Book Reviews

Tuesday
Mar282017

Book Review: Murder on Madeline Island: An Emily Swift Travel Mystery

Murder on Madeline Island: An Emily Swift Travel Mystery. Lorrie Holmgren. Cozy Cat Press, November 18, 2016, Trade Paperback, 274 pages. 

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

When Emily Swift heads to Madeline Island for a romantic getaway with her boyfriend, Chet, she instead finds herself in the middle of Chet’s annual family vacation, a family feud over the drafting of a new will, and a murder investigation. Navigating the awkward social situation and the physical dangers of the island would be difficult enough, but circumstantial evidence also pinpoints Emily as the prime suspect. Can she solve the mystery, clear her name, and convince Chet’s entire family that she and Chet are not, in fact, engaged? Murder on Madeline Island by Lorrie Holmgren is a fun, layered mystery with a likable and engaging protagonist.

The mystery begins when Chet’s grandmother, known as Gram, holds a family meeting, where she announces that she is rewriting her will to exclude everyone unless they can track down her long-lost brother. The family, having never known about this brother, dismisses the whole thing as something Gram fictionalized to stir up drama. Eventually Gram asks Emily, a reporter, to help with the search. She is unable to turn the request down, and this part of the mystery is easily the most engaging. Emily is most sleuth-y when she is looking through records and talking to residents of the island, trying to track down a nameless person from several decades ago. This chunk of the mystery is also when the side-plot—Emily struggling with her feelings for Chet—shines the strongest. Holmgren keeps the love triangle from becoming too cliché by making the two men Emily must choose between (Chet Hamilton and Jack Flynn, a mechanic who lives on the island) legitimately interesting characters, and especially by making Chet ever-so-slightly not perfect. I found myself empathizing with Emily, a credit to Holmgren’s writing talent.

The other Hamiltons do not shine as strongly as Chet does. Although Holmgren introduces and describes all of them, they can be difficult to differentiate since they are all intensely argumentative, on edge, and at times closer to caricatures than to real characters. And although they all have the same motive for the string of murders on the island—changing Gram’s will back so that the Hamiltons inherit without needing to track down the brother or share the inheritance with that branch of the family—the amount of secrets, talents, and additional hidden motives isn’t evenly distributed among them, making the guessing game at the end anti-climactic. The investigation also slows down after the results of Emily’s attempt to track down the family emerge, and the energy in the last chunk of the book feels lower than it should be for a mystery that is otherwise engaging, with several layers, connected incidences, and legitimate stakes.

Murder on Madeline Island is a great read that is perfect for vacation—not least because Emily Swift herself is a travel writer. This is the first in a series of mysteries starring Emily Swift, and I think Holmgren and this series have a bright future. 

 

Sunday
Mar262017

Book Review: October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time

October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time. David W. Berner. Roundfire Books, April 28, 2017, Trade Paperback, 192 pages. 

Reviewed by Michelle Burwell.

Too often we grip so steadfastly to expectations that we miss what is right in front of us. But in October Song: A Memoir of Music and the Journey of Time, author David W. Berner explores how profound and beautiful life can be when we let go of those expectations.

Berner takes readers on a veritable journey, a 500-mile road trip, during which he realizes he is never too old to chase his dreams and yet, sometimes the dreams chased are just a small part of a much bigger picture.

At 57, life for Berner was not what he had expected it to be, and in many ways, it was better. He had recently fallen in love with Leslie, a woman who would open his mind and force him out of his comfort zone. He was consistently writing music again and after submitting to a national song writing competition on a whim, Berner is named a finalist. The catch? He has to perform his song at Rapunzel’s, a music venue with historic music roots in Lovingston, VA.

While Berner is hesitant, Leslie convinces him to go and turn it into an adventure. As the couple drives 500 miles for Berner to play his three-minute song on stage, the trip becomes less about the ultimate dream, that single moment, and more about the journey along the way.

Leslie and David meet old friends, explore the country, and fill the trip with music from their past. The road trip becomes one of those few moments of extreme clarity in life, where something like a nostalgic song can bring what truly matters into sharp focus.

