Book Reviews


Book Review: The Pyongyang Option

The Pyongyang Option. A.C. Frieden. Avendia Publishing, March 29, 2019. Trade Paperback and E-book, 468 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

If you want a fast-paced thriller that parachutes you into intriguing and dangerous places, A.C. Frieden is your guy.

Frieden’s ability to put readers into exotic locales is on full display in The Pyongyang Option, the third book in Frieden’s series featuring Jonathan Brooks, a globe-trotting attorney with the instincts of a master spy. Brooks’ decision-making and feats of daring can seem implausible at times, but you’ll root for him to succeed—it’s fiction, after all. 

As the story opens, Brooks is in a bad way. Hurricane Katrina has devastated cash flow to his New Orleans law firm, and he’s obsessed about the breakup with his ex-wife, Linda Fabre. Although they stay in touch as friends, she rebuffs his efforts to reconnect. Linda, a talented broadcast journalist, has had her major setbacks. Now she wants to focus on a reboot of her career with an overseas assignment that will eventually take her with a group of reporters to North Korea.

Desperate for clients and wise in the ways of international business deals, Brooks agrees to help a software company seeking a murky-but-lucrative partnership in the Ukraine. He flies to the old city of Kyiv to link up with the client’s top executive, former U.S. security official Kevin Wyatt, but Wyatt never shows up, putting the deal at risk. 

Brooks seeks help from a sketchy U.S. diplomat and soon learns Wyatt has entangled him in something much darker and more sinister than he imagined. Brooks and the diplomat are ambushed as they search for clues to Wyatt’s disappearance. Brooks barely survives as he uncovers clues to a network of web hackers and Korean operatives secretly operating near Chernobyl, concealing their illegal activity in the sealed-off, radioactive area. 

Linda lands in Pyongyang for an exclusive interview with a key North Korean leader as peace talks unfold between the U.S. and North Korea. Frieden portrays fascinating sequences in which the U.S. president places his political success ahead of the lives of individual citizens. When Linda's questions and actions put her in severe danger, Brooks decides he must try to get to North Korea himself.

The North Korean scenes are particularly well-crafted and haunting, demonstrating the power of fiction to bring real-world conflicts and settings to life, and showing how the unexpected actions of individuals can have far-reaching consequences.

Frieden conveys authenticity and lurking danger in exotic settings, many of which—including North Korea—are isolated and forbidding areas the author has visited and toured personally. For example, here is his description of the Ryugyong Hotel in the North Korean capital city:

“The sharply pointed pyramid-shape of the Ryugyong Hotel pierced the dark stone sky like a dagger thrown at the heavens. Some, however, might say it was a middle finger thrown at the world, as the massive 105-story tower, with its planned revolving restaurants and entertainment facilities, remained a ghostly, unfinished structure for the last two decades and symbolized the dictatorship’s unaccountable, unrepentant and unforgivable excesses.”

The story ends abruptly, with more than a few unresolved issues after 400-plus pages of buildup and a powerful climax. A key North Korean character is left out, but perhaps the author needed some dangling story threads to weave into the next book. Even in a genre in which strong plots matter most, the dialogue could be stronger and less cliched in spots, and some characters could be less stereotypical. While backstories that refer to events in earlier books are necessary for new readers, they sometimes slow the story unnecessarily. The author should correct the scattered missing words and other typographical errors.

None of that takes away from the strong sense of place and fast-paced plotting that make The Pyongyang Option a worthy thriller. Readers will look forward to Jonathan Brooks’ next adventure.



Book Review: The Rooming House Diaries

The Rooming House Diaries: Life, Love & SecretsBill MathisRogue Phoenix PressJune 17, 2019Trade Paperback and E-book479 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

The Rooming House Diaries is an absorbing novel far superior to what one might expect from its title. The novel, Bill Mathis’ second, is a saga about a boarding house. Mathis describes the book as follows:

Six diaries and correspondence are discovered in an old rooming house in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago. The diaries span the 20th century and are written by the original owners, their children, and several roomers amidst the historic events, the demographic changes in Chicago and the nation.

Mathis’ narrative is a delight to read, and his mastery of character is impressive. Although the novel is episodic and driven by character rather than plot, the story-telling rarely lags and the large and diverse group of characters, mostly ordinary people, is artfully handled. 

The novel is nostalgic, sentimental, and mostly cheerful but doesn’t avoid visceral realities. In some sections, the book veers towards being a kinder and gentler Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby’s harsh masterpiece set in mid-century New York City. Mathis is so accomplished at what he does well—writing a page-turner about daily life in 20th century Chicago—that one cannot help but wonder about the novel’s one limitation: the lack of a strong point of view.

