Tag Archives: Waiting

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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You’ve Got Your Troubles

The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg (Crown; $23.99; 325 pages)

“It was as if Gloria was sabotaging herself, Sam thought.   Well, they were both sabotaging themselves, just going about it from opposite directions.”

Debra Ginsberg has populated her latest novel with a score of self-sabotaging and dysfunctional characters.   This is the story of Diana, a young pregnant woman who is thrown out of her mother’s home and forced to live with the father she’s never known.   Dad Joe lives in the suburbs of San Diego near the ocean with his second wife, Allison.   Joe made Allison abort her only pregnancy years earlier, and Allison knows nothing about the existence of Diana.   Therefore, when she appears on Joe’s driveway the marriage is suddenly in serious trouble.

But it turns out that everyone in the neighborhood is in trouble as the fires of late October and early November 2007 approach.   Fourteen people died and at least 70 were injured when a half-million acres burned.   One million San Diego County residents were evacuated, the largest evacuation in California history.   This is the not-so-pleasant back-drop for Ginsberg’s troubled tale.

It appears that all of the neighbors in Joe’s suburban community have their serious quirks and troubles.   There’s a sometimes-happy and sometimes-bickering lesbian couple, Sam and Gloria, and a heterosexual married couple, the Werners, whose son Kevin is a lazy weed smoker with no intellectual or athletic skills.   This is a ‘hood that is seemingly over-populated with drug users and abusers.   One has to wonder how accurate a reflection this is of America’s Finest City and its residents.

The one exception to the group of losers is an Asian couple, whose quiet son shoots hoops and practices the piano for hours on end.   This is a stereotype of sorts, although it’s one that was likely not meant to be offensive.   However, Ginsberg includes a highly troubling reference to Diana, who happens to be half African-American.   Early on, Kevin’s mother refers to Diana as “an uppity pregnant girl who had no business even being in the neighborhood in the first place.”   This is offensive on two counts – first, in using a term that is knowingly offensive to African-Americans, and also in the implication that there’s a “place” within which people of a certain color are not welcome.

Perhaps Ginsberg intended this non-P.C. reference to serve as a reminder of the destructiveness of racism, but she could and should have adopted a more subtle and temperate way of expressing that notion.   Another flaw with the telling is that Ginsberg chooses the rather unfortunate name of Joe Montana for Diana’s father, which makes it seem like some kind of inside joke.   “Joe Montana, like the football player?”   Yes.

One of the key problems with Neighbors is that the story is made needlessly complex.   When Diana surfaces with disastrous consequences for her father’s and stepmother’s marriage, the storyline seems logical.   But then Ginsberg takes it further – Joe suddenly has an affair with a young neighbor and Diana hooks up with Kevin, the worst possible choice for her.   More is not always better.

There’s this dividing line…  A dividing line between the fictional account which feels to a reader like real life, and the feeling that it’s a good effort but there’s a sense of magic that’s lacking.   Ginsberg produced a fine attempt in this novel but it struck this reader as a manuscript rather than as a fully developed work.   It needed some editing, trimming and rethinking.   All in all, the author seemed to be sabotaging herself like the characters in her dysfunctional fictional neighborhood.

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

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Empty Pages

Sometimes, but fortunately not too often, I receive an e-mail from an author or publicist that says, in effect, “Why haven’t you reviewed the book that was sent to you?”   In thinking about this, there are probably a lot more reasons for a book to fall off of the TBR (to be read/reviewed) stack than are readily apparent to the average person.   I’ll go over some of them here.

Please Mr. Postman

Some books get lost in the mail, or mistakes are made in the mail room.   On occasion, I’ve received a book that looks like it shouldn’t have been sent to me but it’s usually from a publisher I know.   That leads me to think that another reviewer has been sent the book that I was interested in.   I’m sure it happens.

Obviously, since the people staffing publishers’ mail rooms are human, mistakes can and do happen.   There was a particular book that I had slotted to read at a specific time and it never arrived.   I brought this to someone’s attention and was told that another copy was going out that evening.   What I wound up receiving was a very nice package with nothing inside of it – no book and no papers.   Good intentions, but no luck.

Oh, and mail is certainly delivered to the wrong place these days.   I now know which of our neighbors receives ESPN Magazine or Sports Illustrated or Power Tools Today based on the mailman dropping them in my box.   It’s not too hard to figure that some of the books intended for me wind up as a free gift enjoyed by a close or distant neighbor.

Time is Tight

When I request a particular book – weeks before a review will appear – I have no way of knowing what other similar books will be released at the same time.   And on this site we deliberately try to review a wide variety of books, not just one of a kind.   So if I request a legal thriller and it shows up when I thought it would, and at a time when I’ve just finished a family novel and a children’s book, I will go ahead and read/review it as earlier planned.   But let’s say that I’ve just read two legal thrillers, and my wife has finished one, when your legal thriller arrives.   It’s going to be put aside because, unfortunately, it arrived at the wrong time.   We don’t want to be known as Legal Thriller Review.   (The same story gets played out for many genres, unfortunately.)

There’s also the fact that books arrive either earlier than expected or later.   Publication dates also change.   I have instances where I’m reading a book for a review to appear shortly, only to find that the publication date has been moved back a few months.   That leads me to close the book.   Contra, I may plan to read a forthcoming, not yet released book by a particular author, only to go to Borders and find out – yes, this did recently happen to me – that it’s been released for sale earlier than expected.   Again, the apple cart gets upset.

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party

Every now and then, for a sense of variety, I agree to take part in a book blog tour.   What this usually means is that I’m sent a forthcoming book and asked to select a date, within a particular window (usually a period of 2 or 3 weeks), when my review will appear.   I usually try to pick one of the final dates available.   If I start reading the book and love it, and everyone whose review appears prior to mine loves it, everything is fine.   But now and then I’m reading a blog tour book that I just do not like.   If I see that everyone else has written a glowing review and mine is going to be the one extremely negative one, I will tell the publicist that I’m pulling out of the tour.   I will still post my own review but on my own schedule.   I have no need to rile things up on the blook tour party.

I’m Down

As I’ve said before, there are some books that I receive and read but I refrain from writing reviews about them.   Why?   It’s generally not that they are bad, just not unique enough to make for an interesting review.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading one of five new Paul McCartney bios that are out this year.   I finish it and find that it’s full of the same stories told in 10 prior McCartney-related books.   Do I really want to write a rather boring review stating, “This book is a rehash of the same old stories…”?   OK, sometimes I will write that but only if I think I can say it in an interesting way.   Often, though, the same old thing is just not worth writing about.

Joseph Arellano

To be continued…

Pictured:  The Neighbors are Watching: A Novel by Debra Ginsberg, which will be released by Crown on Tuesday, November 16, 2010 (and which will be reviewed on this site on that date or earlier).

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