October Song is a beautifully written memoir about love, adventure, and change. It is especially powerful for readers who may be questioning their purpose, confining themselves to some sort of time limit, or limiting themselves by holding on to expectations.

 

Saturday
Mar252017

Book Review: My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago: A Celebration of Chicagoland's Startling Natural Wonders. Mike MacDonald. Downers Grove, IL: Morning Dew Press, December 21, 2015, Large Format, Hardcover, 240 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

The vast majority of the land in Illinois is covered with monoculture—acre upon acre of corn and soybean fields. Ironically, the best nature preserves are found in and around the big city of Chicago, where pockets of unspoiled nature escaped the rush to develop and build, surviving long enough to be protected by the better angels of our nature.

In My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago, landscape photographer Mike MacDonald has successfully captured the beauty and biodiversity of these precious preserves. More than 350 square miles of natural areas can be found in Chicagoland. After paging though this inspiring book, you will want to explore every one of these area gems. In addition, after reading the book, you will be ready to detect the many plants of the areas, distinguish their various landscapes, and discern the rolling seasonal changes that bring so much variety to these wonderlands. You’ll want to do as MacDonald did and build up an “appointment calendar with nature.”

It took an impressive investment of time and knowledge to take the engrossing photographs that adorn this book. MacDonald would stalk his sites—studying the vegetation, weather, and light conditions—until he got just the right image. And that took a deep knowledge of the plants and their life cycles, as well as a keen eye for detail. In one case, he showed how the light shift in just twenty minutes transformed a prairie scene.

The result of MacDonald’s work is shock and awe: page after page of arresting images including wind-blown grasses that doodled smiles in the snow, icicles shaped like a row of champagne glasses along the edge of a steam, and a pearly flower blooming under a May apple’s protective umbrella.

Attractive as they are, the photos are only one of the enthralling aspects of this book. MacDonald has a way with words, which he reveals in rich captions, poems, and engaging essays sprinkled throughout the book. His words convey a wealth of fascinating information about Chicagoland’s flora and fauna: how purple coneflowers explode from rocky kames, how wild lupine provide the only nesting place for Karner blue butterflies, and how the directional leaves of skyward-reaching compass plants can help you when you’re lost.

Readers will also learn about stewardship of the land: how prescribed fire is a conservationist’s most effective ecological restoration tool, and how more than 200 volunteers were able to dig up prairie sod and successfully transplant it nearby. The call to protect and restore nature is strong throughout the book, given MacDonald’s longstanding relationship with Chicago Wilderness, one of the region’s preeminent environmental alliances. 

This book, with its lush photographs, smart layout, attractive design, professional editing, handsome typography, and heavy, glossy paper, knocks the ball out of the park. Unfortunately, however, the cost of these features place the book out of reach, price-wise, for many people. Another shortcoming is that while the book’s title talks about the “Wilds of Chicago,” virtually all of the photographs were shot far from the city. Why skip over the natural wonders of the Windy City, with its lake and rivers, cemeteries and parks, paths and trails? Although not bucolic, the Magic Hedge, Northerly Island, and Caldwell Woods, to name just a few locales, surely offer limitless photographic potential and nature lessons. Also, the book’s glossary is very thin, and an index would have helped readers turn to their favorite flower or forest preserve.

That said, it is inconceivable that anyone will ever match MacDonald’s gorgeous photography, insightful commentary, and astonishing commitment to Chicagoland’s natural landscapes. We are all in his debt and should hope that he will produce another such exquisite tome.

 

Saturday
Mar252017

Book Review: Women on the Brink

Women on the Brink. G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. Self Published, May 27, 2016, Trade Paperback and E-book, 356 pages. 

Reviewed by Gail Galvin.

G. Elizabeth Kretchmer, the author of Women on the Brink, ignites an adventurous yearning we have all experienced in our lifetimes—the dreamy idea of running away. She quotes Edward Abbey:  “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.”

