Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Gingerbread Cookie Murder

by Joanne Fluke,
Kensington Books, 2010

This book is a Christmas anthology, and also includes the stories The Dangers of Gingerbread Cookies by Laura Levine, and Gingerbread Cookies and Gunshots by Leslie Meier.

Story one: I was somewhat disappointed that this was not a full-length Fluke novel as the murder had to unfold and resolve so quickly. In this story, Ernie Kusak is the neighbour who gets on everyone's nerves with his loud music and noxious Christmas lights during the holiday season. It's not much of a surprise that he turns up dead near a platter of Hannah's gingerbread cookies. But who killed the multi-million dollar lottery winner? - His ex-wife, Lorna? Another neighbour who'd had run-ins with Ernie? And does the framed lottery ticket in Ernie's bathroom have any link to the crime? I enjoyed the story, but the wrap-up happened too quickly for my liking.

Story two: When Jaine Austen visits her parents at Tampa Vistas for the holidays, she's in for more of the usual: her parents' bickering, showing her off to the neighbours, and overindulging her cat. What she doesn't expect is the death of resident eligible bachelor, retired plastic surgeon, Dr. Preston McCay. Who done it? - One of the several ladies he's strung along? His much younger fiancee? The community handyman? Doc Wilkins? All of them have a reason, and it's up to Jaine to sort out the suspects. I enjoyed this story enough to put Levine's Jaine debut on my reading list, though I did find the addressing of the reader throughout somewhat distracting.

Story three: Lucy Stone is many things - wife, mother, grandmother, and part-time reporter. When local boy Nemo Anderson disappears, it hits Lucy and the community hard. Lucy had met the boy and his mother, Ocean, and knows something of the unconventional life they must lead with Ocean's partner, Rick. As the police conduct their own investigation, Lucy conducts a search for answers, praying all the while for the boy's safe return. Was there really a large black woman in a puffy burgundy coat, who drove Nemo away in a white SUV, or were the lad's mother and guardian in some way responsible for his vanishing? This was my favourite story in the anthology. Not only did Meier include recipes (as did Fluke), but the plot unfolded at an appropriate pace and came to a satisfying conclusion.

Monday, November 15, 2010

In the Company of Others: a Father Tim Novel

by Jan Karon,
Viking, 2010

I enjoyed Karon's Mitford series very much, as well as her first Father Tim novel; alas one doesn't always get equal excellence. While the story and substory are both solid plot lines, this reader experienced some confusion in keeping track of minor characters. This was not helped by the interspersing of current-day plot with journal entries from the past, nor by the fact that Father Tim 1 was published three years ago, and I've read a lot of other books in between.

Readers will enjoy the Irish setting of this novel, as well as the Irish characters. Father Tim and Cynthia have finally made the trip to Sligo and look forward to various jaunts around the Irish countryside. A mishap waylays their plans and they must stay closer to the B & B. This is a boon to the inn's owners, who are going through a variety of struggles and could use the pastoral support. This also gives Tim and his wife the chance to read through an old journal, which chronicles the story of Dr. Fintan and wife, Catherine, who settled in the area in the late 1700s and experienced their own struggles. Both stories wrap up satisfactorily at the end of the book, with Tim and Cynthia promising to return. Perhaps number 3 in the trilogy will be set in Ireland as well. This reader would like that. But she'd also like the author to produce it a little more quickly in order to maintain a better sense of who's who.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

High on Arrival

by Mackenzie Phillips with Hilary Liftin,
Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2009

Sex, drugs, rock 'n roll. There you have them - the key elements of your standard celebrity bio. And Mackenzie Phillips - best known for playing Julie on the sitcom, One Day at a Time - writes about enjoying a plethora of all three, but especially the drugs. Daughter of John Phillips, most notably of the Mamas and the Papas, it was almost inevitable that Mackenzie herself would succumb to the snare.

It's been said - and rightly so, I think - that every girl seeks her daddy's love and approval. But John Phillips was a self-centred man - a man bent on pursuing hedonism to the utmost, as Mackenzie well describes. While she yearned for a close relationship with him, what she often experienced was abandonment. Deeply into the drug subculture, Phillips used narcotics and women freely and without care, and allowed his children to live as they pleased, without any boundaries or rules. When he invited Mackenzie, age 10, to learn how to roll joints for him and his friends, she was a willing participant. Maybe by being useful, she would get more attention. Maybe by emulating him, she would enter more fully into his world. It wasn't long before she was using drugs herself. It wasn't long before her life would enter a downward spiral that would take years to exit.

After reading about many of Mackenzie's escapades, I laughed out loud at her description of herself as "a good girl" (p. 78). It's amazing how we can deceive ourselves, and evident how desperately Mackenzie wanted to be accepted. What's more amazing is that even after years of self-abuse (including drugs and presumably unprotected sex with multiple partners), incest and rape, Mackenzie is still alive to tell the story.

It's a story she writes in order to set out the truth so that she herself might become "real and whole." It's a fascinating, ugly story, full of insanity, bad choices, hopelessness and despair, interspersed with periods of sobriety and well-being. It's a cautionary tale for those who might think the drug life is linked to freedom and fun when it is anything but.

Mackenzie's book sparked a lot of controversy when it first appeared. People don't like to talk about incest. Family members and friends didn't want to believe that Papa John could be quite that depraved. But I believe Mackenzie is right when she says that under the influence of drugs a person will do anything. And so perhaps the best service the book provides others is to encourage discussion of this taboo topic. As the author says:
  • "If nobody ever rocks the boat, if real stories of love and incest and survival are kept behind the closed doors of therapists' offices and judges' chambers, then current and future victims are destined to do what I did, to weather it alone, to blame themselves, to hide behind drugs or whatever other lies and oblivion they can find. It happens, it happened to me, and the desire to preserve my father's legacy is not reason enough for silence." (p. 188)
The book is most suitable for people who can share the author's experience and possibly learn something from it, those who are looking for a reason not to get involved with illegal drugs, and those who feel they absolutely must read all the gory details of a celebrity's life. As for me, I think I'm done with these celebrity bios. But don't quote me on that.