Review: The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City

The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City
The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City by Laura Tillman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know how to explain my feelings toward this book. It is an extremely compelling story, but the writing quality is poor. There seemed to be no real outline or backbone to it. The purple prose only highlighted this flaw, as did the repetition of unimportant things and the lack of refreshers given for details that seemed more important.

If all you knew about the case was the manner in which Julissa, John Stephon, and Mary Jane died, then it would seem impossible to feel bad for John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho, but what happened to them within the justice system is awful for other reasons. This is a case where a man with a severe mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia) and an intellectual disability (IQ in the low 70s) and a woman who had a shared psychosis with this man because of her own intellectual disability (IQ in the 50s) end up imprisoned, and, for him, end up on death row, but the writer is busy talking about superstitions & personal fears. It’s almost like she doesn’t completely perceive the gravity of the situation, the level of injustice that’s going on. As lovely as it is to learn about regional cultural beliefs, I was more concerned about the fact that this man who should be in a hospital will probably face lethal injection. The writer could only view this as horrible once she met Mr. Rubio, but it seems like anyone with a basic sense of compassion would figure out after learning about his background. Instead, she was oblivious to it, which made her seem callous. It made the whole book feel callous. Also, the stalking of Ms. Camacho’s family was a bit disturbing. I understand she felt that she needed to hear from them for her newspaper article and her book, but her behavior was quite creepy. I’m surprised that they didn’t issue a restraining order after the second or third time she showed up outside the woman’s front door.

The writing honestly reminded me of what you’d find in an essay by a bored, uninformed student who waited until the last minute to do an assignment. I have a hard time believing that this is something the writer was encouraged to get published, at least in its current form. I have no doubt that she has talent, but the fixations on pointless details within the work are distracting and annoying. I wish she had explained more about Rubio’s mental health than how a superstitious grandmother convinced her to throw away a perfectly good pair of tennis shoes. This wasn’t her memoir. This wasn’t even a memoir for the building. It was an unfocused work of nonfiction that was rather disappointing.

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On page 136 of 192 of Her Nine Month Confession, by Kim Lawrence

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On page 77 of 192 of Her Nine Month Confession, by Kim Lawrence

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Review: For Such a Time

For Such a Time
For Such a Time by Kate Breslin
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Recommended for: Anne Rice; anyone who thinks that the dislike of this book is unfounded; bigots

I’ve read many books that I could classify as “bad books” over the years, but this one is quite special in how awful it truly was. There was nothing enjoyable about Kate Breslin’s debut novel For Such a Time.

First, let’s tackle something that was brought up repeatedly in the book and in its official descriptions. The lead female character Hadassah Benjamin (known through most of the novel as Stella Muller) has blonde hair and blue eyes. On the back of the copy I checked out of the local library, it is specifically described as, “her Aryan-like looks allow her to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller.” According to the official description on Amazon’s app, the description starts, “In 1944, blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy.” On page 14 of the story, she is described this way, “Morty once told her that her beauty would save her–a “changeling,” he’d called his young niece, Stella’s blond hair and blue eyes a rarity among their people.” Early in the war, this might have protected her, but it wouldn’t have been guaranteed. When you consider that Werner Goldberg, the man who was literally the poster boy for the Aryan ideal, was expelled from the army in 1940 when it was discovered he was a “1st degree Mischilinge” and had to help his father escape a hospital in 1943 so that he wouldn’t be deported to Auschwitz, you can be sure that appearance wouldn’t guarantee the safety of a non-influential light-haired, light-eyed Jewish girl. And the supposed rarity of the trait is questionable due to the fact that now 32% of German-Jewish children also have blond hair. Brown (light and dark) and black hair each have slightly percentages than that. One would assume that the dark hair stereotype is just that, a stereotype. By focusing so much attention on the appearance of this woman who is also described as a savior, it is promoting a white supremacist ideal of beauty and moral value, while simultaneously justifying that ideal’s belief of punishing those who don’t fit their narrow standards of beauty.

