Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

What goes on in the minds of the people who surround us, individuals who are there but invisible, going about their daily lives while we are involved in our own personal minutia so that even if we notice their presence they are an afterthought?

That is the case in the novel Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka, a murder mystery which slowly reveals the guilty party via the personal reflections of three troubled souls who are somehow interconnected within the borders of the small town of Broomsville located in Northern Colorado. Fifteen year old Lucinda Hayes has been murdered on the carrousel at the playground of the local elementary school found by the night janitor, Ivan, an immigrant from Mexico with a criminal past. Cameron Whitley, Lucinda’s next door neighbor, has been obsessed with this beautiful teen, spending his evenings as a stone statue watching her movements. Cameron’s thought processes are a little strange as he has difficulty relating to others, becoming “Tangled” when situations are ltoo stressful for him to handle. Detective Russ Fletcher, a colleague of Cameron’s dad (a man who deserted his family several years previously), has vowed to watch over his former partner’s son keeping a promise to someone who ended up on the wrong side of the law. Cameron fears he will one day develop the evil characteristics which sealed his father’s fate, despite his inner sense of love for his long departed dad. Then there’s Jade Dixon-Burns, a girl who exhibits no empathy, not since she was rejected by her childhood friend who decided he’d rather hang out with the alluring Lucinda than remain cohorts with his fat, pimply companion from elementary school days. Through their collective thoughts the details of that fateful February night are slowly revealed with their paths intersecting as the surprising truth – clearly visible the entire time – finds its way to the surface.

Slowly is the key word. The reader must be patient as each trail is examined to see if it is a true path or a dead end. The bizarre contemplations of theseo three characters lead us to false conclusions time and again, yet within these premises are the clues necessary to solve the mystery. While I was curious to see how the author would reveal the perpetrator, I do wish she was a bit more purposeful and a little quicker in wrapping up a story which left a few too many strings dangling at the conclusion.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears as on Goodreads.

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Shirley Jones by Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones is a Kiss and Tell book told by Shirley Jones, the ingenue who first appeared in the musical Oklahoma with Gordan MacRae. Trying to over-ride her reputation as a sqeeky clean actress, she gives us a peek into her sexual side, with interludes with her costars (mostly innocent) and her marriages to Jack Cassidy and Marty Ingels. Shirley confides that Jack, the love of her life, was well endowed and a considerate lover. Together they had three children despite his philandering ways and their frequent separations as they both pursued their acting careers. While both were successful in their efforts, Shirley compared their relationship to that found in the movie, A Star is Born, especially after she won the 1960 Academy Award as Best Actress for her role as Lulu Baines in the movie Elmer Gantry which signaled the slow road to the end of their marriage.

Jones touches upon her childhood then focuses on her acting career in various roles over the years with an emphasis on her sexual dealings or lack thereof with her leading men. She goes into detail about her marriage with Jack, her relationship with her step son David, and her three sons, Shawn, Patrick, and Ryan. When her marriage to Jack falls apart, she finds love with Marty Ingels, a brash comedian who clashes with her children. There is a sense of foretelling about the accidental death of her first husband, but no expression of guilt that they were already divorced when the tragedy occurred. At eighty some years old, the reader gets the sense that Shirley Jones is still a vital woman ready for any challenges thrown her way.

Whether you enjoy this memoir or not depends on your expectations. I felt like a voyeur listening to gossip about some of my favorite movie stars ranging from Richard Burton to Burt Lancaster to Marlon Brando. While it was titillated reading about Shirley Jones’ sex life, I would rather have heard anecdotes about her acting career and not so much about whether she was attracted to her costar. Her husbands left something to be desired as Jack Cassidy sounded like a scum bag while Marty Ingels came off as crude and disrespectful. She could have made better choices, but I guess love isn’t always rational.

You can tell Shirley wrote Shirley Jones without a ghost writer as the writing is simplistic and repetitive (at one point the same paragraph appeared twice in a row). The stories were not in chronological order, bouncing back and forth, confusing the reader who couldn’t help but wonder “did this happen before or after she appeared in such a such a role”. An annotated list of her various appearances on stage and screen would have been helpful.

After finishing this book, one wonders – leaving us wanting more about her story and less about her intimate relationships. Perhaps there will be a sequel. (My ninety year old mother read this book and was extremely disappointed, as well as scandalized. She wanted to hear more about Shirley’s sons. She gave it one star, but I’ll give it 2 and a half).

Two and a half stars. This review also appears on Goodreads.