The characters are uniformly intriguing, and some are memorable, such as two former sex workers: Walentina, a Polish immigrant born into prostitution, and Manny, a gay Hispanic man who is disabled from childhood abuse. Yet, a writer of Mathis’ talent seems capable of delivering an even richer novel. Readers have taken many literary treks through this period of history. To fully “lift the soufflé,” we need the author’s unique take on the times—the subjective resonance authors like Selby or Theodore Dreiser or Armistead Maupin, to cite a few relevant examples, would bring to this type of story. A bedrock cheerfulness and a background focus on social inequities, while useful, are not enough to fully frame Mathis’ perspective.

Still, only a superior writer would be subject to such criticism.The Rooming House Diaries is a gripping and compelling read from an accomplished writer.



Book Review: True Course: Lessons from a Life Aloft

True Course: Lessons from a Life Aloft. Brigid Johnson. Outskirts Press, April 25, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 326 pages.

Reviewed by Deb Lecos.

True Course is a work of non-fiction and is centered on discovering, accomplishing, and living an intrinsic dream. 

People have unique passions: playing an instrument, art, growing particular strains of cucumber, or as described in this memoir’s story-chapters, piloting an airplane. Brigid Johnson has written an inspirational book about spending many of her days aloft. Told with humor, insight, and a poetic voice, the author carries the reader along as she first learns to fly and with her side-by-side teaching and lyrical stories about flight.

Brigid strives to answer the question “How does one renew their spirit?” by relentlessly pursuing what the spirit wants. For this aviator-writer, that meant “looking up to the heavens to recharge . . . the smell of aviation fuel . . . and the roar of a Stearman’s Lycoming R-680 engine . . . a symphony of wonder.” 

For the author, renewing the spirit first became necessary when at the young age of four, her mother began a lengthy and difficult battle with cancer. A cherished toy airplane given to her by her father transferred a feeling of flight while going through what she describes as “. . . a dark sky from which the air is so dark and thick it’s hard to draw a breath.” The small, winged craft was managed by a control stick from inside the moving family car while strung out a partially opened window; it gave the child the sense she could fly. From this young girl’s backseat cockpit she could make the plane dive and climb, imagining she was aloft too.

For Brigid, when she flew, there was a discovery that was “almost empowering in its perspective,” going even further to wonder if birds felt the same. Through a series of vignettes, she continually returns to the natural world and her faith, and the lens they both provide for viewing her life from childhood to adulthood, with the symbolism of water and air as quotidian word-scape features.

For the author, the act of flight changes when it transitions to becoming a method for earning a living. As a college student, she began teaching others how to fly planes. The amount she made depended upon whether someone wanted to learn to sail the skies or if the skies would cooperate. Later, as a commercial pilot, the job necessitated navigating the quirks of co-pilots within the tiny space of the cockpit. After 9/11, when planes were purposely crashed, killing 2996 and injuring over 6000 people, the tragedy shifts her employment direction. Having observed that monumental moment in American history, Brigid realizes that none of us knows for certain what might come next. With her father needing supportive care, she decides to shift her career from the sky to the ground, and into a form of law enforcement.

Throughout the narrative of this aviator’s life path—deaths, loves, schooling, career changes, hardship, and rescue dog companionship—the author weaves in wind currents of flight, metaphorically projecting wings with her words. The reader is seated in the cockpit as she views events from above and alongside, following her map to letting go, grieving, remembering the joy, developing new interests, and mentoring others with what she has learned.  

When it’s time to leave piloting as an occupation, Brigid manages to see the benefits and drawbacks to this career, giving both viewpoints to a friend considering the same endeavor. She shares the thrilling sense of freedom she felt in the sky, the toll a life of flight can take on relationships, and how airports and the lift of a pilot aren’t always that great. She says to the young man, “What is it that makes you complete? What is it that will give you the life you want and I don’t mean prestige, or income, or titles? Grab your destiny and forget what others think.” 

Unfortunately, this is likely a rare form of counseling offered to those considering a new trajectory. Wouldn’t this world be far more interesting, have greater potential for joy, and create more diverse thinking if we began our day or made a decision using Brigid Johnson’s approach—What is it that our spirit wants? Perhaps, “renewing” our spirit, as she suggests on the first page of her memoir, would then become second nature. 

A life aloft, indeed.



Book Review: Way Station & What Does A Question Weigh? 

Way Station & What Does A Question Weigh? Wes Payton. Adelaide Books, April 16, 2019, Trade Paperback, 202 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna. 

