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Book Review: Pretense

Pretense - Imbroglio Trilogy (Volume 1)John Di Frances. Reliance Books, July 3, 2018, Trade Paperback, 302 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Pretense, John Di Frances’ geopolitical thriller, is the first book of the Imbroglio Trilogy. The definition of imbroglio, as presented in the book, is “an extremely confused or complicated situation,” and as expected from the genre, we are led down story lines that suddenly veer off in unexpected directions. The action is fast-paced, peppered with near-escapes and enough plot twists to satisfy even the most jaded reader. The characters are relatable and believable. While the assassins might be cold-blooded killers, they also plan vacations and ponder what to cook for dinner. The group of “good guys” searching for them are not above their own faults. The book is easy to read and hard to put down.

The story opens with the murder of the Slovakian Prime Minister. Not long after that, the Polish Prime Minister is assassinated in a crowded soccer stadium. While the two deaths could be a coincidence, the likelihood of something more sinister leads to unrest throughout Europe. The assassins are pursued by a team of Polish intelligence and security personnel, led by intrepid Interpol agent, Marek (The Wolf) Farkas. They are eventually joined by an American CIA operative shortly after discovering clues suggesting that the killings may have been sanctioned or even carried out by the CIA. 

One of the more satisfying parts of the book is how the author alternates between the assassins and the group pursuing them. This allows us to follow each path, wondering when they will intersect. Several of the characters are well-realized. We learn some of the backstory of how and why the assassins became killers, and we experience their pettiness and insecurities, as well as their successes. The investigators, too, are well-rounded individuals, including Marek Farkas and Adrianna, a young forensics expert who holds her own on the mostly male team, despite occasionally showing her naiveté. 

If there is any fault to the story, to this reader, it is the author’s extensive use of acronyms and their meanings. While only a minor nuisance, these tended, at times, to pull me from the story. One example is in the phrase, “...still in the final T&E (Testing and Evaluation) phase...” I think it would be enough to just say, “...still in the final testing and evaluation phase...” Another time an individual was referred to as “being at U.S. European Command (USEUCOM).” Again, I believe it would flow smoother without the acronym.

The locations are well-described, due in no small part to the author’s background as a global consultant. John Di Frances has assisted clients in complex problem-solving of Advanced Military Weapons Systems, and has worked with the FBI, SEC, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Swiss National Police. He appears to have been working toward this point all his adult life. He is the author of four business books, the co-author of a fifth, and since 2000 has served audiences internationally as a professional keynote speaker.

The ending of this first book in a trilogy took me totally by surprise. It was quite satisfying, answering numerous questions while also posing new ones. I can’t wait to read the next two books.



Book Review: Unplugged

Unplugged: A Novel (15th Anniversary Edition). Paul McComas. Daniel & Daniel Publishers, October 7, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 100 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

The 15thanniversary edition of Unplugged, originally published in 2002, comes with a full eight pages of accolades at the beginning of the book in the form of short reviews and one-line blurbs from magazines, newspapers, and other writers. Every single praise is deserved. 

Unplugged follows rocker Dayna Clay and her struggle with depression. Paul McComas’ portrayal of depression is vivid, realistic, and accessible. For readers who have never experienced the throes of depression firsthand, the depiction of Dayna’s journey is an excellent aid for understanding its mental landscape. What makes the journey even more poignant is that Dayna herself is complex, real, and arresting. 

Whatever reservations may exist regarding a male author writing about a female protagonist’s spiritual awakening—especially when sexual assault is a prominent part of that character’s past, as in Dayna’s case—are unfounded in the case of McComas. He writes Dayna’s flaws, fallbacks, strengths, and victories with insight and sensitivity; her gender identity is not ignored, just never the focus over other things that matter more to Dayna. Her sexuality, although not explored in the traditional sense—since Dayna is certain of it by the time the book begins—is explored in the sense that we, as readers, get to come to terms with it in partnership with Dayna. 

Many introspective novels that focus on a character’s inner journey struggle with external action can feel bogged down, but not Unplugged. McComas adeptly writes the external world to mirror the internal one, solidifying the connections Dayna makes and the way the physical world helps her manage her internal one. The most effective example of this is the lightning bolt shape that Dayna sees in her mind’s eye at a turning point in her life, which subsequently spurs her journey and helps her determine when she reaches her physical destination.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of this novel is how clearly McComas loves the setting he has chosen, reflected in his precise yet sweeping descriptions of the Badlands. Although I have never been to South Dakota, judging by the accuracy of his description of the drive west to Iowa—a drive I have made countless times when I was in college—I can only assume that he has replicated their majesty the best an author can. 

As a unique bonus for the anniversary reprint, there is an accompanying CD for Unplugged featuring the songs Dayna sings and writes in the book, and the reprint even has the sheet music, lyrics, and an “About the Songs” section. Reading the descriptions of Dayna’s music in the book and being able to listen to it is a very cool experience. McComas’ writing talents are not limited to the page—the music functions as an extension of the story but, more than that, the songs are a good listen in their own right. If you buy the book, be sure to buy the CD as well!  

Unplugged is heartfelt, uplifting, and personal. Even if you do not share Dayna’s experiences, the lows and the highs both feel natural, and none of the victories feel cheap or unearned. If you like character studies, genuine emotional and physical breakthroughs, and interplay between the physical and mental worlds, Unplugged is for you.   



Book Review: Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss

Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss: A Southsider’s Journey to Redemption. Bonnie E. HarringtonWindy City Publishers, October 25, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 237 pages.