Somehow her beauty is able to trick Aric into believing that she isn’t really Jewish and that the papers that have been stamped saying that she is must have been wrong. Aric will eventually blame her for not telling him that she is Jewish and for not telling him that she did not support the Nazi’s cause. This is after he has seen her traumatized at the brutal killing of Anna while in a camp. He saw that this broke her spirit, but he believes she still might be willing to support Hitler and his group of bigoted, sociopathic thugs.

Her beauty and position as Aric’s secretary also seem to convince every Nazi officer that she must be a prostitute. She even calls herself a “brazen hussy” when she is forced to kis Hermann in order to save the life of Joseph, Aric’s houseboy. And Hermann muses that she is a sorceress using her beauty to bewitch the Commandant into sympathizing with the prisoners. (Of course, Hermann also calls women weak-minded and mere vessels for man’s use, so he’s not exactly a great example of non-sexist thinking.)

Another serious issue is the repeated use of rape and assault as a way to threaten Hadassah/Stella into doing things & the underlying Stockholm Syndrome-esque quality of the relationship between her and Aric. When she first meets Aric von Schmidt, she tells him that the Gestapo assaulted her in some way and suggests that it may have been a sexual assault attempt. He classifies their behavior as a prank. Twenty five pages into the book, he threatens her with being returned to Dachau while he tries to seduce her. She is reminded over and over that she is essentially his prisoner, that she has no true sense of free will or personhood, but that she should be thankful for his saving her and for his attraction to her. When she has a traumatic flashback in a nightmare around page 47, Aric expects her to be thankful that he’s moved her to Czechoslovakia with him, but he’s threatening her with being sent back. He even uses sexual innuendo in these conversations, while having no regard for the suffering that she has been through. All that he cares about is that attraction he has. And he tries to make that attraction seem more important than what he knows, as he witnessed some of it, she’s been through. He threatens her when she doesn’t want to do as he has told her, tells her he will send her to Dachau for not eating, forces her to eat food pork, forces her to type of the lists sending prisoners to Auschwitz, forces her to sit through meals as Aric and other SS officers talk about the benefits of slave labor in the camps and ghettos, threatens to kill people unless she kisses him, and forces her to agree to marry him. As I read the story, I saw his behavior as similar to Christian Grey’s behavior in the Fifty Shades series, only Aric was so much more vile.

When the book started, Hadassah saw Aric as a “Jew Killer” and a potential threat to her safety. By page 82, she has begun to trust him, while knowing that he could turn on her at any moment if he found out who/what she really is. This is so reminiscent of Stockholm Syndrome. She is living in the home of an SS-Commandant and sees him as a good person who doesn’t really want to hurt Jews. She doesn’t recognize that he continuously fails to show real compassion for the prisoners in his camp–only trying to help the people who he knows and likes. It horrifies her when the General dismisses the life of Joseph, but it doesn’t horrify her that Aric is dismissive over any life other than Joseph in Theresienstadt. He doesn’t feel guilt over the absue of Morty or the sending of Sophie to Auschwitz for having rotten teeth. She doesn’t recognize that he has never truly shown her real compassion. He’s just treated her as a possession. One that he could rid himself of at any time. And he is continually pushed upon the reader as a hero? I don’t think so.

Throughout the book, there are moments of antisemitism that made me cringe. When Aric gives Hadassah a red wig to wear to cover her nearly bald head, it is a potential use of red hair as a symbol of Judaism. While not explained in the book, red hair and antisemitism have been linked for around two thousand years. Judas Iscariot was portrayed as a redhead. Lilith, the first wife of Adam, was portrayed with red hair. Liars, thieves, murderers, etc. would be described as having red hair. Any time there was racist propaganda, including art for nobles, Jews would be given red hair. Red hair was a symbol of a person who couldn’t be trusted. Even though Hitler didn’t believe redheads to automatically be Jews, he did believe that red hair was indicative of a person who could not be trusted. The red wig being used in the book until her identity was discovered was clearly an example of this continued stereotype.

