Book Reviews: Still life with plums by Marie Manilla, Danger Comes Home by Judy Alter, and Plan X by Rory Tate

Still life with plumsStill life with plums
Marie Manilla
Vandalia Press, October 2010
ISBN 978-1-933202-60-0
Trade Paperback

Still life with plums is a collection of short stories wherein Ms. Manilla shatters a couple of commonly held, preconceived notions.  I am fairly knowledgeable in the literary world.  I know the lingo.  A short story is like a novel, it has a beginning, middle, and an end, like a novel does; it is just…..shorter.

I treasure short story and essay collections for those times when there is but a small, stingy window of opportunity to read.  Particularly, I love that I can enjoy just a little bit, then move on to That Which Must Be Done without a longing look at a partially finished novel, quietly beckoning me back.

Not so, in this case.

First, Ms. Manilla’s collection of short stories is equivalent to a bag of Lays’ potato chips…..I can’t be the only person that remembers the “Betcha can’t eat just ONE!” commercials.  Despite the fact that the stories are completely stand alone, I could not read “just one” story at a time.  Instead, my vegetable soup boiled over, clothes wrinkled in the dryer, and at one point, I am pretty sure I let the shower “warm up” for about a half an hour, because…. I. Could not. Stop. Reading.

Each tale is totally different from what I’ve come to expect in a “short story”.  These yarns don’t have a nice beginning, identifying a goal with a tidy, closure-type ending.  Rather, the reader is treated to a glimpse into a story well under way.

For example; the very first story, “Hand. Me. Down.”, captures but a moment, in the day of the life, of a family as they pile into the station wagon (with paneling) to retrieve a relative from the train station.  In 18 pages, I was moved beyond belief.  I was in that car, sharing an identical background with this family, I was invested and immediately empathetic.  Sadness and rage battled inside of me as I turned the pages, knowing that no matter how the story ended, I knew how the lives of the car riders would end up.  How does Ms. Manilla do this?  I do not know.

Every single story in this collection is just as engrossing.  The main character, Lucky Baby, from Crystal City, is so remarkably crafted that I simply can’t get her out of my mind.  The woman that came from less than nothing made no move to have such a fabulous life, she “lucked” into it….well, sort of.  Actually, her willful determination to hear only the positive allowed her to create her warm, fuzzy place in her world.  She manages to become so set in her resolve, that everyone around her compulsively feeds this image.  I find this devastating, and I can’t stop the internal battle of wanting to seek this fictional person out for a giant hug, or a well-earned shoulder-shake.  That part doesn’t matter. My point is, more than two weeks and four books later, Still life continues to haunt me.

Treat yourself and/or a friend, with this captivating, fascinating collection of stories. I promise that you will be glad you did.  Me, well, I’m counting down the days until June 17, 2014 when Ms. Manilla’s Patron Saint of Ugly is released.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013

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Danger Comes HomeDanger Comes Home
A Kelly O’Connell Mystery
Judy Alter
Turquoise Morning Press, July 2013
ISBN No.9781622372478
Trade Paperback

Kelly O’Connor is a mother, a wife, and a real estate salesperson, with a nose for trouble.  Kelly is lucky in that she has some very good friends who help out in a pinch and Mike Shandy, her husband, is a police officer who lends a hand when necessary.

Kelly’s current project is attempting to convince reclusive diva Lorna McDavid to allow her to list Lorna’s residence or at least remodel.   So far the only thing she has convinced Lorna of is that Kelly is more than capable of doing her grocery shopping and any other chores Lorna thinks up for Kelly to handle.

When Kelly begins to discover that food items in her own home are missing she goes on alert and finds that her daughter Maggie has a young girl with wrinkled clothes and stringy hair stashed in the family’s guest house.  When Kelly talks to the two girls, she discovers that Jenny Wilson is terrified of her father and has run away from home and Maggie has taken her in.  It seems that Jenny’s father, Todd Wilson, is supposedly in some kind of banking business and strange men come to the house at night to conduct their business.  Todd also has been violent with Jenny’s mother Mona.

Keisha is Kelly’s assistant and friend and is willing to step up and help Kelly not only with Jenny’s problems, but to try to find out what is going on with Joe Mendez, another of Kelly’s protegees.  Joe is running around with his former gang friends and his wife is terrified.  Keisha also steps in to help out Kelly with Lorna McDavid.

Mike helps in any way he can without putting his job as a police officer in jeopardy.  Judy Alter has given this reader a fun read and I know any friend of Kelly’s would never have a dull moment.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, March 2014.

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Plan XPlan X
Rory Tate (Lise McClendon)
Thalia Press, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1490384009
Trade Paperback

Let me start by stating plainly this is a terrific novel. It is riveting, moving and deals sensitively with the regeneration of the soul of a young infantry Second Lieutenant from Montana. Cody Byrne is our main character, back from a tough tour in Afghanistan where she had a close encounter with an IED. Rescued, she returned undamaged in body but torn in soul, to a town where she is becoming a respected police officer.

It develops that her father whom she doesn’t know, works for a mysterious British agency and her brilliant mother a scholar, long separated from Cody’s real father, appear to have questionable roles in a convoluted, international plot.

A bomb destroys a lab at Montana State University in Bozeman. Cody Byrne is assigned to track down the family of one of the victims, a British national member of the faculty in literature. His name is Agustin Phillips. Augustin Phillips is a name known to Shakespearean scholars.

Cody soon discovers that little concrete knowledge about Augustin Phillips is to be had in Bozeman, Montana. His personal records are spare, suspiciously so. All of that makes Cody Byrne, a conscientious cop, all the more focused on finding and notifying his deceased relatives.

The trail ultimately leads Cody first to Quantico, then to The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and London and the hallowed stone halls of some of the world’s great institutions of higher education. In addition we are treated to some interesting insight into the murky workings of several dark security agencies. And all the while questions of Shakespearean authenticity looms over the entire plot.

Now, I admit to being a Shakespeare groupie. I tend to skate over problems in anything directly related to the Bard. And there are problems. At times, the author’s interest in the psychological dimensions of Cody’s family situation interfere with the forward progress of the story, or maybe it’s the other way around. Characters seem to show up at times when they are vital to assist Cody. She is rescued by outsiders perhaps too many times. But she is strong and  perseveres and, importantly, she begins to see how her relationship with her parents affected some of her life decisions and now, how the reaffirmation of family ties is hastening her healing.

There are a lot of ends in this novel, some of which are loose and some of which are tied up very satisfactorily. The cover is not indicative of the circumstances of the novel and was a poor choice. Nevertheless, the tension persists in fine form, character exposition is excellent and I was very satisfied with this unusual crime novel.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.