Book Reviews

Thursday
Mar092017

Book Review: Holocaust Postal History:

Holocaust Postal History: Harrowing Journeys Revealed through the Letters and Cards of the Victims. Justin Gordon. Six Point Watermark, 2016, Hardcover, 170 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Johnston.

To maintain a free society, the free flow of information and the ability to communicate with fellow citizens is critical. Many of us have heard stories about Adolf Hitler’s brutality toward his citizens and his ruthless military campaigns after he rose to power in Germany after World War I and leading up to World War II. However, the limitations on communication that were in place under his rule are a big reason why he became so powerful.

Justin Gordon provides some insight into this aspect of Holocaust history with his book, Holocaust Postal Journey. The book tells the story of the Holocaust through stamps, postcards, and other mail from this era. Gordon does a good job of providing basic background information about the Holocaust while describing the various ways the Nazis monitored and censored mail during this time. He illustrates how the Nazis placed rules on what could go through the mail, enforcing them through the use of censor markings, censor tape, offices that examined mail, and even chemicals that tested paper for hidden messages. The author provides many examples, with vivid color images. He frequently shows how Jews were particularly targeted, though he doesn’t spend much time describing how other groups Hitler targeted were affected by the regulations.

Particularly touching are the stories of the people who wrote and sent these postcards and mailings. One of the author’s strengths is that he personalizes the stories of Holocaust victims and helps the reader to understand the brutal conditions these victims faced. Prisoners generally weren’t allowed to say negative things about the Nazi regime, and the government was careful to hide their brutality from the outside world. But Gordon provides extensive background information about the prisoners that helps us to understand what was really happening. Another important theme throughout the book is how the mail was used to provide relief to the persecuted Jews, including helping prisoners find loved ones and victims receive food and other goods. In short, Gordon successfully shows how censorship of mail both contributed to Hitler’s goals and made it difficult for his victims to get help. But while there are many heart-wrenching stories, there are a few positive ones as well. 

At the end of the book, there is a glossary of terms, with color photo examples, along with images and descriptions of many of the stamps that were in use during this era. These last sections help tie the book together and serve as a useful reference resource for those who need a refresher on the various terms used throughout the book. Readers can read the book from cover to cover, but it’s also the kind of book that readers can spend a lot of time studying and bouncing around between the different sections.

Overall, the book was easy to read, visually appealing, and filled with many interesting facts and stories. Given all of the information about the postal aspect of Holocaust history and the frequent use of philatelic terminology, the book is most likely to appeal to stamp and postal history enthusiasts. However, anyone interested in World War II history, novices and experts alike, are likely to find plenty of rewards in this book as well. I imagine that it would generate some thoughtful conversation between both stamp collectors and history buffs. Gordon obviously has a deep passion for this topic, and I’d recommend that anyone who shares his passion read this book.

 

Thursday
Mar092017

Book Review: The Whistleblower’s Concierge

The Whistleblower’s Concierge. Janet Feduska Cole. San Jose, CA: Pegasus Books, February 7, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 213 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

The Whistleblower’s Concierge is the third installment of Janet Feduska Cole’s History, Mystery, and Stamps trilogy. It is the ambitious story of a young female adventurer and journalist, Elyse, who is seeking the answers to a mystery that goes back to WWII and finds herself attempting to help a government whistleblower escape the country. Chased by a determined, unscrupulous bounty hunter and government agents, she struggles to get the young man out of the country to safety while uncovering clues central to the series’ larger mystery: the location of valuable stamps lost to the Nazis.

As the chase proceeds, Elyse is faced with burning questions. Is the Whistleblower who he claims to be? What will saving him mean for her own fate? Maybe most importantly, will she ever solve the puzzle of the Lunersee Stamps before it’s too late?

Assisted by a cast of unusual characters from her previous books, the author’s adventure takes us to Chicago’s Field Museum, Bolivia, the Allagash Wilderness of northern Maine, Halifax, and finally to an eerie Swiss chateau. There, one mystery is solved, but another (presumably for future tales) is uncovered.