The magical Bible that always seems to show up when Hadassah is losing hope is a different symbol of antisemitism. Instead of solely focusing on the books within it that are shared between the Jewish and Christian faiths, Hadassah ends up focusing on ones in the New Testament, including John 3:16. The author manages to, by page 311, convert a Jewish woman to Christianity, turning her into a Christian saving the poor Jews in the camp rather than an empowered Jewish woman helping her fellow Jews escape their oppressor. It is almost like the author could not allow Hadassah to be herself while executing the escape. She had to become someone different. She even says that she believes that God had abandoned her, Marty, and other Jews, while staying with Aric and Marta, her Christian friend. Considering that part of her conversion is inspired by her relationship with Aric, Marta’s past attempts to convert her, the atrocities taking place around her, this could be considered a forcible conversion. forcible conversions are an atrocity Jews were made to endure for two thousand years that promised them safety, but was often used to further segregate them within society. (They would not be trusted by Christians or by Jews after their conversion.) During the Holocaust, these conversions were simultaneously supported and condemned by the Catholic church.

Conversions like this are considered religious cleansing, which like ethnic cleansing, is a type of persecution and is not something that one should find “inspirational” as this novel seems to suggest. This is a type of violence being perpetrated on a person based upon their religion. Why is it being celebrated? Coerced and forced conversions and “inspirational” propaganda that promotes them like this have been condemned by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, “The history of the Jewish people is filled with tragic incidents of forced conversions, resulting in the death of untold numbers of Jews throughout the centuries…More recently, there has been an increase in the use of deceptive tactics by so-called ‘Messianic Jews’ targeting Jews for conversion. This new document makes clear that Christians using deception and aggression to missionize non-Christians is not only inappropriate, but a betrayal of Christian values.”

The suffering of Aric over being injured is also representative of antisemitism. He was in the hospital for a year, which lead to his offer of a position within the SS as Commandant at the camp. Hadassah has more sympathy for his year in the hospital than she has for her friends, her neighbors, and her relatives who have been taken from their homes, stripped of their citizenship, and treated like vermin for years. He’s in pain, so she feels sorrow for him. She feels less sorrow for the torture and murder of many lives she knew before the war. His suffering is portrayed as more important than theirs. Hadassah is told by Grossman that the only place a disabled Wehrmacht soldier like Aric or like Grossman could find work was within the SS; that the Wehrmacht wouldn’t want them after they were injured and that employers within Germany would not employ a soldier injured in the war. (Apparently the author has never heard of Claus von Stauffenberg, who was injured in the war and was still allowed to work for the Wehrmacht. He also was part of Operation Valkyrie, an attempt by people within the Wehrmacht to kill Hitler.) He admits that he joined the Wehrmacht willingly a decade before and believed for the next ten years that Hitler was doing the right thing, and she still supports him. Hadassah even pities that Aric is “far from the excitement of battle”, knowing that he would be fighting to continue to abuse the rights and the bodies of so many. She is more concerned with getting him away from Hitler’s reach than helping persecuted individuals get away.

There’s also a portrayal of Jews as being less educated than the Nazis. Jewish characters have poor grammar, while the SS officers have proper grammar. They are portrayed by the author as being less trustworthy, less loyal, and more prone to bad behavior/mischief than the Nazi characters. Morty’s acts as the Judenrat, acts which are grossly distorted, are seen as more vile than the beatings inflicted by the officers, the attempts to murder Hadassah and Aric by the officers, sending people to Auschwitz for bad teeth, etc. His failure to be perfect morally is seen as more grotesque than the atrocities that are being committed right in front of the characters. And Hadassah is actually shocked when she finds out that SS officers have no regard for the lives of Jews. This seems completely unrealistic.

What alarmed me most was that this book seemed to lift certain elements from the lives of real individuals. For example, the alias of Stella Muller. There was a Holocaust survivor by the name of Stella Müller who was “saved” by a Nazi along with other Holocaust prisoners. She was one of the real individuals saved by Oskar Schindler by being sent by train to Czechoslovakia. Various other elements from Schindler’s story (including the theatrical version of it) were also present in this novel, including the use of red apparel (a hat instead of a coat) to distinguish an innocent individual and ash and soot being used to symbolize a life having no value to outsiders. Then there was the lack of value placed upon the lives and stories of the real prisoners of Theresienstadt when the author took real events, like the Red Cross investigation and the subsequent closing of the camp, and moved it to another date so that it would coincide with Purim? Was it so necessary to retell the story of Esther that the author needed to change real events and erase real suffering to do so?

