Tag Archives: Miami

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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Time Between

Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel (Harper; $24.99; 320 pages)

“It was so easy, I understood now, to take a wrong turn…”

“All the days have turned to years…”   Chris Hillman (“Time Between,” The Byrds)

This is a novel that finishes well.   This being said, the first half of the novel is a muddy bog.   I often felt as if I was reading the diary of an obsessive person who notices every detail but has no idea as to what meaning to attach to the aggregation.   Here is a sampling:

Paul stopped walking and I almost bumped into him.   I could see the pink of his skin through the translucent white of his T-shirt, the short hairs on the back of his neck.   “Look,” he said, pointing at the water.   By his foot, a blue crab skittered across the sand, then slipped underneath a rock.   …He offered me his hand and I took it, but only until I’d stepped over a wide stretch of coral.   We walked for an hour.   Paul spoke only to point out a creature or plant, and I spoke only to acknowledge him.   The flats surrounded our stilt home on three sides, and I’d never before walked to their far edges.

This is not quite scintillating reading, and there are 150 or so pages like this before the plotline begins to come together.   This is the story of a Miami couple and the events that happen to them and their daughter between the years of 1969 and 1993.   It seems to take forever to get to the 90s.

The future married couple at the center of this tale initially meet as young college students playing in a community of homes built on pilings in the waters of Biscayne Bay, Florida.   The collection of homes is known as Stiltsville.   It’s a community that will not last, one of the many things revealed to the reader before he/she actually needs to know it.   Susanna Daniel has the frustrating habit of setting a scene, the events involving the main characters, in current time before skipping forward to tell you what will happen later.   For example, her female protagonist’s first impressions of Miami are that, “…the city (Miami) seemed large to me…  though it would double in breadth and height and population during the time I lived there.”

This needless plot device is used far too many times.   In one odd instance, the lead character is telling us about today before she jumps to “nearly a year later.”   Contra, another time we suddenly shift from today to the events of the preceding day.   Later on, we’re reading about what’s happening to the family one evening before we’re abruptly shifted back to the supposedly related events that occurred eight months earlier.   All of this is far too clever to be interesting.

There’s also the problem of stilted language in Stiltsville.   Early on our female lead tells us that, “…after meeting Dennis, I saw in my own future bright, unknowable, possibilities.   I’m a bit ashamed to have been a person without much agency in life…”   Agency?   What reader knows a person who would use that word today…  and in Miami?   Her future husband Dennis, by the way, works for a successful law firm in Miami but seems to know little about law.   In one scene, he worries that he’ll be arrested by the Coast Guard (and quite possibly disbarred) for buying a boat from a person who may not have had clear title to it.   Any first year law student would tell him not to worry, but then this is fiction.

Stiltsville also includes some paths that lead nowhere.   At one point Daniel includes a thinly disguised take-off on the Rodney King case, except that it’s set in Miami rather than Los Angeles.   The reader is meant to get somewhat worked up about riots and the prospect of better communities being invaded before this side-story disappears.   It has nothing to do with the main story, so why was it included?

In the latter part of the novel, Daniel does create some quotable statements such as, “The cement of a marriage never dries.”   She also displays her cleverness in dropping a near tragedy into our laps before sidestepping it.   And, finally, there’s the point at which someone is affected by a devastating illness.   If Daniel had begun at this point she might have crafted a tight, compelling and fascinating debut.   Instead, Stiltsville exposes us to a writer of some potential who failed to put much of it down on the written page this time around.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Silent Scream by Karen Rose (Grand Central Publishing)

Justice in June by Barbara Levenson (Oceanview Publishing)

Justice in June and Silent Scream have more in common than alliterative titles.   Each is a mystery/thriller set in a major U.S. city with a female protagonist that is devoted to her profession but has difficulty committing to a permanent relationship.   The cities where the action takes place are Miami, Florida and Minneapolis, Minnesota, respectively.   Both women are well-respected members of their communities.

Mary Magruder Katz is a criminal defense attorney in Miami who briefly struggles with her revulsion at representing a man who is being characterized as a terrorist.   Her current boyfriend is Carlos Martin, a wealthy real estate developer with an excitable Latin-American temperament.  

Detective Olivia Sutherland, over in Minneapolis, is the only female member of the city’s elite homicide squad.   Olivia and her partner are assigned to a construction fire when the charred remains of a teenage girl are found among the ashes.   To complicate matters, Olivia must work with fireman David Hunter while investigating this and similar subsequent fires with murder victims.   David is not just any fireman; he’s a genuine hero who works tirelessly on behalf of battered women and he had a weekend encounter with Olivia that still troubles her after two and a half years.

Here is where the authors’ styles set these books apart.   Barbara Levinson, author of Justice in June, is a member of the judiciary in Miami.   This is her second novel.   The crisp, spare descriptions of the characters and location provide more information about the local weather and scenery than they reveal about the feelings that Mary and Carlos have for each other.   Mary’s lack of true trepidation following an attack and a break-in at her house are confusing.   Levinson’s writing seems to derive from the transcription of a journal or legal case notes.  

The story is engaging from a legal perspective.   It is a book that would make a good selection for a young person who is entertaining thoughts of pursuing a legal career.   However, there are moral challenges to the justice system in this tale that are guaranteed to disillusion the most starry-eyed future attorney or judge.   This reviewer was amazed that a story set in steamy Miami is so dry and passionless.

Karen Rose, the author of Silent Scream, has penned 10 prior novels.   Rose, like Levinson, is a resident of Miami; yet she has elected to write about Minneapolis, a city that to this reviewer seems short on passion with a surplus of lakes.   Rose’s history as a writer goes back to her childhood when she was an avid reader and began writing for her own enjoyment.  

Rose has a well-developed writing style that is lush and highly descriptive.   Her novels are labeled as “romantic suspense.”   I was a bit skeptical about just how romantic the story would be.   Bodice rippers are plentiful but a well-written story is another matter.   This is clearly a book for mature audiences; although, given the sex on TV shows and in movies that teens are now daily exposed to, it is relatively tame.   What’s unexpected is the meticulous character development.   Heroes and villains alike are given ample background, motivation and feelings.

Knowing there are 10 prior books by Karen Rose to read while waiting for her next effort makes the waiting all the better.   Sorry Judge Levinson, this reviewer needs more than just the facts, ma’am.

Take Away:   Silent Scream, in paperback, is the one to read this summer.   Recommended.      

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Book copies were provided by the publishers.   

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