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Book Review: A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel

A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel. Michelle Cox. She Writes Press, April 24, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 378 pages.

Reviewed by Janet Cole.

A Promise Given’s introduction was difficult because of the prolific use of adverbs and allusions to events of which I had no prior knowledge. However, persevering through those initial pages produced rich rewards as I became immersed in the development of the main characters and the evolution of relationships.

Henrietta, our heroine, rises above the poverty of her family and her sketchy previous employment when Clive, a renowned inspector, falls in love with her and proposes. Their age difference is just a minor inconvenience, and her charm and beauty are more than enough to encourage his aristocratic family to look beyond her humble origins. Matters become complicated when Henrietta’s long-estranged grandfather intervenes in wedding plans and living arrangements to restore this branch of the family to a certain level of respectability. The wedding itself is not without its own set of complications when Henrietta’s younger sister and her “young man” each meet individuals that change the course of their relationship.

The story progresses to the honeymoon “across the pond” and a stay at the ancestral English home, now a crumbling pseudo-castle that houses Henrietta’s husband’s uncle, aunt, and morose cousin. A murder that takes place in the nearby village casts suspicion on a variety of characters, including the inhabitants of the country manor. Clive joins the local inspector in the investigation. The tragedy, coupled with the cousin’s mysterious but regular disappearances and Clive’s involvement in solving the crime, create conflict at first, and then bonding. A mutual understanding evolves between Henrietta and her new husband, who concedes that she has the potential to be every bit an equal partner in his investigations.

The setting and certain details of the crime evoked memories of other stories set in similar circumstances. But the author once again made the story her own with the unfolding explanation of Clive’s cousin’s frequent disappearances and his resistance to the wiles and flirtations of the numerous young ladies invited to the once resplendent now crumbling castle.

A Promise Given is a well-told story which, despite the few difficulties I mentioned, had me immersed and wanting more. Well done!



Book Review: Gables Court

Gables Court. Alan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 265 pages.

Reviewed by Sue Merrell.

Gables Court, by Alan Kessler, is the quintessential beach book: fast-paced, entertaining, and tropical. The writing style is easy and dialogue-driven, and the premise and characters are intriguing.  

The story is set in Florida in the 1960s, and it is easy to imagine Miami’s Dixie Highway and the titular motel-turned-apartment complex that provides the setting for the first half of the book. Samuel, the virgin son of a Boston mobster, has moved into the seedy Gables Court to start his first job as an attorney, signing eviction notices for a local firm. He befriends Gary, a student at a nearby college who blows his tuition money on a foolish scam, and the lovely Kate, who’s free with sex for fun but has no desire to find love. Kessler peppers the tale with other interesting characters like the childless, bedridden landlady who collects dolls and demeans her henpecked husband, and Vera, the efficient but acerbic secretary who does all the work at the law firm.

Although Samuel has strong instincts to do the right thing as a lawyer, friend and lover, his nerves and insecurity overshadow everything he does. Samuel moves out of Gables Court as his career grows and he follows his quest to find true love. Reversing the stereotypical male/female roles, Samuel is looking for his happily-ever-after life, while all the women he meets quickly shed their clothes for meaningless sex. This could be an interesting premise, but the author doesn’t follow through since all the other male characters continue the stereotypical locker room banter as expected, leaving Samuel isolated and unable to connect with like-minded males or females. Although the sex scenes are brief and tastefully handled, Samuel has so many sexual encounters over the course of the book, that it’s difficult to track who is who.  

Samuel’s clients, including Haitian refugees and a suspected Nazi war criminal, add to the milieu of interesting characters and plot twists. The eventual resolutions of these legal entanglements are both surprising and satisfying.