Aside from the many issues with racism, religious violence, sexism, the abusive nature of Aric and Hadassah’s relationship, the historical inaccuracies, the potential appropriation of identities and stories of others, and the general grossness that was promoted throughout this book, the book was also poorly written. Even if all the other issues were changed, the book would still be full of purple prose. I am flummoxed by how this book managed to attract any fans, positive reviews, or awards, or how any person who has seen the recent criticism of the year-old book can see that criticism as censorship.1 If a person writes a truly awful book and people point that out to them, that isn’t censorship. This book deserves all of the criticism that it is receiving. The author may not have meant to write a book that is so offensive as this one is, but she accomplished that anyway.

I’m not always a fan of “inspirational” stories, but I have never seen one so callously written, with so much disdain for the suffering that was endured by so many. I cannot imagine anyone feeling truly inspired by this book. How does a book “inspire” when it romanticizes mass murder, racism, and abuse? How could any person see that as a way to inspire people of faith?

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Continue reading Review: For Such a Time


  1. Anne Rice’s claim. She doesn’t believe in people writing negative reviews if they haven’t read a book. Her lack of reading the book didn’t stop her from defending it from people who had. 

Oh, lamb chop

There are some really messed up people in this world. Apparently, a few of them are writers. Months after the Kathleen Hale stalked a negative reviewer and Richard Brittain stalked and assaulted a negative reviewer, Andrea Smith and Eva LeNoir have decided to take on the ignoble task of publicly shaming a negative reviewer. This time, it’s being done in literary form. Their book Black Balled has the following description currently:

Two dominant males, two worthy adversaries, in a business that takes no prisoners, will soon learn that fate refuses to be ignored . . .

Black Balled is a story of two people, destined to hate one another for very different reasons–but will something happen to change all of that? A harsh reviewer with deep secrets and fears; a cocky Indie author that takes the bait and ultimately ends up breaking the Cardinal Rule, but what price will he end up paying for that?

Situations are not always what they seem; one of them is in deep denial,and the other is hell-bent on finding something–anything to distract him from his insecurities and the pain he is feeling because of personal tragedy and loss… toss a vindictive ex in the mix, and what you have is explosive and quite . . . epic.

Can they both survive one other?

Get ready for a magical carpet ride with this one!

That might not sound bad,1 unless you take into account the original description or what she said when she changed it.

original description

Babu is one letter off of the name of reviewer Baba, who left a negative (2-star) review on Diamond Girl, a book by Smith. As critical as the review was, it ended with “Give it a try and maybe you’ll love it.” That’s nicer than a lot of people are2 when it comes to critical reviews. So, writing a book as a response? Holy fuckballs! That’s nuts.

But Smith says it isn’t about Baba and that Baba is full of herself. No, really, she did. Smith also seems “surprised” that there was drama over the book and seems to be in total denial that she is to blame for it. She also seems to be in denial that the “buzz”3 is pretty much all negative.

no really

drama of your own making

what the buzz

This also isn’t the first time that Smith has behaved childishly45 when critiqued. This is pretty indicative that she has a problem. If you can’t handle reviews that are 1 or 2 stars, then maybe you shouldn’t publish your work. At the very least, you shouldn’t read the reviews. And if you’re reacting this poorly to the reviews, then get help that you definitely need. This should not be the way any person reacts to this sort of situation.

I’ve received criticism in the past on various things and reacted negatively from it. I’ve also worked on not letting it get to me. Maybe the writers who end up obsessing over, stalking, shaming, and assaulting their critics should do the same. If they don’t want to try therapy, then maybe they can listen to music or meditate or paint or do something. But this sort of behavior is just messed up. It seriously reminds me of the wise words of Mary Cooper on The Big Bang Theory:

Oh, lamb chop, we can quibble what to call it, but I think we can both agree it’s creepy.

