"Sins of the Mother" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Crooked Lane Books
Written by August Norman
2020, 327 pages, Fiction
Released on 29th September 2020
If you are interested in fiction concerning cults, then 2020 is most definitely a stellar year with the releases of both Todd Keisling’s stunning Devil’s Creek and James Brodgen’s excellent Bone Harvest. While both those novels are traditional horror stories, August Norman’s fiendishly well-plotted Sins of the Mother is more of a thriller and does not contain anything of a supernatural nature. However, do not let that fact put you off, as there was much to enjoy in this intense journalistic driven page-turner.
Sins of the Mother has the subtitle ‘A Caitlin Bergman Novel’, who is the journalist at the heart of the story. When researching this review, I was surprised to discover that this was the second ‘Caitlin Bergman Novel’, following Come and Get Me from 2019. Interestingly, I read this book without the slightest inkling that this was number two in a series and reading a follow-on before the original is not something I would ever intentionally do. However, I did not feel I lost anything by not having read its predecessor and was not aware of any catch-up plot or major examples of information dumping from the other book.
The action opens when Los Angeles based journalist Caitlin Bergman receives a surprise telephone call from the sheriff’s office in a small town in Oregon, who have discovered a badly decomposed body which they believe is her mother. However, the journalist, who is in her early forties, never knew this woman, being abandoned as a baby and put up for adoption. Her personal research into her parentage uncovers many unsavoury facts about her mother, including drug addiction and a career in adult films in the early 1980s. Should Caitlin be upset about the death of a woman she never knew and still feels abandoned by? The complex feelings of abandonment Caitlin has for her mother lies at the heart of this clever thriller and adds much emotional impact to the plot.
Upon arrival in Oregon, Caitlin is unable to identify the body, as all her teeth have been smashed out, the face destroyed, and the fingers have either been cut or chewed off by wild animals. The whole story takes place over a few days whilst DNA checks are being verified after the autopsy finds a key hidden in the rectum of the dead woman, which is connected to a safe deposit box containing a journal which belonged to her mother. From that moment the mystery begins to deepen, and the story has several very clever strands which slowly but very intricately merge together. Early in proceedings I did not have a slightest clue what territory this story was heading into, but it kept me on my toes throughout.
The novel is written in the third person and takes in several characters from the varying plot strands, but Caitlin is the star with a fully drawn and believable backstory and inner conflicts resulting from the recent death of her adopted father. She is also slightly down on herself after a big story on the homeless situation in Los Angeles was rejected, having spent several weeks undercover living with the down-and-outs in the period before the novel began. However, you cannot keep a good journalist down and whilst visiting Oregon she uncovers another potential story and the novel successfully portrays a woman who loves her job and has the skills to sniff out a story from a mile away.
The impressive journalism backstory is further developed by Lakshmi, a young British Indian journalist who Caitlin has taken under her wing by sending her research jobs which eventually embroil her in the wider mystery. Lakshmi is new to Los Angeles and it was very easy to get sucked into the enthusiasm and verve this outstanding character throws into the case, who obviously looks up to Caitlin. Should there be a third Caitlin Bergman novel I would be absolutely astounded if this very cool young lady does not feature, indeed, I would suggest giving her more page time.
The two other main story directions connect a white supremacist group called the ‘State of Jefferson’ and the reclusive religious cult the ‘Daughters of God’, or DOG to their detractors. Caitlin’s journalistic instincts quickly bring her in contact with both and the fact that there is so much going on push this thriller above much of the competition, as it is much more than simply solving a murder. DOG are a fascinating bunch who buck the stereotypes of how cults are often portrayed in fiction and that fact alone makes them scarily believable, playing a bigger part in proceedings as the story develops. Interestingly, they are at loggerheads with the State of Jefferson, who have their own complex political agenda, which is fronted by one of the richest and most powerful men in the county, who Caitlin antagonises when she pitches up. Combined, the final product is a very cleverly plotted story which blends the various threads nicely with a crackerjack action finish. This is an American cult, so expect guns. And lots of them.
As a character, Caitlin Bergman really goes through the wringer, but I hope she returns for a third outing, as this book reveals some excellent long-term plot developments and by the end, she knows much more about herself than she started. August Norman takes the reader on a very entertaining journey into Oregon, not a state which features in much fiction, and I enjoyed spending time in this remote location. Reviewing this novel from the UK, we Brits often forget the sheer number of people who have guns in the States and so it was no surprise that both the white supremacists and the cult were armed to the teeth. Sins of the Mother is a very entertaining dark thriller which I am very happy to recommend.
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