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Book Reviews

Friday
Oct112019

Book Review: Blackbird Blues

Blackbird Blues. Jean K. Carney. Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company, October 1, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 218 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

Blackbird Blues could be considered the story of many characters, but it is chiefly the story of Mary Kaye O’Donnell, a grieving and pregnant teenager who finds herself on the verge of several important life decisions. 

Other characters include: Sister Michaeline, who becomes a mentor to Mary Kaye even though Michaeline is already dead at the beginning of the novel; Lucius, a friend of Sister Michaeline who gifts her diary to Mary Kaye; and Lucius’ son Benny, an inmate at Joliet Prison. Although Blackbird Blues is about a critical juncture in Mary Kaye’s life, the other characters jump hurdles of similar importance, and their lives change in ways that are just as significant and meaningful. 

With her family background steeped in the Catholic tradition, Mary Kaye’s story will likely resonate with Catholic readers, although anyone can sympathize with her reasons for wishing to enter the convent—to focus on her studies and her music without domestic life strapping her down. Mary Kaye second-guesses whether she should have entered the convent, as early in the book she finds herself pregnant and wondering if the commitment she made was in haste.

Although her uncertainty and pregnancy comprise the crux of the plot, these factors do not feel like the core of the book. Mary Kaye’s decision at the novel’s climax seems secondary to everything else that has happened, less of a decision influenced and informed by other events than one she was guided to by an invisible force. The energy of the book might have benefitted from some more evident stepping stones to the end, but life isn’t always one clear, linear path. This is a book for readers who enjoy introspective slice-of-life fiction.

At times, the story’s introspective quality slows the pacing because it feels inserted rather than natural. Conversations often feel like a list of philosophical discourses to work through rather than a dynamic interaction between two people, and, as a result, there are a few instances of repetition or reiteration of an idea that does little to reinforce the emotional plot points. Sister Michaeline’s diary entries are interspersed throughout the novel and provide fun and interesting narrative breaks, but sometimes the length of the passages dropped at one time feel a little too long, and they take away from Mary Kaye's story. Some interesting characters and relationships could have been explored instead, giving them more impact within the story. Author Jean K. Carney lays a detailed groundwork with many interesting plot threads, and I would have loved to see them explored further. 

Blackbird Blues is a coming-of-age novel that will satisfy readers who enjoy life’s crossroads, introspection, and how the connections we make in life inform who we become.

 

Friday
Oct112019

Book Review: A Grammar for Snow

A Grammar for Snow. Richard LuftigUnsolicited Press, July 16, 2019, Trade Paperback, 112 pages.

Reviewed by Lawrence Hartmann.

A Grammar for Snow is a mostly strong collection of poetry by Richard Luftig, a former professor of education. The topics of these poems range widely, from traditionally poetic ones (the stars, the moon, love), to more quotidian, commonplace ones (the poet writing a note to his unemployment counselor; townsfolk at the downtown coffee shop discussing an arriving snowstorm). Many of the poems deal with dying towns in the American West: boarded-up stores, empty streets, and overlooked lands and lives.

From the beginning of the book, I knew I was in the hands of a talented writer. These poems give the pleasures of simple language. They are to be read once, and again, aloud, for the pleasure of the words’ sounds.

For example, in a poem called “West River,” about a town that has seen better days, there are lines like these: “Much later, that night, a lifetime from now, West River people will lie beneath a cold white moon, tucked away in skeletons that used to be towns, dead places like the light years that grow between stars.” 

Perhaps my favorite poem of the collection comes near the end of the book. In “Bolero Silencio,” Luftig marries the ideas of samba dancing to the moon and the stars. The final lines of the poem read, “Sit now wait absolutely quiet among scattered moonlight. Even the prismed sky cannot keep us adequate company. We must dance because we have legs, love because we have nowhere left to turn.”

Of course, the poem doesn’t necessarily have to “mean” anything. In a way, that’s the best thing you can say about a good poem, that it doesn’t mean anything.

Exquisite poems like "Bolero Silencio" and many other excellent ones are published here alongside work of decidedly lesser quality. For example, there’s a poem called “Irrational Numbers,” about numbers that cannot be expressed as simple fractions. The poem ends with these words: “seeking the common denominator to lives we thought would be as easy as pi.” 

Poems like this one border on being cute, and there are a few of them in the book.

What's more, now and then, I came across a few grammatical errors and thought that the book could have used better editing.

However, for the most part, A Grammar for Snow is a lovely collection of poems about the natural world, the human world, loss, destitution, love, and other topics. If you enjoy poetry, I would recommend it. The best poems here will reward repeated readings.

 

Thursday
Sep262019

Book Review: The Healer’s Daughters

The Healer’s Daughters. Jay Amberg. Northfield, IL: Amika Press, July 17, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 311 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson.

The Healer’s Daughters is an intense page-turner that takes its readers on a wild journey through Bergama, Turkey. Focused on the Boroğlu family and what happens when the current political environment intertwines with archeological findings, author Jay Amberg mixes the rich history of Turkey with the modern-day horrors of terrorist bombings, corrupt officials, and lustful greed. Every single page is filled with tension and twists, making this book very hard to put down. 

The novel opens with a terrorist bombing attack in Bergama that kills twenty-three people and devastates the city. Tuğçe Iskan, an employee at the Ministry of Culture, is sent to investigate. She finds an ancient coin in the pocket of a little boy who fell victim to the bombing, propelling her to seek out former colleague and archeologist, Özlem Boroğlu. A year earlier, Özlem found an ancient letter written by physician and philosopher Galen that many believe discloses the location of his treasure. The coin that Tuğçe found may be a part of that cache. The letter and coin put both Tuğçe and Özlem in the sightlines of the Hamit family, who make a living by selling and stealing artifacts. The Hamits will stop at nothing to find the location of Galen’s cache, even if it means hurting Özlem and her family. 