Except that it’s not just creepy. It is absolutely 100% fucked up. Reviewers shouldn’t have to worry about their personal safety because some writers can’t handle a negative review. And it’s becoming increasingly more obvious that that’s something reviewers are going to have to consider. I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of act or the acts of other authors leads some people who write reviews to back away from doing so in the future. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it makes reading in general less enjoyable for some. And that not only hurts Smith and LeNoir, it hurts the whole industry, reviewers, and people who just read as a hobby.

I don’t think there is any way that Smith and LeNoir could repair the damage to their careers that they have done with this book, but it would be nice if they would admit that their behavior is reprehensible. It would be nice if they would actually step up, put their grown up panties on, and apologize.


  1. Although it still sounds pretty fucked up like this. 

  2. including me 

  3. Is it really “buzz” if people are really talking about the book exhibiting a writer’s predatory behavior? 

  4. Comments to reviewers on Amazon

  5. More comments to reviewers on Amazon.com 

Review: The Proposition

The Proposition
The Proposition by Katie Ashley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not really sure what other people are seeing in this book when they rate it so highly. It wasn’t good.

Emma is clearly in need of some therapy to get over her fiancé’s death. The dude died four years earlier and she’s still treating it like it’s the first day after his death. I think that her inability to truly get over his death is part of why she is so obsessed with having a baby before she turns thirty. (Unless she has a full-on fertility issue, she shouldn’t be as concerned about being almost 30 and baby-less. And clearly she doesn’t, since it only takes a couple of tries.)

Aidan’s proposition was also pretty shameful and could be considered sexual harassment. He isn’t seducing her. He isn’t really even helping her. He wanted to have sex with her and she turned him down, so he uses her obsession with having a baby to advance his own agenda. That’s not a sign of a caring and giving person.

There were some serious issues with overzealous religious types. Emma’s backwoods family get-together was so trope-y that I almost expect it to be a prequel for Deliverance. I could almost hear the banjos playing in the background as I read. I know a lot of people still have issues with the idea of out of wedlock pregnancies, but these people were a bit over the top about it.

And then there was the male entitlement and slut-shaming. A cleaning lady at the office simply smiled at Aidan and he thought she was being a tease. That’s pretty indicative of some of the more problematic thinking that went on in this book. Of course, it fits in well with the previously mentioned Wanna Baby attitude that Emma has, the religious nuts, and Emma’s judgmental tendencies toward certain sex positions. (Who knew that kitchen sex was trashy? Only Emma and some people who probably have very boring sex lives.) Women are treated as sex objects whose only real importance is to provide pleasure for the men and babies to continue the human race. Basically, women are just ovaries, a uterus, and a vagina, but not in the well-written, let’s-stop-thinking-this-way style of The Handmaid’s Tale. No, this is one that PROMOTES the idea that the only value a woman has is her fertility and her ability to make a guy orgasm. Very, very backwards. Very, very gross.

It was extremely easy to read. Sometimes ease of reading is a good thing, but in this book it most certainly wasn’t. It was too easy to read. There wasn’t really enough going on in the story, which made it too short. It also left it feeling like she didn’t truly put effort into the story. There was a lot of rushing going on and the sex was boring. There was no chemistry between the characters, which meant that the entire story felt very flat.

I knew going into the book that it wasn’t going to be some great work of literature, which is why I waited until I found a copy at my local library. Of course there was a cliffhanger, so the author wants you to pay up so you can find out what happens next. She needn’t have done that because this book was short enough that another 200 pages or so wouldn’t have been some horrifying reading task. I can only assume that she split the book into two parts because she wants the moolah. Well, I have no intention of buying the other books because the quality is so low and the story-line/style is so offensive. I may want to know what happens with these characters, but I will only find out if I stumble across a copy of them at the library. And I really hope that my library doesn’t buy the other books because they could spend that money on much better books.

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