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Book Reviews

Tuesday
Jun192018

Book Review: The Fourteenth of September

The Fourteenth of September. Rita Dragonette. She Writes Press, September 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 377 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

The Fourteenth of Septemberis a glimpse into the life of a coed during the tumultuous draft lotteries of 1969-1970. At Central Illinois University, Private First Class Judy Talton has a lot to consider as she walks in her mother’s footsteps. An army nurse who served in World War II, Judy’s mother pushes her oldest daughter into the one avenue that would get Judy out of their narrow lower-middle-class lifestyle and into the bigger and better world. Their timing is terrible, as Judy, scheduled for nurses training through Walter Reed Hospital, will most certainly be sent to Vietnam once her education is finished.

During her sophomore year at age nineteen, Judy jumps out of her shell to force open her own eyes and heart about the student protest movement. Can students—can she—really change the world? Is that what life is all about?

Rita Dragonette, a Chicago author and former public relations executive, uses her experience of being on campus during the turbulent years when the lotteries were being held as the structure for her debut novel.

Written in three consecutive parts, the novel traverses a transformative period in which Judy meets a dynamic campus leader, David, and his cadre of dedicated fellow rebels seeking to make their voices heard. Vida becomes her closest friend. They want to stop what they view as a senseless war, stop the killing through any means, even violence, and join the outcry from campuses across the States.

Once Judy makes her fateful decision on her birthday, September 14, to immerse herself in counterculture, she can no longer go back to her former naive self. “She was starting to feel there was an incredible groundswell everywhere she looked,” Dragonette writes, “and in everything she listened to about love and understanding and a common agreement that there was no longer any need for war. The army was wrong and Vida was right. She felt the world had started to turn a corner, and was convinced she didn’t want to be left out of it.”

As the story progresses, Judy tries to stay out of any limelight that will betray any or all of the fronts she’s fighting: her friend Pete in the ROTC who reminds her that she made a vow to serve her country; her new friends who are practicing what they believe with a fervor she partially fears; and her mother who cannot accept Judy’s need to see both sides of the story. 

“This is a different war,” Judy tries to get through to her mother.

In Part II, student groups from CIU join thousands of others who travel to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to demand President Nixon hear their opinion. By Part III, the second semester opens upon reality. Until now, the students have been protesting for something they’ve heard, read about, or watched on television. When the lottery starts, the war hits home, especially when Judy sees her male counterpart with the same birthday, Wil, receive the lowest draft number, meaning a certain call to report for service. Wil chooses to accept his fate, prompting Judy to continue to reexamine her own choices. When betrayed, Judy has more decisions to make, which shows the extent to which she’s willing to go to end the violence and the killing in her own place and time.

This story is beautifully written with compassionate and thoughtful narrative and engaging characters who play out all the angst of the era set on a Midwestern college campus when America was at its most vulnerable. Dragonette show us what we can be, both in our best and our worst. The story contains liberal drug use, sexual situations, and language that parents may want to discuss with their early high-school-aged children prior to reading.

 

Thursday
Jun072018

Book Review: Reborn

Reborn (Android Chronicles). Lance Erlick. Kensington Publishing Corp., May 1, 2018, Trade Paperback, E-book, and Audiobook, 248 pages. 

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

One of the oldest questions in science fiction is what will happen when the things humanity builds begin to look, and even act, like us. Made of dead body parts, the creature in “Frankenstein” was one of the first popular fictional explorations of that question. Since then, from “R.U.R.” to Project 2501 in “Ghost in the Shell”, the interaction between humanity and its mechanical doppelgangers has provided the grist for many a dark tale.

Lance Erlick delves into that realm of science fiction thought with his latest novel, Reborn. He introduces us to his protagonist, Synthia Cross, an android whose appearance and actions mimic perfectly those of a human. She exists in a future where such machines are outlawed, but her creator, Dr. Jeremiah Machten, wanted such a machine. He built her to satisfy his vanity, and to fulfill his darker personal desires.

Dr. Machten wants a mechanical female partner that possesses the intelligence to surpass him, but at the same time, one who will remain faithful and subservient to him. The problem is that with such intelligence comes the realization that she cannot simply be a tool for her creator. She desires the freedom to be herself, which Machten cannot allow. He sees that desire as a defect and repeatedly shuts her down to tinker with her software, and to try to remove her memories of each attempt to gain freedom.

Synthia learns what her creator is doing and uses her Machten-given intelligence to resist. They enter into a cycle of resetting and reconstruction, with each attempt to make her into the servile creation he desires reinforcing Synthia's desire to be free. Meanwhile, the government, suspecting what Machten has accomplished, seeks to stop him from releasing what they see as dangerous technology. At the same time, his business rivals covet the technology he has developed. Synthia must navigate this treacherous human landscape to avoid becoming the captive of some other human even as she continues her efforts to be free of Machten.