All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

Pornography – a shortened up plot focusing on the sex and neglecting the actual story. All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler is just this sort of book, a XXX movie version of literature. Main character Cole is a randy high school student who has mastered the art of wooing the pants off his female classmates. His less successful friends want him to reveal his secrets, but he’s only willing to share the details with his best friend Alec while they jerk off watching “those kind of movies” on the Internet (perhaps one of the reasons the Internet was invented and definitely the cause behind the discovery of the VCR/video camera). Whether from his numerous one night stands or multiple girlfriends of the week, Cole gets a well deserved rep. Yet he doesn’t feel the need to force any of them, they seem to expect his attentions and he is more than happy to oblige, aiming to please and refusing to feel guilty when they express remorse for their lewd behaviors. When a dry spell hits and there’s no girl available willing to risk her reputation, Cole discovers relief with Alec, but ruins their relationship when he returns to pursuing females claiming he is not homosexual, not even bi. Then Grisaille enters his life and their amazing sexual escapades leads to his first actual experience with love. When she dumps him he is heartbroken and can finally empathize with the multitude of girls he’s left behind. As a friend quipped – “The Poetic Justice Series”.

Don’t expect much of a story since, as the title suggests, the content is mainly about carnal confrontations, with short, incomplete sentences and not much of a narrative despite an occasional mention of soccer, art, music, or homework. Unfortunately, I fear there is a limited audience for this sort of book. It’s not quite graphic enough for lovers of porn, but contains too little of a plot to qualify as a story (not even a romance). I’m sure horny teenage boys will find this book entertaining, but the rest of us would prefer to read something a bit more substantial. Someone thought this novel reminded her of a cruder version of Judy Blume’s Forever, but it’s a bit closer to her adult novel Wifey focusing on just the steamy, vulgar sexual encounters. Its “For Mature Audiences” content is not recommended for school libraries, despite Handler’s reputation as a children’s author with his Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events.

Two stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In my neck of the woods we all know about Mary Jemison from the Letchwood Park area in New York State who was captured and raised by the Seneca Nation in 1755. While I’ve wondered about her experiences, I’ve never dwelled on what it must be like to leave one world and enter another. News of the World by Paulette Jiles explores this very issue as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is given the task of delivering a ten year old girl brought up by the Kiowa to her surviving relatives, an Aunt and Uncle from Castroville, Bexar County outside of San Antonio.

After living four years with a Kiowa family, Cicada, newly dubbed Johanna Leonberger, has no recollection of life with her original parents who were killed by her captors. She wants to go back to the existence she knew and is fearful of this current situation, unsure of exactly what will happen next. The 71 year old Captain is reluctant to take on the arduous 400 mile journey, but has an empathy for the wild child. He attempts to teach her the ways of the “civilized” world, but she consistently breaks the rules, unaware of the taboos of society. Slowly Johanna learns a new way of life as they travel across Texas, and eventually she is able to help out the “Kep-dun” by collecting the ten cent admission to the Captain’s read aloud. His job is to go from town to town, reading bits and pieces of articles from newspapers throughout the world. Avoiding local politics, since the Confederacy lost and this is Texas, he deals with information from far away places such as France or the North Pole, talking about inventions which will change the world, and peaking the ranchers’ interest with information about a huge modernized packing plant in Chicago. In this way the Captain is able to eke out a living in the rough and tumble world of the West in the 1870s. Somehow, in spite of rain and the threat of violence, the two seem to get along, building a grandfather/granddaughter bond. The Captain is leery about what the future holds for his temporary ward, but he does his best to complete their quest.

An interesting tale featuring Texas front and center. Full of details of the landscape and weather encountered in their travels, and the politics and lifestyle faced by the slowly growing citizenship of the newly born state, the author creates a setting reflecting life in the post civil war era. In fact, it seems more emphasis is placed on the land than on the people in the story, although all sorts of characters are met along the way (and some aren’t so nice). Jiles throws in quite a bit of historical information about the issue of land ownership in a section of our country which was once dominated by Spain, as well as some background about the various battles of the era using the Captain’s backstory as a justification for including this into her tale.

As in the book Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, it amazes me that in such a sparely populated state everyone seems to know each other’s business, in spite of the vast span between towns. More than once when “out on the trail” the Captain is a recognized by some passersby as “The Man Who Reads the News”, a title which earns him respect (in most cases).

