dramas and historical fiction is my favorite genre.   In “Last Days of Night,” George Westinghouse takes on Thomas Edison in the battle over the light bulb patent.  And, in “The Imitation Game” Alan Turing, the famous mathematician who cracked Nazi codes goes on trial because of his homosexuality, which sadly was against the law during those years.  The focuses on both these books were on the long-forgotten, fascinating historical facts, not really the trials. And both novels blew me away.  Since “Holdout” is a courtroom drama only; I guess for me, it was doomed to be a less stellar of a read than the author’s earlier books.

In this book, a young woman is on a jury for a murder trial.  A black man is accused of killing his white teenage student.  Our protagonist manages to convince the others to acquit the defendant, who were not as positive as she was on his innocence.   Since the jurors are sequestered they have no idea how much hard evidence there is against the defendant.  Once home, the jurors’ lives are forever changed since there is an outcry of fury since it seemed obvious to the world that they freed a guilty man. Up until here, I am okay with the plot.  Now fast forward ten years.   There is a reunion where one male juror has the others get together since he supposedly has new evidence on the decade-old crime.  First issues, why in the world would they want to relive this episode since the trial’s aftermath just about ruined their lives.  In the present, during the reunion this male juror is murdered (no spoiler here).  The prime suspect is our female protagonist.  Oh please.  She is now a defense lawyer herself and does a lot of her own research. Second, oh please.  Is this me or is this a cheesy plot?

I have other issues with the novel.  The male juror’s death is central to the story, yet it doesn’t happen till near the end of the tale.  Plus, after his death, the other jurors come to a very hard-to-believe solution on how to handle explaining his death to the authorities.  If I say more it will be a spoiler. On the other hand, there are lots of good twists at the end of the book, which did bring my attention back to the tale, but it is too little too late. It is hard for me to understand how the author who wrote “Night” and “Game” is the same person who penned “Holdout.” Maybe, my disappointment is on me.  Still, how can a decent legal thriller possibly compete with the true-life courtroom dramas regarding famous and brilliant men that changed history? Simply no competition.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Confessions of Frannie Langton” by Sara Collins

Genre: Historical FictionThe Confessions
Publisher:  Harper Collins
Pub. Date:  May 21, 2019

This novel is good, unusual, but not unusually good, although it could have been.  There may be too much going on, which I will get to, but at its center is a gripping narrative about a female servant in England who was a former Jamaican slave.  In 1826, she is accused of the brutal double murder of her employer and his wife, George and Marguerite Benham.   The first half of the tale is written so well.   We meet Frannie in jail writing her life’s story.   She was born on a West Indian plantation whose master, John Langton, is a sadist.  (Spoiler: She is her master’s bastard daughter).  As a child, she was taught to read and write. She grows to be highly self-educated.

The reason for her literacy was for her to participate in and take notes on her master’s pseudoscience experiments.  Langton is studying racial differences.  He is trying to prove that blacks are not human.   He uses skulls, blood, and skin samples from dead as well as live slaves.  The author chooses to leave out, what could be barbaric descriptions.  You will read about a baby being used as a research subject.  Rather than focusing on what is being done to the infant, Collins writes about the child’s desperate mother scratching on the outside of the locked room.  Or, that Frannie knows that the woman will be sold in the near future.  Less gore can equal more horror.  In the endnotes, the author cites “Medical Experimentation and Race in the Atlantic World.”  The author’s research charges these scenes with a terrible plausibility.

During the trial of the “The Mulatta Murderess,” Frannie is asked why she didn’t just leave England.   By then, slavery was illegal in Great Britain.  Her reply is heartbreaking:  No one told her that she could.   It is this style of understated writing that packs the strongest punch.  If the author would have stayed with this theme, this could have been an unusually good story, different from other historical novels on the subject of slavery.  This is shown through Frannie’s narrative, “…no doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories…with misery and despair.  But who’d want to read one of those?…What no one will admit about anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery…And, for all their talk of men as brothers, most of them stared at me as if I had two heads.”

In the second half of the book, Frannie is a lady’s maid to a wealthy Georgian couple who live in London.  Here is where the story’s pacing becomes uneven with way too many subplots.  It is easy to become less invested in the character because the story is all over the place.   You will read about betrayal, murder, lesbian love, drug addiction, and a whorehouse devoted to spankings.  The punch is muted, but not completely gone.  It is impossible not to be swept away from a story with such concise and powerful writing.  “My intentions in writing my jailhouse musings …it’s my life, I want to assemble the pieces of it myself…For every crime, there are two stories, and that an Old Bailey trial is the story of the crime, not the story of the prisoner. That story is the one only I can tell.” The writing’s strength is reason enough to recommend the novel.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Claiming Noah” by Amanda Ortlepp

Publication Date:  July 5, 2016

Publisher:  FaithWords

A couple begins an In Vitro Fertilization (IVF ) program.  After three miscarriages the wife has a successful pregnancy and gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.  The parents are ecstatic.   They decide to donate their last unused embryo.   Another couple is on a waiting list to receive an embryo.  They are overjoyed when they receive the first couple’s donation and are able to adopt the embryo.  This mother also gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.

Now what can go wrong with this scenario?  The book touches on so many themes that it hurts the story, which is supposed to be about a court custody case questioning who the real parents are, the biological or the legal ones?  We read about; religious restrictions, class differences, unhappy marriages, new romances, a child kidnapping as well as a fascinating and extremely disturbing postpartum mood disorder that can turn into a psychosis. (I do not suggest reading this book if you are expecting but if you must the author makes it clear that this is not the usual “baby blues” that most new moms can experience.)

I felt the book would have read better if it focused solely on the controversial child custody battle about the two biological brothers.  In that matter this tale isn’t all that different from the book “Losing Isaiah” by Seth Margolis, in other words, a real tear jerker.  Your heart will break for both mothers as they both feel in their hearts’ that they are the “real” mom.