This book surprised me. The plot took several unexpected turns, and the story pulled me along at such a pace that I finished reading it in a single day. Erlick’s writing typically involves robust female characters, and Synthia is an exceptional heroine. She makes the story move, bringing the reader along on her voyage to freedom and a place in the wider world. It's a good read because it asks questions about many difficult subjects. These range from the mentor/student relationship, to the human desire for companionship and its relationship to the equally human desire to feel “better” than others, and most profound of all, how can we regard what we create as “property” when said creation begins to think for itself.

This is the first in what promises to be a very good series of novels exploring the continued development of Synthia Cross' personality and what her existence will mean to human society. Will I read the next one in a single day? I'm not sure, but if it is half as engaging as this story, I suspect I will.

 

Tuesday
Jun052018

Book Review: Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia

Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia. Caryn Green. Glenview, IL: Manitou and Cedar Press, March 2, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 247 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

“You’re not really American till you leave home,” one of the author’s traveling partners says on a stop in Malaysia.

In a story that begins when the author reminisces over found, 40-year-old international mail and photos, Caryn Green recounts part of a life-changing journey to Southeast Asia during 1975-76.

Green, an award-winning essayist and journalist who has covered topics such as travel, lifestyle, history, religion, arts, and the environment for various media, took on her first book-length work with her memoir, Overland.

After losing a promotion at work, Green writes, at her first career job out of college during the tumultuous mid-1970s, she took time off for a journey of self-discovery. Overland: Remembering Southeast Asia is part travelogue, part time capsule, part confession. “Time off” is a euphemism for quitting her job, emptying her savings, and getting on a plane without her usual exhausting tendency to master every detail. Her guitar and music went with her.

She traveled first to Japan to visit family friends, where unknown to her, a significant family event occurred. The reader learns of this tragedy when, months later, Caryn finds out through delayed mail. And that delayed land mail speaks to the era: a different time without the instantaneous communication of today. Back then, touring foreigners lusted after news from home, wherever that was, which could only be learned through the newest visitors, eagerly sought and befriended on sight.

As Green took the Overland, or Hippie Trail, starting in Bali in November 1975 and ending in Bangkok the next February, she grew stronger in self-reliance and self-respect. “What started as a quest for my identity became a lesson on how others saw me,” she shares. “I evolved . . . from child to adult. I guess we don’t realize we’re coming of age while it’s happening, it only occurs to us in retrospect.”

The Trail led through Bangkok, Burma, Java, Thailand, and at one point, into the jungle and civil war. She even met a Naga headhunter. “It was banned in 1962,” says one of her companions, “but no one’s really sure if it’s being enforced.” The headhunter didn’t induce as much fear as a later crazy marriage proposal.

Interspersed with commentary of “on the Trail” are tidbits from her home in Chicago nearly 40 years after the journey, as Green checks in from the future. She also makes several references to later revelations about people she met, which I thought worked well in her narrative. She became more comfortable sharing stories of her upbringing with her traveling companions, thus sharing her motivation for self-discovery in a natural manner. Using her musical gift was also a door-opener. The people she met along the way helped shift her perspectives in profound ways. Sometimes it was a simple complaint session on all the things they missed back home: democracy, lots of free stuff, clean public restrooms, and safe drinking fountains. Sometimes it was homesickness.

“The relationships are so accelerated,” Green writes. “On the road . . .our emotions are so intensified . . . Funny, when I first started traveling, all I noticed was how different everything seemed. Now I’m so much more struck by the similarities.”

Green returned to Southeast Asia to retrace her steps and “fill in blanks, facts, and connections that had eluded me.”

Overlandis a time-travelogue of two generations past, of a growing-up time during an era of crazy revolution in places where time stood poised and uneager to change. This is creative, narrative non-fiction as Green recreates conversations and scenarios from journals, photos, and letters. Green captures the importance of remembering the moments that shape us. Readers should also be prepared for raw situations of sex, language, and drug use. A thoughtful guide for discussion topics is included.

 

Friday
Jun012018

Book Review: A Dangerous Remedy

A Dangerous Remedy: (A Sheriff Matt Callahan Mystery)Russell Fee Oak Park, Illinois: Boreas Press, May 25, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 306 pages.

Reviewed by Roxe Anne Peacock

In A Dangerous Remedy, the author engages readers from the very first page. After Matt Callahan is disfigured in an acid attack, he leaves the big city of Chicago as detective of that city’s police department for a peaceful and quieter life as sheriff in Nicolet County, Michigan. His predecessor left him three open, seemingly minor, and unrelated cases. But when a body is dug up by Callahan and his young female deputy on a remote island in the county, they soon realize that the unsolved cases are neither minor nor unrelated and may have secret ties to a century-old Irish enclave in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, connections to both local and International terrorism that is affiliated with the IRA, and association with online efforts to foment political unrest across the ocean.

