There's something a little off-putting about this collection of advice columns by Sugar, the once-anonymous columnist for the website The Rumpus who turns out to be Cheryl Strayed, author of the best-selling memoir "Wild." It's not Sugar's advice, which is bawdy, blunt, witty and wise. It's partly that the letters, all of them anonymous, sound like they, too, were written by bawdy, blunt, witty, wise people who in their heart of hearts already know the answers to their questions about love, sex, betrayal, fear, depression and grief. I'm not accusing Strayed of faking the letters; she wrote these columns for free before she became famous, and addresses the question of the letters' perfect pitch by saying the best-written ones were the ones selected to reply to. The main problem with the book is that after dispensing her firm but kind advice to the woebegone in a pithy page or two, she almost invariably launches into a long story from her own life, which tends to overshadow the dilemmas of the poor souls seeking solace. The book can't seem to decide if it's advice or memoir. Still, this very good counselor who loves talking about herself is very smart, and free (once you pay for the book). And when Sugar's good, she's very good -- gently counseling people to be honest with themselves and others, to love and forgive, but to have good boundaries. She advises the emotionally distraught to "lean rather hard into the rational right now," reminds us that "You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule," and even does an admirable job of pondering mysteries along with the theologically bereft. Overall, this collection is a little too sweet (despite all the effenheimers) and a little too sure -- but isn't that what we want from an advice columnist? A smart bonbon of a book, but best sampled in small takes, and with, well, a grain of salt.
PAMELA MILLER, NIGHT/WEEKEND METRO EDITOR
A thriller that combines two murder mysteries and some historical fiction? Yes, please! When the body of a woman is discovered on the former Louisiana plantation Belle Vie, manager Caren Gray is afraid for herself and her daughter. Once a working plantation housing slaves, including Caren's great-great-great grandfather Jason, Belle Vie is now a tourist attraction that provides tours, presents historical re-enactments and hosts weddings and other functions. Caren was raised there by her mother, a cook, and returns with 9-year-old Morgan several years after her mother's death when she runs out of money for law school. Police arrest one of Caren's employees in the murder, but did he really do it? The question haunts her, and she searches for the truth. Meanwhile, questions arise about Jason's disappearance many years ago after a bone is found in an adjacent field. Is it possible that he was actually murdered and didn't run off, as Caren was always told? Finding answers gets more urgent as Caren realizes that she and Morgan are being followed and are in danger. The novel is a thoughtful, well-written and absorbing read with a surprising ending. The historical details about plantations add to the appeal.
JUDY ROMANOWICH SMITH, NEWS DESIGNER