Unfortunately, the shallow, sex-starved female characters are difficult to relate to. Even those with strong religious convictions or social justice aspirations were given only a quick swipe. Further, it would have been nice to see more growth for Samuel during the span of a 10-year career.  For one of the last dates in the book, for instance, a lady suggests sailing. Samuel leaves all the details to her, including renting a sail boat and arranging a rescue. He never lifts a finger or a wallet to offer a sailing adventure that might have been more entertaining and less dangerous.

Despite its shortcomings, Gables Court remained an enjoyable read, and many of the issues, such as sexual harassment and immigration problems, echo today’s headlines.



Book Review: Leaves of the Linden Tree

Leaves of the Linden Tree (unpublished review copy). Marydale Stewart, Black Rose Writing, June 21, 2018.

Review by Florence Osmund

Leaves of the Linden Tree takes place in a small Midwestern town, a close-knit community where the pace is slow and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The main character, Corrie, owns the local bookstore. Other characters include fellow local business people, Corrie’s friends and acquaintances, and their relatives. The characters are engaging, believable, and unique.

The book exposes readers to a wide variety of interesting subjects: living in a small town, managing a bookstore, working in a horse stable, caring for horses, surviving a tornado, and trapping feral cats. The most significant issue in the book, racism, is handled in a delicate, constructive manner and embraces acceptance and tolerance of all people.

This book was challenging to review in that it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of a novel with a beginning (introduction and initial conflict), middle (rising action and climax), and end (falling action and resolution). Nor does it include the fundamental element of a novel—a protagonist encountering roadblocks when trying to achieve a goal—making it difficult to determine the plot. Instead, the book consists of many sub-stories told from numerous points of view, many of them compelling enough to be the basis of a novel by itself. One of these sub-stories, Breanna’s story, does follow the traditional structure of a novel and would make for an interesting book.

The first half of the book contains predominately background information and snippets of each character’s life. No significant action takes place until halfway through the book, again not following traditional novel structure. Perhaps a better place to have started this book would have been when this critical action occurs. 

Marydale Stewart has a background in teaching, technical writing, and editing. Leaves of the Linden Tree is her second novel.



Book Review: Poison Girls

Poison Girls. Cheryl L. Reed. Diversion Books, September 12, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 372 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

“My teeth felt gritty, as if I’d been sucking on the couch lint in my sleep.”

Those are the memorable and very noir-like words of Chicago Times reporter Natalie Delaney when she wakes up in a strange man’s house after a night of heavy drinking—all in pursuit of a story. Natalie is the main character in Cheryl Reed’s novel, Poison Girls.  No couch lint here. Poison Girls works exceedingly well as a crime thriller, and it transcends the cop-thriller-procedural genre by at least the distance between Chicago’s poshest suburbs and grittiest neighborhoods. It’s a powerful story framed by what happens when these worlds collide.

Sometimes fiction is the best path to fresh insight. In this case, the story illuminates the widening gulfs in our country between the upper one percent—you know, the ones who were born on third base and think they hit triples—and the bottom 10 percent. Reed understands Chicago’s neighborhoods, its moods, and its cynical, dark corners. And it’s a story with much to say about corruption, not just the official kind that Chicagoans know so well, but the corruption and erosion of local journalism. The rot seems to fester both within and without.

More than anything, though, Poison Girls is Natalie Delaney’s story. She’s a single, thirty-something female journalist coping with the suicide of the one love in her life and the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism inside and outside a newsroom where every reporter worries if today is the last day on the job.

As one of the best reporters in the Times newsroom, Natalie prays she has a measure of job security. She knows how to do whatever it takes to get a story, and she takes pride in her ability to distance herself from her subjects.

But, not this time.

Events, including her own troubled past, drive Natalie to care too much about a pair of young girls who have the potential to help her respond to a mandate from her bosses: Get scoops and put human faces on the opioid crisis.

The driving premise of her editors, along with the rest of the local media, couldn’t be more cynical. Everyone understands, with no need to say it, that a story about rich, white girls dying of drug overdoses in mysterious ways is far-bigger news than the deaths of poor blacks.