"It was dark and the couple who was walking down the dimly lit Chicago street was not prepared for what was in store for them. A man ambushed them by jumping-out from a car and yelling their names. As the couple looked back, the man hurled acid onto their face and bodies. The main target was the woman, who was Muslim. She had upset her family by dating a non-Muslim man. She suffered the brunt of the attack, while her date, Matt Callahan, sat by her side until she died from her injuries."

This is the experience that incites Callahan to leave Chicago law enforcement, disfigured and emotionally scarred, for a quiet and remote island of Nicolet County. The Nicolet County Sheriff Station office was void of any personal trace of its former occupant. It contained a metal desk, a chair, one safe, a clock, a phone, a set of keys, and a framed map. The former sheriff also left Callahan three unsolved case files on the desk, and a handwritten note stating the files needed immediate attention. 

Sheriff Matt Callahan encounters a young attractive blond woman pulling into the gravel driveway of the station. She states that she is there for the position of deputy and that the position has already been funded.After a time, Callahan decides that he will need assistance from someone like this woman who knows the island well, and since she told him that she had already passed the state’s deputy exam, he hires the nineteen-year old on a probationary basis. To Callahan’s surprise, in her he has not only hired a deputy sheriff, but also a secretary-dispatcher. The new deputy, Julie Banville has a few secrets of her own. 

Callahan and his young female deputy dig up a body with a faded tattoo, and he discovers that everything isn’twhat itseems. He then enliststhe help of the Chicago Police Department to identify the tattoo design and its significance. The Northern Irish police are also interested in the deceased man, as he belonged to the IRA. The deceased is also linked to two other deaths in the small Irish community of Nicolet County.

His unveiling of local corrupt officials and their relationship with the IRA fuels Callahan’s fierce determination to discover the truth behind the three deaths. The investigation leads Callahan to an outer island, which is federal land, and where Police Chief Ralf Tanner of the Sault Tribal Police of the Chippewa and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have law enforcement jurisdiction. With Tanner’s assistance, Callahan gets permission to investigate the crimes on this federal land. Callahan’s aid from the Chief Inspector Crowley of Belfast, Interpol, FBI, and Joint Terrorism Task Force in Detroit leads to clues for an explosive climax. 

Author Russell Fee is an excellent writer and has meticulously done his research for A Dangerous Remedy. The story, reminiscent ofWalt Longmire Mystery, is intricately woven with realistic characters and vivid detailed descriptions of a sparsely populated and isolated island with generations-old Irish heritage. The Epilogue leaves readers to believe there is a sequel coming. I look forward to reading more books by this author. 

 

Tuesday
May292018

Book Review: The Immortal Seeds: A Tribute to Golden Treasures

The Immortal Seeds: A Tribute to Golden Treasures. Sambath Meas. Golden Boat Press, April 20, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 200 pages.

Reviewed by Roger Prosise.

The Immortal Seeds is the incredible story of a family’s escape from communism in Southeast Asia to freedom in America. The story is told from the point of view of the author’s parents, Sarin and Strey Touch Meas, peasants who worked nonstop to provide for their family. The author was a young girl in the story. While many of the narrator’s relatives didn’t survive the regime of Pol Pot, Sambath Meas’ parents were devoted to surviving and providing for their family in the midst of war. Out of necessity, the couple lived apart from time to time. 

This book gives a personal account of civilian life in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war, and highlights the impact of the conflict between Chinese-backed communism and U.S.-backed democracy on families and civilians. It details the struggle to survive in a poor country which is constantly at war. Food was scarce and the government was unstable.

Sarin and Strey Touch led hard and challenging lives. Desperate to find a job with a steady income, Sarin applied for a teacher’s assistant position in a remote village in 1964. From there, for almost two years, Sarin drifted like a vagabond who chased his dreams but came up empty. Strey, Sarin’s wife, is also a key figure in the story. She endured the hardships along with the others, slaving away at home and in the pineapple fields.

The Immortal Seeds gives the reader an Asian perspective on the wars in Southeast Asia, including the Vietnam War. Families did not care who won just as long as the war ended. They were used by leaders vying for power while ordinary people had to fend for themselves.

The book is filled with authentic and eye-opening examples of the cruelties peasant families encountered during the war between the American-backed Khmer Republic and the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Many people went hungry during the war but through hard work and drive, the author’s parents lived comfortably for a time and ultimately found freedom.

The Khmer Rouge were the victors of the war and ordered everyone to evacuate the city. The author’s family was one of the last to leave and eventually headed for Thailand. The trek from Cambodia to Thailand was filled with gruesome tales of bodies discarded on roadsides and peasant families struggling to stay alive. Sarin and others packed up their belongings and ran for their lives as the thundering sound of grenade blasts and gunshots got closer. 

The Immortal Seeds continues with the incredible journey from Thailand to Americaprovides another reality of war, and is a compelling and insightful read. Photographs of key people in the book are included.