Wes Payton’s latest publication, Way Station & What Does A Question Weigh? is a book of two plays. Anyone familiar with Payton’s unique way of looking at the world will not be disappointed. His complex work simultaneously enlightens and entertains.

The first play, “Way Station,” concerns itself with a one-hit-wonder of a novelist looking back on his life twenty years after the publication of his lone success. The protagonist, known as Frieze, relives his past while contemplating suicide. The story is told in three acts. The play features a nonlinear narrative, with scene one in each act taking place in a present-day, shabby barroom. Scene three of each act takes place in the same barroom, only twenty years in the past. The second scenes in all the acts take place in Frieze’s mind.

While Mr. Payton is never afraid to tackle uncomfortable subjects, he couches his writing with smart, funny lines that catch you off guard. I would find myself pitying the characters just before I burst out laughing at something one of them said or did. Speaking of the characters, along with Frieze, they have names such as Ease, Sleaze, Cheese, Louise, Wheeze, Geeze, and Please, which gives you an idea of the playwright's off-kilter predilections.

The second play, “What Does A Question Weigh,” revolves around a character named Tralf, “a self-described time-traveling anthropologist who is studying the people of our time in the hope of finding a cure for the lethal ennui that plagues his time.” He becomes entangled in an investigation into the disappearance of the wife of a wealthy industrialist—someone he knows well. Throughout the play he interacts with members of the Chicago Police Department, including a hard-boiled detective straight out of 30’s film noir; if the film had been co-directed by Lewis Carroll and Timothy Leary. The detective, as well as most others, have trouble believing he is really from the future. Along with the police, other characters include agents of the FBI, Tralf’s Blographer (blogger-biographer), and a young anarchist.

By looking at our world through the eyes of an outsider, the author skewers many of our foibles and questions things we take for granted. Why is a plastic spork referred to as silverware? As in the first play, the clever dialogue sneaks up on you and gives you an entertaining and thought-provoking way of looking at the world.

I would love to see these plays performed on a stage, but having said that, they are both excellent reads. As in Payton's other works, these plays can be appreciated on more than one level. As pure entertainment, they excel, but they also point out absurdities all around us. I highly recommend Way Station & What Does A Question Weigh?


Book Review: Fear Naught: The Junk Drawer of Poetry

Fear Naught: The Junk Drawer of Poetry. Owen Patterson. Chicago: Brevis Publishing, June 11, 2019, Trade Paperback, 128 pages.

Reviewed by marssie Mencotti.

Fear Naught is a lovely book of poetic musings—sometimes sensitive in tone and sometimes sweet, but never mean or cruel. The six sections of the book are entitled “Flow” (the passage of time), “Silence Tucked into Clamor” (finding peace in chaos), “Art in Life” (beauty and inspiration), “Paradox” (things are not always what they seem), “Posts” (from blogs and thoughts of the poet), and finally, Coda (the poet putting together his philosophy and musings at the end of the book).

Owen Patterson has worked as a tutor, special ed paraprofessional, and behavioral health counselor. He has been writing poetry and short stories since childhood, but only recently published his works. He brings much of his experience and caring nature to this book, which will appeal to those who appreciate thoughtful discourse through the discussion of poetry. Each poem contains a conversation intended to be had with someone whose opinion you value.

There were several poems that I will never forget. One is “Pebbles and Flow” (Flow) because it perfectly captures interpersonal changes we can make to one another and their subsequent consequences. We flow around one another and change each other through erosion, but one of us will always “flow around” past us. There is another musing on the impermanence of love, written in Spanish (with translation), entitled “To Dream of the Beautiful Lady” which permanently touched my heart. 

I found favorites in every section. Patterson watches the world and shakes it down to words we understand. Don’t miss reading the poem “Abandoned,” the entire section entitled “Posts,” and the poem “Look Back,” which is a sweet and simple reflection on the permanence of our planet. “Look Back” opens with the line “a Hammer . . . everything looks like a nail.” This tiny hidden gem discusses gun control and guns in the hands of those who do not understand the consequences of that mindset. So succinct, yet so powerful.

There isn’t an untouched area of poetic musing in Fear Naught. The poet brings light to many of his inner reflections regarding faith and politics, home life and universal experience, personal affection for the world and his beloved Karinn, and thoughts that come straight from the heart for each of us to consider. Try on the emotional punch of “The Shady Maybes,” a poem that unveils human indifference to people in pain. Owen is an honest un-sugar-coated poet of his truth who has something to say to us in every poem. 

I found this collection both charming and profound. If you are a lover of poetry, this small book will give you plenty to think about and enjoy.  Every time you open it, you will find something inspirational, loving, and well done that will touch you in unexpected ways.