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Cinnamon Girl

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

How far would you go to get what you always wanted?

Party girl and music lover Kate Sanford comes closer than most to achieving her lifelong dream when she secures a job interview at her favorite music magazine, The Line.   The interview has the potential to be even more special, as it is slated for her 31st birthday.   However, when a friend invites her out (just for one drink) to celebrate the eve of her birthday, Kate downs a few too many – leading to a disaster the next morning.

Catherine McKenzie, in her debut novel, ably invites the reader into the story.   Just when Kate believes she has blown her opportunity, she gets a call to go on an undercover assignment for the company’s sister publication, Gossip Central, a celebrity rag.   Her task is to enter the same rehab facility as pop-phenom Amber Sheppard, “The Girl Next Door,” and produce an exclusive story that could lead to permanent employment at The Line.   The opportunity for a juicy expose gets even better when TGND’s equally dysfunctional boyfriend and James Bond portrayer, Connor Parks, enters the same rehab facility.

Things quickly get very complicated.   Does Kate herself actually need rehab?   When Amber befriends her, can so go through with the story?   Is there a more meaningful existence beyond living the life of a perpetual college student?   Can Kate get comfortable enough with herself that she can form a meaningful relationship with another person?

In rehab Kate falls for Connor’s bodyguard, Henry.   Their unlikely convergence and subsequent relationship/non-relationship/relationship form the basis for most of the second half of the book.   This is where the story either takes off or gets derailed, depending on your perspective.   McKenzie misses an opportunity to delve deeply into the pathos of the media entertainment industry and the addiction to celebrity of so many seemingly normal people.   The moral quandary as to whether Kate should write the story comes into play in the last fourth of the novel, but serves more as a mechanism to wrap up the story than a theme that’s explored.

The author could have opted to delve deeper into Kate’s behavior, background and possible addiction, but her family and past are dealt with in a cursory manner.   This oversight makes less credible any transformation in Kate at the conclusion of the story.   Several music references reveal Kate’s interests and help establish some measure of place and time but do not do much to advance the story or reveal much about her or the other characters.

What’s left is the love story which, by a process of elimination, appears to be the crux of the narrative.   Can Kate find true love?   The book leaves just enough loose ends to satisfy the reader, yet still leave us wondering.  

For readers who enjoy a light, breezy love story, this book clips along well and is satisfying.   For those who prefer to go a little deeper into some questions that gnaw at the human condition, the novel does  not go far enough.   This reviewer concludes that many will find this book enjoyable; a worthy debut effort by McKenzie.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Spin was released on February 7, 2012.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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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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Faking It

False Convictions by Tim Green (Grand Central Publishing)

“Even in the suit, (Judge) Hubbard’s thick neck and big glasses gave him the air of a character actor playing a bit part on a low-budget cable movie.   Jesse Jackson kicked into gear with kisses, solemn hugs and jive handshakes.”

This reviewer was expecting something more substantial than what is found in Tim Green’s latest legal novel.   This is not a courtroom drama in the style of Scott Turow or an exciting part real, part fantasy, novel like those written by John Grisham.   No, instead it comes off as simultaneously low-budget and overdone.

The three main characters are stereotypes, none of them quite believable.   One is a young and brilliant shark of a lawyer, Casey Jordan, who, naturally, makes men melt at the sight of her in short skirts.   Another is a young male reporter who is God’s gift to women and knows that he’s more beautiful than Casey.   And lastly there’s the billionaire who can drop $2 million in a single afternoon in order to have Brad Pitt, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson join him at a press conference.   He also happens to move about in the fastest non-military airplane known to the world.

Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.   A highly attractive young white woman is raped and savagely murdered.   The law enforcement authorities decide to arrest a young black man for the crime, and he’s sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.   Only maybe he didn’t do it.

In order to rectify injustices like this our friendly billionaire establishes a project to give sight to the blinded Lady Justice.   He offers Casey, who is so incredibly successful that she’s already been the subject of a TV movie, a cool $1 million retainer to take on the defense of only two wrongly convicted persons.   The billionaire may be Batman but he needs lawyers like Casey to serve as Robin.

The typical reader is going to expect a lot of twists and turns before things are resolved and the wrongly convicted person is freed.   Except that everything falls into place too quickly and about sixty-five or seventy percent of the way through this novel, the innocent guy is freed while one Judge Hubbard hangs out with Al Gore, Brad and Jesse.   Wait a second, there are too many pages left for this to be the end, which means…

Yes, the old fly in the ointment event occurs and everything suddenly goes to heck in a hand basket.   The best laid plans of billionaires go awry.   The same goes for the plot of this novel.   It goes into overtime before the game has been played out.

If Green had stopped when all the loose ends were tied, he might have been credited with serving up a nice little novella.   But this one goes on a bit too long and, strangely enough, it’s hard to spot the author’s legal training in the telling.

The reader seeking a fun novella in this genre might like Denis Johnson’s campy Nobody Move, just released in trade paperback form.   Or novels like Try Fear or Try Darkness by the highly talented James Scott Bell.   And then there’s True Blue by David Baldacci.   All of these are rides in a fastback mid-engine Porsche compared to Green’s tale, which felt to this reviewer like a ride down the block on a Vespa.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from Grand Central Publishing.

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