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Book Reviews

Wednesday
Aug222018

Book Review: Flashbulb Danger

Flashbulb Danger: Selected Poems 1988-2018. Jack Phillips Lowe. Middle Island Press, April 20, 2018, Trade Paperback, 224 pages. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

Flashbulb Dangeris a collection of poems capturing the modern day miasma in clear accessible language. Author Jack Phillips Lowe provides a general sense of disdain with a low swell of humor. Whether you are a poetry aficionado or a total novice, the reader can engage with these quippy narratives, letting the deeper meaning of the poems resonate off the eloquently painted images. JPL’s work achieves the depth of poetry in an understandable language with accessibility to the work. It is quintessentially American—invasive and snarky.

The selected poems in this collection create a visceral experience exploring Americana and the characters within. The work is segmented into three periods based on year. The author finds narrative poetry liberating, and refers to the classical tradition of Bukowski; he finds the flourish in the end of the poems. “I didn’t have to just say what I felt; I could illustrate it.” He allows the reader to marvel at the backstory and fill in the blanks. 

The collection is chronological but there is a sense of channel surfing in exploring a vast tableau of the human condition in digestible segments. While narrative poetry is a classical form, JPL avoids many of the modern poetic conceits that usually alienate readers from the experience of poetry. His work is a modern homage to ballad tales and epic poetry yet his heroes are mundane, foolish, small, and human. Taking cultural paragons like James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Charles Bukowski, he cracks the veneer of the public persona and taps the vein of humanity. The icons become vulnerable, much like the Greek gods on their polished Olympus. 

JPL’s characters are subtle yet expressive. A great example is the character of Buchman, who appears in four poems of this collection, in the second and third sections of the book. Buchman appears first in the poem “snapped,”filling out “what felt like his 433rdonline job application,” and quickly, “Like a dead branch in a winter storm/Buchman snapped.” From the first poem, Buchman presents himself as the American everyman in dire straits, living in his parents’ basement. His situation is one usually glossed over or minimized but, in the poem, we feel the tremulous pain running under the surface of his existence. He appears again in the poem “Coo-Coo-Cachew” where, finally employed, Buchman uses humor to insulate himself against an outraged customer. JPL emulates the use of humor as a mask, a barrier, and in minimizing daily troubles, just another human feature of getting through the world. It’s easy to laugh right along with Buchman. We get another shorter poem reflecting his parents through his own eyes. By now, Buchman is like a lost friend, resurfacing in “The Sky Cried” and we spend our final moment with Buchman lamenting the passing of Tom Petty.

Petty is a mere mention in that poem but other poems find themselves dedicated to cultural icons like Jim Morrison, Charles Bukowski, and Jack Kerouac. JPL approaches these characters on a human level with the familiarity of a friend allowing us to come to the table with fictional moments of humanity. He takes them off the pedestal and brings them to the table for a beer. Some of the most impactful poems read like letters to influential figures, such as “Amelia Earhart Pancake.” The most moving piece appears in the final section of the book, a poem called “My Backhanded Reward,” which JPL frames as a letter to author Joe Bolton, who was a great influence. His tone reflects love, respect, and the wounded anger that only comes from true friendship. The ability to reach these intimate moments so quickly is a great joy in the collected works. 

Over a 30+ year career, JPL has abandoned the pretensions of poets that can isolate the work from readership. His examination of pop culture and modern American mythology is precise and humorous yet appears like a crack in the foundation of the culture, allowing readers to explore and expand conceptually in the work. The poems are easy on the surface but shake loose deeper thoughts, so they are good for a quick read and a long think.

 

Wednesday
Aug222018

Book Review: Nineteen Hundred Days

Nineteen Hundred Days. Florence Osmund. CreateSpace, April 16, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 211 pages. 

Reviewed by Ed Marohn.

Nineteen Hundred Days begins with twelve-year-old, Ben Mattis, and his six-year-old sister, Lucy, realizing that they have been abandoned by their parents. The father is an unemployed alcoholic while the mother works as a caregiver for an old lady in order to provide for her family. However, Ben has been basically caring for his sister, including home schooling, largely unsupervised by the parents. Without real social interaction, both kids are distrustful of the world outside their rundown house, relying on themselves to get through each day until a parent comes home.

Now it is different. The parents do not return home and there is no communication from them. Ben panics. He is concerned about providing food and basic needs for his sister and himself. He is also concerned about them being separated and placed into foster homes, creating an overgrown fear that drives the kids to hide from the sheriff who attempts to locate them at the house. Using the cellar and the secret little room in the parent’s bedroom closet, they hide from the different visitors trying to locate them. Ben’s paranoia and need to protect and stay with his little sister forces him to choose unrealistic paths to avoid the police and social workers. They eventually pack some essentials and flee their house. 

The novel is fast paced, but an adult reader may become critical about Ben’s decisions, which become foolhardy and dangerous. Ben and Lucy are not mature or sophisticated. Out of fear of their unknown future, and having been sheltered most of their lives, they strike out into an alien world. Ben’s defensiveness as a twelve-year-old is prominent and drives the story, making him a character both liked and disliked. I recommend you read the book and get into the heads of these young kids and discover what happened to the parents.

My final note is that the novel would be a great read for young adults. It identifies very well with the mental state of youth when confronted with the unknown. Furthermore, it explores the choices made by the novel’s youthful characters when facing a crisis.

 

Wednesday
Aug152018

Book Review: The Hope Store

The Hope Store. Dwight Okita. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, August 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 256 pages.

Reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss.

The Hope Storetells two interwoven stories, both espousing the message that we are more than the sum of our parts. One story is of a lost but determined woman named Jada who has been without hope her entire life. Jada says the wrong things, makes mistakes, and attempts suicide because she just can’t see the point of it all. Still, she has an inner fire that can’t be denied. The other story is of Luke and Kazu—partners in both love and business. Their determination to provide hope to the hopeless manifests when they open a store that will offer hope installation treatments. 

