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Unchain My Heart

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth (Touchstone, $16.00, 327 pages)

Oscar Wilde (nook book)

Have you every read a work of historical fiction that was oddly engaging, painfully true to the era and to the place depicted? Regardless of whether your answer is “Yes,” or “No,” Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol will easily surpass any read of this genre. Aside from some quotes and references to plays, poems and books by Wilde, this reader began the book with a blank slate as to the man or his life. The thought of a man as well-known and quoted as Wilde spending two years in a dark and dank prison was hard to imagine.

The particular time portrayed in author Gyles Brandreth’s mystery novel is the period that Oscar Wilde served in a British prison, or gaol. His crime was notorious behavior, late 19th century code for engaging in a gay lifestyle. The import of the sentence, two years at hard labor while housed in solitary confinement, is brought to the reader’s consciousness through a graphic narrative by Wilde as he experiences sentencing, intake, daily humiliation and threats at the hands of the prison warders (guards) and governor (warden).

While the first chapters are rather dreary, the story line begins to take shape and a remarkable tale makes it easier to accept the harshness of Wilde’s circumstances. Another literary figure, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is blended into the mysterious deaths that take place in the prison. Yes, there are a few sympathetic characters for balance and to move the plot along. Yes, I did check on the internet for the real story behind Wilde’s time in prison. Remarkably, some of the facts are as bizarre as the fiction that is blended into the story.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol was released on May 14, 2013. “Intelligent, amusing and entertaining.” Alexander McCall Smith

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20th Century Fox

The Informationist: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel by Taylor Stevens (Broadway, $14.00, 327 pages)

There’s a remarkable similarity to the opening scenes of The Informationist and Fever Dream by Preston and Child. Both tales begin in Africa and they contain some of the most electrifying examples of tension and suspense this reader has ever encountered.

The Informationist (nook book)

Vanessa Michael Munroe is the informationist. Her beauty and brains are surpassed by the cold-blooded determination she brings to each secret assignment that pays her well. Knowledge of many languages, national customs and human nature assist Michael, as she likes to be called, in succeeding on each job. Corporations, politicos and wealthy individuals have provided her with more than sufficient means to live a comfortable life; however, money and comfort do not motivate her. The assignment Michael accepts in this tale is to locate the missing daughter of a Texas billionaire. The daughter, Emily, was seen in the back country of Africa traveling with two young men seeking adventure.

As one might imagine there’s ever so much more to the assignment than travel to trace the path taken by Emily and her companions several years prior to the time of the novel. Michael visits parts of Africa where she grew up and learned quickly to fend for herself. Beauty, brains and agility mask the scars — both physical and emotional — that are at the heart of Michael’s very being. A woman as tough as Michael seems beyond the ability to feel love. Perhaps it was driven out of her by her mentor years ago.

Be prepared for a very quickly-paced adventure and be sure to sit in a corner where no one will be able to sneak up on you. Yes, The Informationist will pull you in and hold you to the very last page.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “…a protagonist as deadly as she is irresistible.” Vince Flynn, author of Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller.

James Cameron has bought the film rights to this female-driven novel, which he plans to produce and direct at some point in the future.

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Can’t Buy Me Love

frugalista 2

The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life by Natalie P. McNeal (Harlequin, $14.95, 179 pages)

Natalie McNeal was in her eighth year of working as a reporter for the Miami Herald newspaper when she woke up to find that she was $21,021.24 in debt. The debut was divided among what she owed on her credit card ($9,785.24), car loan ($8,600.00), and student loan ($2,636.00). This is the story of how, over 2 years and 4 months, she worked her way into a debt-free existence.

This might sound like a rather dreary topic to read about, but McNeal makes it an awful lot of fun.

“For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I need nothing. I have everything.”

“I am clothes coasting. My closet has me cruising.”

This is a true account of how McNeal learned to love what she already owned (including learning how to shop inside of her own closet), and place her self-worth above other person’s opinions of her lifestyle or achievements. In a sense, she created a real-life game out of saving money and she wound up a clear winner at the end. McNeal was to gain such self-esteem and self-reliance from this experience that she decided to quit her job at the Herald and work for herself as a featured blogger (K Mart’s smart shopper suite) and freelance writer.

“Frugalista tip: Before you shell out the cash (for such things as hair styling or new clothes), ask yourself if this is something you really need or just something you want. You’d be surprised!”

Living in Miami, McNeal was used to a young professional’s party lifestyle, something she had to put aside in order to begin spending less – and actually saving money, each month. She began to cook – thank goodness for the George Foreman grill, and stay with relatives when she traveled. She also started to file her work-related travel claims right after a business trip, and adopted a “same day deposit” policy for any checks she received. (The old McNeal often misplaced personal checks, and thus forgot to deposit them.)

Yes, the self-titled Frugalista became a serious person who finally applied the lessons learned in her high school Home Economics class.

As one might expect, McNeal offers some real-world advice on how to save money in very practical ways. She explains, for example, what make-up items must be purchased at top-notch prices and which items can be bought at a discount. You might think this would be boring for a male to read, but it was not thanks to McNeal’s positive attitude and ingrained sense of modesty and humor.

This reminds me to share two frugal tips of my own learned by living life. First, when you buy those expensive dryer sheets (what I call “fluffies”), feel free to cut them in half, or even into thirds or quarters. They’ll still get the job done for virtually all wash loads. And, second – as I learned from my dentist – don’t be afraid to buy the cheaper versions of mouthwash that you find at the larger pharmacies and supermarkets. They’re less expensive because they contain more water, which can actually be a benefit to those with sensitive teeth and gums (i.e., you’ll feel less of a burn). Stronger is not always better.

Less is often more – that’s the lesson of The Frugalista Files, a fun read and fun journey through life’s simpler, basic lessons with Natalie McNeal.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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