My favorite part of the novel is also the most horrifying. A child is taken from his family to learn how to fight and become a martyr. His storyline is told through his point of view and is devastatingly heartbreaking. The child is brainwashed and willing to die to be “honored,” and his family doesn’t have a choice of whether or not the child should be indoctrinated into the ISIL way. This narrative truly showcased Amberg’s talent of getting into the mind of his characters and creating strong empathy among his readers.

The Healer’s Daughters is rich with Turkey history, cultural descriptions, and flashbacks to Galen’s time that give context around the hunt for his cache. There are many characters in the story, which at times is hard to follow given the number of people introduced who often are only in the story a short time. As a result, at times the narrative feels disjointed and scattered. I would have liked more character development with fewer characters so that I could be more empathetic to their situation and storyline. 

Throughout this story, it's evident that Amberg has a passion for Turkey and Turkish history. He deeply understands the political climate and how to create a realistic world that mixes the cultural aspects of Turkey with the terrorist threats that we are aware of all too well. With twelve books under his belt, Amberg has a knack for building suspense and creating a plot with numerous twists and turns. 

The Healer’s Daughters is a spellbinding story that will have readers on a rollercoaster of emotion as they follow the many characters through terrorist attacks and treasure hunts. If you like suspense mixed with historical fiction and topped with some action and adventure, then I highly recommend this book.


Thursday
Sep262019

Book Review: Invisible Scars of War

Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury. Dick Hattan. Woodstock Square Press, October 3, 2018, 188 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury, by Dick Hattan, is a soldier’s testament of a war that continues to haunt and endure in America’s psyche and conscience, with a greater sense of guilt than pride. The war still haunts many of the countless veterans who served in this “police action,” including the author.

Dick Hattan grew up in a Chicago suburb as a devout Catholic. He attended Catholic schools and eventually enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary. But, the draft stalked him, and he decided to enlist and face the inevitable.

He served in the venerable 101st Airborne for nearly one year at base headquarters. He did not experience combat, and some people denied him the respect given to soldiers who faced the enemy in person. During his time “in-country,” he lived under the constant and real threat of sudden death from artillery, mortar, and enemy attacks of the base. The threat alone was enough to render an injured psyche and wounded soul. 

After his Vietnam service, he attended business school and eventually succeeded in the medical world as CEO of a hospital. But his heart and soul beckoned him as he struggled with his “realization that war is evil and unjust and that I am a man of peace.” He did serve in the war and needed to resolve that inner conflict. He was drawn to help other veterans write their stories, and he realized and revealed his moral injury.

A significant element of his struggle with guilt was derived from the conflicting values of the Catholic faith. The church ignored the commandment “Thou shall not kill” by its failure to take a stand against the Vietnam war until it was near the end. The Catholic Church opposed abortion, viewed it as killing, but did not oppose the killing of young people in our armed services and the innocent people of Vietnam.

He attempted to re-enter the Catholic seminary, but they rebuffed him three times. Faithful to his calling and determination, he achieved ordination in the Independent Catholic Church and then pursued a ministry in nursing homes and retirement communities.

As Hattan tells his story, he draws the reader into his suffering and anguish. One admires his determination to heal himself, and others too, who served and suffered the same moral injury of the soul. His story is inspiring, revealing, and very well told. He adds clarity to why our nation still has a wounded conscience and feels guilty as it struggles to validate a war it never won. Thank you, Dick Hattan, for sharing your story and revealing your heart and soul.

 

Thursday
Sep262019

Book Review: Invisible Scars of War

Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury. Dick Hattan. Woodstock Square Press, October 3, 2018, 188 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury, by Dick Hattan, is a soldier’s testament of a war that continues to haunt and endure in America’s psyche and conscience, with a greater sense of guilt than pride. The war still haunts many of the countless veterans who served in this “police action,” including the author.

Dick Hattan grew up in a Chicago suburb as a devout Catholic. He attended Catholic schools and eventually enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary. But, the draft stalked him, and he decided to enlist and face the inevitable.

He served in the venerable 101st Airborne for nearly one year at base headquarters. He did not experience combat, and some people denied him the respect given to soldiers who faced the enemy in person. During his time “in-country,” he lived under the constant and real threat of sudden death from artillery, mortar, and enemy attacks of the base. The threat alone was enough to render an injured psyche and wounded soul. 

After his Vietnam service, he attended business school and eventually succeeded in the medical world as CEO of a hospital. But his heart and soul beckoned him as he struggled with his “realization that war is evil and unjust and that I am a man of peace.” He did serve in the war and needed to resolve that inner conflict. He was drawn to help other veterans write their stories, and he realized and revealed his moral injury.

A significant element of his struggle with guilt was derived from the conflicting values of the Catholic faith. The church ignored the commandment “Thou shall not kill” by its failure to take a stand against the Vietnam war until it was near the end. The Catholic Church opposed abortion, viewed it as killing, but did not oppose the killing of young people in our armed services and the innocent people of Vietnam.

He attempted to re-enter the Catholic seminary, but they rebuffed him three times. Faithful to his calling and determination, he achieved ordination in the Independent Catholic Church and then pursued a ministry in nursing homes and retirement communities.

As Hattan tells his story, he draws the reader into his suffering and anguish. One admires his determination to heal himself, and others too, who served and suffered the same moral injury of the soul. His story is inspiring, revealing, and very well told. He adds clarity to why our nation still has a wounded conscience and feels guilty as it struggles to validate a war it never won. Thank you, Dick Hattan, for sharing your story and revealing your heart and soul.