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Crying, Waiting, Hoping

Spin: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 448 pages)

McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself laughing out loud.

Kate Sanford is trying to hold on to her college days, scheduling parties instead of business meetings, when she is given an interview for the job of a lifetime as a music writer for her favorite magazine, The Line.   The night before the interview, to celebrate her potential life changing opportunity and as well her thirtieth birthday, she agrees to go out with her friends for a quick drink.   Still intoxicated the morning after, she bombs the interview but is offered an ironic opportunity.   Kate’s assignment is to go undercover and follow a Lindsay-Lohan-type icon…  in rehab!

Kate signs into rehab (drunk) and begins to go through the steps to recovery as she writes about the “it girl” Amber Sheppard and her “young James Bond” boyfriend, Connor.   Yet the story begins to spin as Kate befriends Amber as well as Connor’s perpetual assistant, Henry.   As Kate continues her assignment, she is challenged with perhaps the real reasons she is in rehab and the ultimate decision of whether her “dream job” is worth hurting those she has met along the way.

My head is spinning out questions, but I don’t have any answers.   I feel like they’re floating in front of me, but they haven’t taken shape.   And instead of making progress, I’m in suspended animation, waiting, hoping for something to happen, but unable to make it so.

Spin is a lighthearted, quick read full of interesting characters and believable experiences.   McKenzie presents sensitive topics with such blatant honesty and humor that I found myself at times laughing out loud.   Her characters are real, both the famous and infamous, with evident flaws but each possessing their own charm.   Everyone is on their own path of self-discovery and yield realistic and often disappointing conclusions as they deal with their addictions and shortcomings.   As the story unfolds they find that perhaps they have more in common than anticipated.

McKenzie touches upon the realism of chemical dependency.   Through her characters’ therapy discussions she presents scenarios on how individuals find themselves in these situations, how relationships are affected and how difficult it can be to continue down the path of sobriety.   She keeps the topics light through the quirkiness of her characters and with the flowing humorous dialogue throughout the novel.

McKenzie demonstrates Kate’s love of music with random references to songs that have particular meaning to her main character and provides “Kate’s Playlist” at the end of the novel.   This would have been an interesting way to perhaps introduce more of Kate’s past and further describe her family dynamics but I enjoyed the references for their simplicity.

If you are searching for a deep, life-changing novel, you will be disappointed, but if you are interested in a well-written story laden with real issues presented with quick wit and humor, this is the novel for you.   Spin would make a fabulous holiday or book club read.   I enjoyed the book from page one through to the end; therefore, this novel is…  Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Imagine if Bridget Jones fell into a million little pieces, flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and befriended Lindsay Lohan along the way, and you are beginning to grasp the literary roller coaster ride that is Catherine McKenzie’s Spin.   Filled with brutal honesty and wry humour, Spin is a story for everyone who has ever woken up hung over and thought, “Do I have a problem?   Yes – I need to find a greasy breakfast.”   And by that I mean everyone I know.   Leah McLaren, Globe and Mail Columnist, author of The Continuity Girl

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Reprint, $16.00, 352 pages)

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman,” “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never been fully resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls From Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeffrey Lloyd Zaslow, who was killed in an auto accident on February 10, 2012.

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