Cole raises many intriguing issues, ranging from the ethics of whistleblowing to an alternative history of the Knights Templar and the nation of Switzerland. In many ways, she’s working in the tradition of Dan Brown and others who use ancient symbols and history to educate while telling a modern adventure tale. Unfortunately, her desire to give us lots of excellent, carefully researched information sometimes gets in the way of good story telling.

A thriller like this requires breakneck pacing and natural dialogue. Much of the dialogue in The Whistleblower’s Concierge does a good job of giving us information and exposition, but serves more as exposition than true character development or insight into motivation. As writers say, there is more “tell,” than “show” here. That’s unfortunate, because there are the bones of an exciting, interesting story here, they just get buried in the detail and plot development. Additionally, there are some “point of view” discrepancies that often jar the reader from the moment, just as things are getting exciting.

Patient readers will find a story unlike any they’ve read before. The heroine is brave and resourceful, the philatelic themes certainly haven’t been covered in other thrillers, and there are some theories about modern European politics sure to raise eyebrows. The book even includes several recipes in the back for meals the characters ate during the book. Dan Brown never did that.

If The Whistleblower’s Concierge fails to live up to its ambitions, it’s because my expectations were set very high. The research that goes into Cole’s work is evident on every page, sometimes to the detriment of the action and character development that make this genre so popular.

 

Tuesday
Feb282017

Book Review: Shambala Junction

Shambala Junction. Dipika Mukherjee. Aurora Metro Press, April 4, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 255 pages.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

Winner of the Virginia Prize for fiction, Shambala Junction is a coming-of-age novel from author Dipika Mukherjee, whose work I have admired since reviewing her engrossing short story collection Rules of Desire.  

As much a cultural exploration as it is a love story, the book is a remarkable webbing of different viewpoints. Mukherjee is able to translate captivating realities to a wide audience through pulsing characters, with a natural story-telling ability that is inviting and enlightening.

The action begins as Iris, a first-generation Indian American, decides to outdo a ‘friend’ by taking a train from Kolkata to Delhi. Assuming she will be able to melt into her surroundings, she soon learns otherwise. Stepping off the train at Shambala Junction for a breath of air, she lingers a moment too long, and, in a desperate charge to re-board the train, collides with Aman altering the course of her trip and maybe her life.

Aman, who sells dolls at the Shambala station, has just abandoned his third daughter, barely hours old, on the steps of an orphanage. He makes a feeble attempt to help Iris, and, directed by his wise neighbor Mairti, takes Iris home. While trying to reach her own family, Iris becomes aware of the lost daughter and slowly becomes inclined to help.

It is inspirational to watch as Iris, the ‘Ugly American’ ditches her hand sanitizer and becomes an integral part of this heart-wrenching family drama. While her arranged fiancé finds joy in another woman, Iris taps into a fathomless maternal instinct. Her arrogance remains even as her sense of right and wrong, and what she is capable of, grows exponentially during her stay near the Shambala Junction. Like Iris, the reader may learn a lot from the blistering exchange between Iris and the renowned lawyer, Lakshmy Mittal. But, do not expect to get lectured in this book. Instead, it is an invitation for understanding a complicated issue.

Dipika Mukherjee expresses her true patriotism for India not by avoiding the uncomfortable realities but instead by bringing light to the possibility of change through storytelling. She is also masterful enough not to turn Shambala Junction into a dry litany. Providing a little glimmer of hope in a situation that might otherwise have been a lost cause, Shambala Junction allows us to explore what it is to be lost in society—whether as a foreigner who missed her train or as a broken-hearted father who abandoned his daughter.

An enlightening and enjoyable read, Shambala Junction is a great way to journey outside of our standard Chicago day and cross the world, returning wiser and more compassionate. 

 

Friday
Feb172017

Book Review: The Perihelion

The Perihelion. D. M. Wozniak. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, January 26, 2017, Hardcover and e-book, 560 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

The Perihelion by D. M. Wozniak takes place mainly in Chicago, now known as Bluecore 1C in the year 2069, on January 3rd—the eve of the perihelion (the point in the planet’s orbit when it is nearest the sun).