The book jumps back and forth between the two storylines, giving you insights into the buyers and the sellers, and the ethical conversations that take place when marketing something as ephemeral as hope. As Jada decides to try the hope treatments, and Luke and Kazu are taken along on the roller coaster of her responses to them, the reader gets to see all sides of the implications of selling hope as a commodity. The conceit of the book alone makes it worth the read. It was a simple yet original concept that I loved diving deeper into. 

Okita is clearly a talented creative with a prolific writing background. I look forward to reading more of his work. I struggled a little bit with his use of repetition as a writing technique, but that style choice did not detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. I found the diversity of the characters refreshing. As an Asian American, I am always happy to see a realistic depiction of Asian Americans in books and storytelling. And the rest of the cast of characters was an equally diverse reflection of the people you can and do find in Chicago. 

What I liked the most about the book was the ultimate moral of the story—that even if you have hope installed in you, you still have to do something with it. That along the way we each make a million choices every day that will lead us in either a destructive or constructive direction. Okita does a wonderful job of keeping the reader in a suspended sense of hope as the story unfolds. Readers hope that Luke and Kazu will succeed in their relationship and their store, but, more importantly, that Jada will eventually find the peace and happiness she is looking for. The book forces the reader to reflect on the idea of “what is hope?” and that inherently makes one feel hopeful. No store needed.

 

Monday
Aug132018

Book Review: The Perihelion: Complete Duology

The Perihelion: Complete DuologyD.M. Wozniak. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 9, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 748 pages.

Reviewed by T.L. Needham.

D.M. Wozniak’s The Perihelion: Complete Duology opens with the novella, “The Rue Cler Decommission," which sets the stage for his two fantastic main novels: The Perihelion and An Obliquity. The opening events reveal a stunning assassination of a hybrid 99er that induces death by desire, initiating the two-book series.

The Perihelion (the perihelion is the point in an orbit of a celestial body that is nearest the sun*explores a highly symbolic event that aptly describes the theme driving this dystopian tale. Then, the author seamlessly brings us to the sequel, An Obliquity (a deviation from moral rectitude and or sound thinking*). Each book is equally exciting, engaging, and compelling—yet, it always makes sense to start at the beginning.

As the story unfolds, a mystery emerges as certain 99ers are killed off by exposure to deadly desire. Those hunting for answers to this mystery become the hunted. At the same time, one 99er with unique abilities plots to bring down the entire high-tech structure holding the Bluecore 1C society together. The fast-paced drama pulls six main characters together as their stories spiral on a collision course to a deadly and dramatic final outcome. The pace quickens brilliantly to a conclusion that is stunning, profound, disturbing, and thought-provoking.  

The Perihelion: Complete Duology is a complex, creative, and brilliant achievement by the author. You will be craving another sequel to learn what happens next to those engaging characters who survive.

* Merriam Webster Dictionary


Thursday
Aug092018

Book Review: Cry Baby Cry

Cry Baby Cry. Debra R. Borys. Chicago, IL: Red Door Press, June 14, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 256 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson. 

As the fourth novel in Debra Borys’ Street Stories series, Cry Baby Cryis a suspenseful tale of a trio of LGBT women who go missing in central Illinois. Perhaps one of her best stories yet, Cry Baby Cry addresses some hard-to-discuss issues surrounding religion, LGBT youth, prostitution, and homelessness, all within the context of a mystery that series main character Jo Sullivan is trying to solve. 

Sullivan is a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. She receives a call from a transgender prostitute named Avril who recently helped deliver a baby from a homeless youth. The baby happens to be named after Avril’s friend who has been missing for a year, so Jo questions the baby’s mother, Lily. Jo quickly finds out that there are multiple people in the LGBT community missing, and they all have the new mother in common. As Lily’s story unfolds, the reader discovers a tangled mess of prejudice, bigotry, kidnapping, and possibly murder. 

Borys spent 12 years volunteering at various charities and programs that help the homeless, both in Chicago and Seattle. She has a deep passion for writing about homeless youth and what they need to do to survive. 

Cry Baby Cryis very plot-driven, with more people coming up missing at every page turn, violence lurking in every corner, and none of the characters really feeling safe until the end. The book gives the reader a taste of what it’s like to be homeless, with a baby, and with serious and life-threatening danger constantly threatening you and the lives of the people you care about. While the story arc is interesting, the novel lacks character development. 

Borys often writes stereotypes and caricatures rather than real people. Avril, the transgender prostitute, is an extreme stereotype of a drag queen. It felt as if Borys not only had never met anyone in the transgender community but also didn’t do any research about what transgender prostitutes are like outside of how the media portrays them. Furthermore, Avril had the habit of saying, “girl” after most sentences within the first couple of pages of the book, but then dropped that affectation for the rest of the story. Not only was Avril a caricature of a drag queen, but she was also an inconsistent caricature. The same could be said for the religious sect that raped women as a part of their conversion “therapy.” While I don’t doubt that there are religious fanatics who rape women, and transgender people who say “girl” to punctuate their sentences, I encourage Borys to dive a little deeper and try to develop more complete and unique characters. 

With that said, I do appreciate Borys’ ability to write about LGBT characters and make them a focus of her book in a respectful and interesting manner. Her ability to create characters that are LGBT without having that be their only characteristic is refreshing. 

All in all, Cry Baby Cryis a plot-driven suspense novel that tackles tough issues, kidnapping, and possible murder in a way that keeps the reader engaged and interested. If you’re looking for a suspenseful thriller that will keep you entertained, Cry Baby Cryis the perfect read.