By Elizabeth Little. (Viking, 384 pages, $26.95.)
From the opening lines — presented as a CNN breaking news alert — "Dear Daughter," by Elizabeth Little, makes clear that this is not your mother's mystery. The clever, prickly and profane heroine is, after all, a former It Girl whose aim as a teen was to be the next Paris Hilton, only better. Or worse. Or whatever. Janie Jenkins, in fact, has already served 10 years in prison for the crime she's trying to solve, the murder of her mother, socialite Marion Elsinger.
Freed on a technicality, Jenkins chops off her trademark locks and goes undercover to find out who murdered her mother — knowing that the perpetrator may actually be her. (She's forgotten most details of that night.) Because her mother's life was shrouded in mystery and lies, getting to the bottom of the crime means tracing clues back to her mother's roots in small-town South Dakota.
Some readers may find Jenkins first-person narration sassy and lively. However, there's irony in her calling one character a "mouthy bitch" before going on to eviscerate every limp salad, poorly decorated room and dowdy, boring Midwesterner in her path. Instead of epigraphs, each chapter begins with a snippet of a text conversation, trial testimony, a string of Twitter posts, etc. It's a highly effective technique that adds context and helps propel the story line.
Understanding the roots of this toxic mother-daughter relationship and finding the killer challenge the former celebutante as she eventually makes friends in town. A sample of Janie's caustic narrative: "So I've decided we should be friends," she says. "How do we do that?" The book's satisfying conclusion somehow manages to tie things up while also providing a cliffhanger, a pretty neat trick for a debut novel.
Elizabeth Little will be at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore, 604 W. 26th St., Mpls., at 7 p.m. Thu.
COLLEEN KELLY, mobile and social media editor
By Joshua Zeitz. (Viking, 400 pages, $29.95.)
Imagine an American president with a staff of only two. President Obama has more than 100 staffers to answer mail, schedule his day, talk to the press, etc. Abraham Lincoln had two: John Nicolay and John Hay. And they knew Lincoln better during the Civil War years than anyone but his immediate family.
Decades later, the two wrote a 10-volume Lincoln biography that drew on papers, notes, letters and their memories of life in the White House and their daily association and friendship with the nation's 16th president. In doing so, they fought to change the growing revisionist history of what brought North and South to blows in 1861. Rather than blaming slavery as the cause of the Civil War, prominent Southerners had began crafting a new narrative in which "everyone was right and no one was wrong," historian Joshua Zeitz writes in this dual biography of Nicolay and Hay. Secession had been a legal response to incursions against states' rights, they claimed.
Not so, said Nicolay and Hay.
Hay called the war a struggle between despotism and freedom, "between the thralldom of public opinion and liberty of conscience; between the greed of gain and the Golden Rule of Christ."
While I longed to learn more about what Abraham Lincoln was really like, the book put me in the Civil War White House when two young secretaries from Illinois tried to protect their boss from a never-ending siege of office seekers and worked round-the-clock to help him manage an absolutely impossible job.
Pamela Huey, copy and wire editor