The story opens in what is a dystopian future for many. It is a utopian future for others, mainly the wealthy, powerful, and highly successful. The major cities in the nation have been enclosed into high tech enclaves called Bluecores. The outlying areas, called Redlands, remain rooted more in past customs and traditions. 

Bluecore 1C is a future world populated with a limited number of human hybrids that are 99 percent human and one percent the DNA of a certain animal or insect, giving each 99er unique traits. The author takes pains to develop each character in depth—their motives, backgrounds, fears, phobias, desires, and missions—and all are artfully rendered. 

The world they live in is vividly described for the reader. High tech devices such as surveillance drones, embedded IDs, driverless cabs, stun-gun weapons, palm-print locks, and more, all seem like logical extensions of modern emerging technology.

This 560-page story is a daunting undertaking for a reader. Early on, we meet six protagonists, each as fascinating as the next, set in a background that is rich in visual details and imagery. This pulls the reader forward, totally immersed in this unusual future world and it is fascinating. 

As the story unfolds, a mystery emerges when someone tries to kill off certain 99ers, actually by loving them to death. Those hunting for answers to this mystery become the hunted. At the same time, one 99er with very unique abilities is trying to take down the entire high tech structure holding the Bluecore 1C society together. This fast paced drama brings the six main characters together on a collision course to a final outcome. The pace quickens brilliantly to a conclusion that is stunning, profound, disturbing, and thought provoking. You will find yourself craving a sequel to learn what happens next. 

This is a long and challenging story, weaving six character plots around the evolving central plot. It will require the reader to be focused, patient, and fully engaged. And, do not skip any pages because every page contains essential elements. Not many writers could pull this off. Well done, Mr. Wozniak. Brilliant.


Thursday
Jan262017

Book Review: The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. Pat Camalliere. Amika Press, August 21, 2016, Trade Paperback and e-Book, 372 Pages.

Reviewed by Sue Merrell.

Don’t you love reading books that describe places where you’ve been and reveal a side of those places you never imagined? That’s what you’ll find in Pat Camalliere’s latest historical novel, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.

Although I didn’t read her first book, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, the new book makes enough references to the first that it’s easy to see this as the continuing adventures of Cora Tozzi, who, like the author, lives with her husband in Lemont, IL, and is active in the local historical society. In the latest tale, Cora and her friend, Frannie, join with a young Native American scientist, Nick Pokagon, to write a book about Nick’s ancestor, Wawetseka, a nineteenth century Potawatomi woman who lived in the Lemont area.

Formatted as a book within a book, the 1817 tale of Wawetseka is the shining heart of the action, opening with a line that ensures you can’t put it down: “The dead man arrived in autumn, swept by rising floodwaters…” Wawetseka’s son is charged with the murder of the white man. To save her son, Wawetseka must uncover the real murderer and bring him back to face charges.

Camalliere does an excellent job of describing the Des Plaines River Valley of 1817, which would have been one of the main highways to Fort Dearborn where Chicago is today. The plucky heroine, Wawetseka, reminds me of television’s MacGyver as she comes up with rustic inventions to cross a river or set a broken leg. But there’s a strong element of supernatural as well to help Wawetseka and add a little magic to the story.

Old Indian legends of the water panther and wolf spirit return to life two centuries later as Cora, Frannie, and Nick realize someone or something is trying to prevent them from publishing Wawetseka’s tale. The modern-day portions of the book are not as fast paced and tend to get bogged down in internal monologues. Nevertheless, the characters face a couple of exciting moments including a stormy finale that ends with a body tangled in a tree in the Des Plaines River, not much different than the body that started Wawetseka’s tale in the first place.

As a former resident of the area, and a big history buff, I really enjoyed all the details about Isle a la Cache and the I&M Canal, as well as references to Argonne National Laboratory. The parallels between the 1817 story and modern day reveal interesting remnants of history in the area, which are still available to explore.