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Book Reviews

Wednesday
Sep252019

Book Review: An Uprising in Rome: 1849

An Uprising in Rome: 1849. Richard F. Novak. Independently Published, May 17, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 209 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

Nothing makes a reader of historical fiction happier than discovering a period of history or a character that we knew nothing about yet makes for a great story. Such is the case with Richard Novak’s new novel. 

An Uprising in Rome: 1849 is a well-researched, exciting novel about the adventures of an American sculptor, Charles Grimes. The naïve middle-class man goes to Rome to study sculpture and gets caught up in the political upheaval associated with Giuseppe Garibaldi's attempt to forge a single Italian nation from the city-states and smaller kingdoms that existed for hundreds of years.

As Grimes goes from apprentice to journeyman sculptor, and ultimately to the man responsible for the marble work inside the U.S. Capitol and the statue that crowns the dome, the author delivers an exciting tale of art, politics, and courage. Along the way, there's Grimes’s romance with a beautiful Italian revolutionary and friendship with the famous American journalist Margaret Fuller. He joins the local militia as an apolitical American facing the forces of France and the Pope himself.

The novel is full of fascinating glimpses into the politics of Italy and the way people lived during that time. It also offers insight into the way Americans—with such a young country—sometimes viewed the world through naïve eyes. While the dialog occasionally bows to the need for exposition, the descriptions and battle scenes are well-written, and the tale never fails to move along at an enjoyable pace.

Novak's work as a sculptor, and his knowledge of and passion for art, infuses the page and delivers a tale that, for most of us, is unfamiliar yet relatable. It's a quick, rewarding read. 

 

Wednesday
Sep252019

Book Review: The Charming Man: A Q.C. Davis Novel

The Charming Man: A Q.C. Davis Novel. Lisa Lilly. Spiny Woman LLC, December 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 450 pages.

Reviewed by R. H. King, Jr.

A college girl goes missing. Because she has a possible visa issue that could lead to her deportation, no one calls the police. Instead, a friend asks Quille Davis—an actress-turned-lawyer—to help find the missing girl. Both the missing girl and the friend are residents of a run-down apartment complex on the Chicago River, so Quille’s search begins there. But an early-season blizzard of epic proportions engulfs the city and traps all the residents—including Quille—in the complex. As her search continues, dead bodies start piling up, raising the possibility that the murders may be related to the missing girl. Because of the blizzard, the police are unable to assist, leaving Quille and her friends alone in their quest to find the missing girl and killer.

The Charming Man is the second in a series of Quille Davis “who-done-its.”  I have not read the first installment of the series, but I believe that the author of a series has a responsibility to write each installment so that it can stand alone, while providing enough backstory to give the reader sufficient understanding of the characters’ motivations. Lisa Lilly is the author of another successful four-book supernatural thriller series, The Awakening (which I recommend), so it is not surprising that she fulfills this responsibility with flying colors. Lilly provides the reader enough of Quille’s backstory to understand why she finds herself called upon to investigate this missing person’s whereabouts, as well as her methods.

Unlike Lilly’s prior series, which was primarily premise driven, The Charming Man is a classic murder mystery. In that genre, the successful author must create enough potential credible suspects to keep the reader guessing about the real murderer. Also, she needs to keep the story moving. Here, too, Lilly comes through with flying colors. Even some of the eventual murder victims were themselves suspects in my mind (before their deaths), and the reader is kept guessing until the end regarding the identity of the murderer and the motivations of both the missing girl and the murderer. My one small complaint is that the story concluded more quickly than I would have liked! She had me on the hook and could have played me for even longer than she did.

Sometimes self-published books suffer from editorial inattention and numerous typographical or grammatical errors. The Charming Man has none of these shortcomings. It is a skillfully crafted book, and Lilly's writing style is economical and easy to read. 

Fans of the murder mystery will find much to like in The Charming Man.  

 

Wednesday
Sep042019

Book Review: Legacy of War

Legacy of WarEd Marohn. BookBaby, July 1, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 340 pages. 

Reviewed by Jose Nateras

In Legacy of War, Ed Marohn, a Vietnam veteran and Assistant Professor of Military History, tells the story of another veteran of the war in Vietnam, psychologist John Moore. Decades after his experience in Vietnam, Dr. Moore is still having nightmares about his time there. Having lost his wife, Dr. Moore is only now starting to find himself developing a desire for a fellow psychologist, Dr. Sally Catton. When the V.A. hospital becomes overwhelmed and unable to provide the veterans with the medical services they need, the V.A. refers one of its patients to Dr. Moore. It's Dr. Catton who warns Moore against taking on fellow veteran, Tom Reed, as a patient, and maybe she's right. Throughout their sessions, Dr. Moore finds some common denominators between Reed’s time in Vietnam and his own, specifically an Agent Ramsey of the CIA, all leading Dr. Moore to delve into his memories of Vietnam and the dark secrets of his own family and the mysterious Phoenix Program. This journey takes him through the traumas of his past and the more recent loss of his wife as he deals with new attractions and old demons of depression and PTSD.

Marohn allows his personal experiences and memory as a veteran, as well as his expertise as a military history scholar, to develop his novel into a genuinely three-dimensional world. The narrative takes the reader on the same journey Marohn’s protagonist finds himself on, bouncing between the past and narrative present to allow for the chance to move on into the future. Marohn allows for a glimpse into the multi-generational experience of war and the legacy of trauma and healing it leaves with those involved.

The story is populated with a number of interesting characters for Moore to bounce off of, including his close friend, Jim Schaeffer, his mysterious antagonist, Agent Ramsey, various international military personnel, and a potential new love interest in National Police Agent Hieu, allowing for Marohn to explore a number of different relationships throughout the story.

With relatively short chapters, the pace of the narrative moves along quickly, keeping readers moving through the story at a pace that never lacks momentum. Marohn effectively tells a story from the perspective of a man in his mid-fifties who is looking back on his life, fostering new feelings of attraction following the loss of his wife, and revisiting wounds of the past, ultimately leaving the reader with the sense that it is never too late to embark on a journey for answers, healing, and closure. When combined with the energy of a military mystery-thriller, Legacy of War makes for a more than compelling read that feels thoroughly entrenched in the experience of someone of the generation at the core of the story itself.

 

Friday
Aug162019

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.

 

Wednesday
Aug072019

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.