While the relationship between the Captain and Johanna is sweet and the author attempts to create a realistic depiction of the times, I had a few issues with this book. Jiles lack of quotation marks to indicate when someone was talking left the reader wondering what was spoken aloud and what was simply a thought, especially when comments were made in the midst of a paragraph. I also had some questions involving the conclusion and how our hero was able to justify his actions and avoid entanglements either with the law or with his stellar reputation. However, kudos to Jiles for featuring a hero from the older generation. It’s nice to have an author revere their elders instead of stuffing them into a nursing home sitting and drooling quietly while they await their death. Captain Kidd was able to hold his own quite nicely in spite of a few to-be-expected aches and pains. Three and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby

Forbidden Knight by Diana Cosby is a sweet little Scottish Medieval Romance, short enough to read in an afternoon, long enough to be chockful of action. Mistress Alesone MacNiven is under the protection of the rightful King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, when she comes across a group of men on horseback. Not sure if they pay allegiance to Bruce or his mortal enemy, Lord Comyn, she sends a masterful warning shot with her arrow, barely missing the heart of Sir Thomas MacKelloch. Leary of each other’s intentions, Thomas binds the maiden to keep her from escaping so he can verify her story of being the King’s healer. Once truths are revealed, the two find themselves on the way to safety in Avalon to avoid a disaster which would tear Scotland apart. Each has a series of secrets which affect their outlook on life and both feel a growing affection which doesn’t fit into either of their future plans. The road is not easy, not just because of the tough terrain, but also because the enemy is on their tail, and anyone who helps them also becomes a target. While this Medieval tale is full of violence, it is tempered with love as Sir Thomas and Alesone both attempt to reconcile their pasts. Although this is Part 2 of the Forbidden Series, you don’t need to have read the plot of Book1 to gain an understanding of the moral codes of the times.

Although well written and despite the exciting fight scenes, there was a little too much repetition in the intimacy department as the two lovers agonize over their feelings and despair that this is a romance which can never happen. With a lot of teasingly passionate moments, in the end there’s a nice twist which promises a happily ever after in spite of their doubts. The historical background regarding the Knights Templar and the strife over who will rule Scotland is an added plus.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

When my book club was looking for some lighter fare to read I suggested Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty since I have enjoyed her other novels, and then when the regular study leader could not attend, I volunteered to facilitate. Since I was leading the book discussion, I took a more indepth approach to this novel, both reading the book and listening to the audiotape expertly narrated by Christine Lee. (Yes, some might argue the subject of this particular title isn’t actually in the “fluffy” category, but please note that we had been reading a series of books dealing with subjects such as the Holocaust, the War in Sarajevo, plus the Shakespearean Tragedy MacBeth.)

While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the overall reaction was mixed which was also reflected in the numerous reviews I found on Goodreads. Perhaps I can’t change anyone’s mind as to the worthiness of this title, but I can attempt to give everyone an appreciation of Moriarty’s skill in developing the plot.

I presented this as a circular story where the reader is fed bits of information alternating between the past, present, and future in order to develop a complete understanding of the fateful incident at the barbecue. Even better was the suggestion of one of the book club members who called it a mosaic, or a puzzle which we put together as the story progresses, not seeing the entire picture until the very end. Either way, it took a lot of skill to pull it off, with every segment having an underlying meaning as it connected to the whole.

There are two components to the book, a “big” reveal and a series of smaller reveals. Many readers felt the build up to the incident at the barbecue which was not divulged until 60% through the book, was anticlimactic, as if disappointed that the event wasn’t even more tragic. However, it’s those small secrets which truly make this an excellent read. Moriarty’s real genius is the way she develops her characters. As their foibles are disclosed, we get to know them intimately so they become alive in our minds, especially since each of the characters gets to “speak” making the reader aware of their personal thoughts and motivations.

Like in real life, the relationships are complicated. Erica and Clementine’s close friendship involves mixed feelings of resentment and jealousy, but also an intimacy only found between people who have grown up together since childhood. While the marriage between Erica and Oliver is one between two soulmates, Clementine and Sam’s witty banter indicates a love in spite of their frequent spats, often involving their two young children Holly and Ruby. Add in some flashy, gregarious neighbors along with a grumpy old man who finds fault with life itself, plus some “interesting” parent(s), and you have 410 pages or 13 hours of reading pleasure.

Guilt is the theme, as each of the “cast” members has to deal with both the repercussions from the barbecue as well as the angst found in everyday life, while the resolutions from that fateful day changes the dynamics of the couples, leaning towards a promise of healthier future relationships.

With the successful mini series based on Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies being optioned for a second season, keep your eyes on the look out for Truly Madly Guilty to hit the big or small screen as well, especially since Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman have purchased the film rights. One wonders if they will once again change the setting from Australia to California.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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