Reviewed by Michelle Burwell.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the 1940s, Bonnie Harrington, like many Chicagoans during the time, did not have it easy. Her family had to be creative to make ends meet and often had to make sacrifices, moving to smaller spaces even as it grew. But the thing that makes Bonnie and her memoir stand out is her enduring optimism. She finds humor in daunting and difficult situations. In Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss, Bonnie is open, honest, and endearing as she depicts her transformation from a shy, naïve schoolgirl from humble beginnings, to a woman capable of exploring the world and herself.

Bonnie’s early years in Chicago were hard. She was bullied about her weight, her brother was born with an illness that lasted into his teenage years, and the family that is the center of her world dealt with infidelity. She offers paragraph-size vignettes that find the humor in a rotating cast of family pets, a house fire, and her Dad’s mid-life crisis. She weaves a heartwarming tale of a loving, supportive family that time and again finds a way to show up for each other.

After graduating high school, she met the man who eventually became her husband. Together they travelled to Alaska and Japan with the Navy, and over time faced similar predicaments to the ones from her childhood—shrinking living spaces and a growing family. Yet she made the best of her time abroad. She tells of making a friend in Japan who endured a very hard life, and who put Bonnie’s own hardships into perspective. Bonnie describes her amazement, when it is time for the family to return to Chicago after three years in Japan, at how much she has grown and evolved as a person. 

In her writing, Bonnie is able to share the exact amount of detail that makes a story funny or poignant. She is able to take her craft seriously without taking herself too seriously, and it makes for sharp prose. While the memoir carries perhaps excess detail about the family transition back into civilian life, it is overall a great, uplifting read. I would recommend this memoir, especially to anyone who may be deployed in the military or hoping for some sort of dynamic life change.



Book Review: Infinite Ripples


Infinite Ripples: Skeletons Beyond the Grave. Joseph Summerville. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 13, 2018, 316 pages.

Reviewed by R. H. King Jr. 

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father will be visited upon the sons. This memoir brings home that point in stunning detail, as the author describes a journey through several generations of abuse and emotional turmoil from which he struggles to escape. 

The author’s father is a literal Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He is a well-respected doctor with a wife and children, a true pillar of the community. But just below the surface, there is an irrational, volcanic temper that, behind closed doors, inflicts tremendous emotional and even physical abuse on his own family. There is a terrifying recounting of the father chasing one of his sons around the house with a loaded pistol; if the author had not misdirected his father’s pursuit, the other son would have certainly been shot. 

The first half of the book is devoted to bringing this monster to life, and telling the story of a heinous murder of a teenage girl that the author is convinced his father committed, and from the details provided, it seems likely that the father did commit the crime. I liked this part of the book the best. It was as engrossing as any crime novel, and written in a conversational style that made the pages fly by. 

The remaining half of the book describes some of the emotional scars that the author tries to deal with that have been caused by being raised in this caustic environment, including a date rape. This part of the book is more difficult to read because it is describing the author’s deeply personal struggles to overcome his upbringing. It also includes attempts at reconciliation with the author’s mother and father, and his own son. Although it may have been very cathartic for the author, this part of the book seemed longer and more repetitious than was necessary. 

Memoir is a tricky genre. If the life story is not interesting enough, there is a tendency to slip into self-absorption. This memoir certainly does not suffer from the first problem: it tells a riveting story, at least for the first half of the book. But it does suffer somewhat from the self-absorption problem in the back half of the book. Overall, however, a good read.        



Book Review: Operation Archangel

Operation Archangel (The Scouts of St. Michael)Dan Morales. San Antonio, Texas: Elm Grove Publishing, May 22, 2018, Hardcover and Trade Paperback, 339 pages.

Reviewed by Roger Prosise.

Operation Archangel is a compelling and intriguing young adult novel. Set in England during World War II, it is the story of how six Boy Scouts prepared for and engaged in combat during the Second World War.

The plot is intriguing, the characters are well developed, and the scenes are authentic.  The six boys from St. Michael’s Boys Home, all sixteen and younger, prepare for and eventually engage in battle, including shooting down one of Hitler’s top pilots during an air raid. Though the boys were treated like regular troops, they were, in fact, heroes. The training was strenuous but the boys thrived. 

The story of the Boy Scouts engagement in combat doesn’t end with shooting down a dive-bomber; the boys are also given the dangerous mission of capturing Thomas Peter Heydrich, a senior leader in the Hitler Youth and a godson of Hitler.

In preparation for their mission, the boys learn to how to stay alive in a knife fight, what pressure points to attack in a fist-fight, and how to jump out of an airplane. These ventures were authentic and kept the story moving. The young boys distinguish themselves during their training at Parachute School, jumping out of an airplane with parachutes—all except their fearless leader, Reggie.

The young boys struggle with the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” and through their mission as soldiers in England’s army. Tremendous growth transpires throughout the novel. In the beginning, the six boys request to be an official troop with the Boy Scouts. Their request is rejected. The boys then create their own troop which engages in combat. Later, their troop is selected by the Prime Minister of England to carry out critical military missions for England.

Operation Archangel is an enjoyable and insightful read. I was impressed with the author’s knowledge of combat. It brings an exceptional appeal to young adults connected with Boy Scouts and the ROTC.

Dan Morales is a writer who lives and works in Chicago. He graduated from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree in marketing and advertising. His copywriting work has earned numerous awards including an Effie and a FAB award. Operation Archangel is his first novel.