For participants in life who choose to truly live, rather than comply with a safe, “quiet life of desperation,” eventually an “on-the-brink” crisis seems inevitable. Such are the cases woven within this anthology of intriguing short stories. Combined with poetic soul-searching vistas and an extremely versatile literary range between mother-and-daughter-like connections . . . and at times a Quentin Tarantino lingo-like boldness, Kretchmer tells her edgy tales.

As a restless kid who lived in Indiana with a railroad track directly behind our house, believe me, I can relate to many of the characters on the brink. I dreamed many times of hopping on a slow-moving train and wandering off to some crazy new adventure or destiny. Well, readers like me get to live vicariously through these stories and do just that. While reading, I felt the angst, the soul-searching, the brave daring spirits, and the desperation—and always hoped for the best. Yet, like true-life situations, we cannot always expect happy endings. This writer knows that and does not shy away from imperfection, failure, and great sadness at times for her characters. However, many do succeed in securing more fulfilling destinies.

One incredibly wild ride involves a first-day-on-the-job truck driver named Roxanne. Frustrated and on-edge about spending years as an accountant in a “God-forsaken cubicle in the heart of Kentucky,” suddenly she finds herself in a very bizarre, dangerous situation. A skinny, scared teenage girl stowaway in her “Peggy Sue” Class Eight sleeper truck is in a run-for-her-life scenario and begs Roxanne for help. Although her hot-off-the-press trucker’s license and life quickly become in jeopardy, too, she races for the Canadian border. Yet, the “bad people” are in close pursuit and want their precious, moneymaking teenager back! 

The variety of story lines and the flawed, multi-dimensional, realistic characters, make this book a truly evocative, entertaining read. For instance, how often does a young mother admit that she is not embracing motherhood? In fact, she wants to float away on a boat just like Tom Sawyer.

The notion of suicide surfaces in another story titled, “Alligator Poetry.” A mother, with a family, feeling empty inside, wants to end it all—and almost does. However, she recoils from the brink—just in time—thanks to a last minute phone call that offers her a chance for a renewed sense of purpose and self-worth. So Gillian packs her bags, leaves a letter and family behind, and only glances “at all those dead poets” stacked on her book nightstand, before taking off for a volunteer job in Oregon.

Each story—every character—touched my heart. I felt very sad when empathizing with someone’s shortcomings, and absolutely thrilled when a daring soul changed her life for the better. The author of Women on the Brink dares readers to walk in complex shoes—to laugh, love, and sometimes agonize and emotionally bleed right along with the characters she has so masterfully created. 

 

Friday
Mar172017

Book Review: Being in Harmony with Nature

Being in Harmony with Nature. Christopher Viau. CreateSpace, August 1, 2015, E-Book only, 45 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Marohn. 

Being in Harmony with Nature, A collection of Poetry by Christopher Viau is a little gem at 45 pages. Mr. Viau has cerebral palsy but that does not stop him from writing a book on poetry and illustrating it with his own watercolor paintings.

He is not a scholarly poet, nor a poet's poet, but he offers meaning beyond the structured world of academia on poetry writing. He sees the world through a delightfully sweet child-like lens. The author avoids excessive symbolism and mystery in his poetry and instead tells what he sees, all the while marveling at the world around him.

In his poem, “A Valley of Lily,” the line "with a few lilies in a couple of years, they will fill up a field," tells what the future can hold in nature.

In another poem, he describes the bird tapping on his window as a good morning greeting. The author absorbs that simple act and avoids making it complex, mysterious, or symbolic.

To enjoy Mr.Viau’s poetry, the reader has to be unselfish and enter the mind of the author, a man battling a disease. Through those eyes the reader will discover a pure love of nature and a concern for it. His poem, “My Little Green Friends Have Gone Away,” describes the loss of frogs due to the destruction of a pond for the sake of building a strip mall. A Petco store in that mall now sells captive frogs, and this worries him about what humans are doing to the earth.

Is he reflecting a child's voice through simpler impressions that maybe an adult has lost? That is for you to decide. However, he brings what is important without complexities by fresh, simple observations and reflections.  

Finally, he is an artist and his watercolors are a strong addition to the book. His paintings add the complexity to his crisp poetry. You will enjoy this book.