The “Poison Girls” are suburban girls from prominent families who are dying from “poison,” a lethal form of heroin, as they journey into inner city neighborhoods seeking riskier highs. Why and how is this happening? Is it revenge by black street gangs, disgusted minority-community leaders, or something even more evil? In a very Chicago-like way, several of the victims are connected to the powerful brokers of local politics. It’s also bad publicity for the city at a time when a senator from Hyde Park is running for president and the city leaders are going all-out to host the Olympics.

Natalie meets Libby and Anna, two teens who are equal parts victims and connectors. It’s the opening Natalie needs, and she works hard to convince the girls to let her observe the journey, never imagining she’ll become a participant. It isn’t long before Natalie is deeply imbedded in a world that challenges her ethics, leaves her deeply conflicted, and puts her career and life at risk.

Writing a literary crime novel requires an ability to respect the genre but avoid clichés (such as “ink-stained wretches”) and pat dialogue. Reed succeeds in all but a few, scattered spots, and the story gets stronger, and more twisted, the deeper you go.

Reed’s comfort with the subject matter makes sense. She’s a former editor and reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, an award-winning investigative reporter and the author of Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, which chronicled time she spent living with nuns. Currently a professor at Syracuse University, Reed drew on experiences reporting drug use among girls for this, her debut novel.

It’s a terrific debut, indeed. Let’s hope Cheryl Reed gives Natalie Delaney more stories to tell.



Book Review: Dog Eared

Dog Eared. W. Nikola-Lisa. Chicago, IL: Gyroscope Books, June 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 336 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Nikola-Lisa uses his yearlong project of sorting and cleaning all the books in his office as a launching pad for an exploration of the joys and challenges of being a self-published author. Cleaning and organizing books may not seem like the noblest of endeavors, but five pages into Dog Eared, you will be dedicated to the project. In another author’s hands, this subject matter could easily stagnate, but thanks to Nikola-Lisa’s humor and wonderfully quirky style, the book is a true delight to read.

Written in short, funny chapters, Dog Eared is at once personal and light. Broken into four sections, each corresponding to a season, the book presents itself as a tour through the self-publishing world, offering insights such as the challenges of marketing one’s own books while also designing and writing them. The real joy of Dog Eared, however, is getting to know its author, W. Nikola-Lisa. Whether he’s sharing the story of how he ended up with his unique name or explaining why he and his wife get mistaken for parking meter patrolmen in their matching yellow bike helmets, Nikola-Lisa’s openness and subtle humor are a pleasure. He shares not only the trials and tribulations of the DIY, entrepreneurial self-publishing world, but also personal anecdotes that create intimacy and familiarity. Dog Eared is laugh-out-loud funny, but Nikola-Lisa doesn’t achieve his humor through cheap gags.

Part of what makes Dog Eared fun to read is that it seems like it was fun to write. A book on the subject of self-publishing could easily devolve into a dry how-to structure, but Dog Eared is far more nuanced. As much as this is a book about self-publishing, it is also a book about what it means to be a writer today. With the consolidation of major publishers and a growing world of indie presses and self-published authors, W. Nikola-Lisa shares how he’s managed to live as a writer. And while the book may take a glib approach to the struggles he faces as a writer, it also celebrates the joy of writing itself, which might be why the book is such fun to read.

Dog Eared is a vicarious adventure for readers, not a how-to guide, even though it’s described as a “romp through the self-publishing world.” If you’re looking to learn how to become a self-published author, there’s very little step-by-step guidance. I found the focus on entertaining a pleasant surprise. And even though this isn’t a comprehensive guide to self-publishing, anyone with an interest in self-publishing will find plenty of useful tips and tricks of the trade.

Ideal for readers with an interest in self-publishing, books on writing, or just folks looking for a good laugh, Dog Eared is a fun and thoughtful book filled with laughs and the joy of writing. Don’t miss out on this delightful, humorous, and heartfelt book.