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Book Reviews

Thursday
Jul192018

Book Review: Jaded

Jaded. Owen Patterson. Chicago: BREVIS Publishing, August 2018, Trade Paperback, 163 pgs.

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

In his latest book of poetry, Jaded, Owen Patterson takes readers through the stops and starts, and the arcs and codas, of a life that leaves us both exhausted and, upon reflection, appreciative of the journey. A collection of varied poems, Jaded begins with the poems “Description,” “Dedication,” and “Intro,” and then continues with ten individually titled sections.

All of the poems vary in form and subject matter, even within their respective sections, resisting limits and classifications. Some of the poems rhyme, some are catalogue-like, others are self-referential, and still others adhere to a stream-of-consciousness-like flow, moving through the poet’s train of thought as he processes, references, and summons imagery.

Patterson’s use of free verse allows him to focus on whatever captures his attention. In so doing, he elevates everyday happenings into ruminations on such themes as the passage of time and the absurd or fleeting nature of life itself. “Happy Cat,” for example, takes the simplicity and familiarity of a subject common to children’s literature and imbues it with the world-weary weight of an adult’s ups and downs. 

As with any collection, establishing through-lines and consistency is tricky. But by embracing variety, Patterson avoids such challenges. The pieces in this collection are less concerned about being in conversation with each other than about being in conversation with the reader. Many of the poems feel freshly distilled from the poet’s environment. Lines of dialogue overheard on public transit, for example, such as those in “47th and Chill (based on a real event)” and others, feel less like poems and more like flashes of Patterson’s life, free from poetic curation. He paints a picture of life in Chicago that provides insight and clarity to the context in which his more poetic work lives. Not only do his poems paint the interiority of the worn and “jaded” poet himself; they reveal the very world that has worn the poet down. 

Given the varied nature of Patterson’s poetry, it’s not surprising that he has also written prose-fiction (2015’s The Dis-condition of Ease.) Jaded is his third collection of poetry, following 2017’s Lovely Faze and 2018’s Stars at Naught. As a writer, Patterson’s unique voice and strong perspective make his poems valuable reflectors of a world that many of his readers walk through. It’s a world that can leave us feeling “jaded.” At the very least, reading this collection can lead us to reflect on how we’ve reached a certain state in our lives and our world, and view the larger context that allows for appreciation of the journey that leads us to such a state in the first place.

A Chicago native, Patterson presents the type of insights often overlooked in poetry of this kind. He taps into the complexity and nuance of living in Chicago, a city filled with and characterized by juxtapositions. After all, Chicago exudes the fast pace of a metropolis, but one that is nestled in the heart of the Midwest. The region also lies near the center of a country that is often both exhausting and disheartening, leaving so many of its citizens “jaded” but—like the sentiment expressed in many of these poems—unwilling to give up.

 

Wednesday
Jul042018

Book Review: The Road from Money: The Journey Continues

The Road from Money: The Journey ContinuesSylvester Boyd, Jr. GEM Publishing, November 17, 2017, Trade Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Margaret Brown.

Money, Mississippi is a notorious small town named for Hernando Money, a United States Senator from The Magnolia State. Estella’s courageous story evolves from within the breath of a small cotton community to a new home in Chicago with her Uncle Leamon by the age of twenty. In this story, the writer focuses on the heartbeat of institutionalized racism and segregation through the eyes of a young black woman. Estella’s rich experiences enable her to befriend a Jewish woman that shares similar memories of living in a racist world. Estella is learning about her new environment in the North as the world around her transforms. Navigating through life’s difficult times, Estella builds a new foundation, friendships, and relationships that teach her to love and respect others. Estella realizes that racism lies in the heart of man.  

What I enjoyed most about reading Sylvester Boyd Jr.’s work, The Road from Money: The Journey Continues, was the connectivity I experienced. I felt as though I were Estella’s shadow throughout the entire book. The author was clever in the manner in which he unweaves a portion of America’s painful past. The reality of our past was presented in such a manner that others understand the struggles of what life was like for African Americans then and is still like now. I recommend this book because the story captivated my attention from the first sentence.


Wednesday
Jul042018

Book Review: The Saint of Liars

The Saint of Liars. Megan Mackie. Self-published, June 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 459 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

In her first book, Finder of the Lucky Devil, Megan Mackie introduced us to her alternate Chicago. It's a place where technology and magic exist side-by-side, but the balance is shifting. With technology becoming more and more like magic, those who wield the older power face a bleak future. Corporations that virtually own their employees are consolidating their hold on the city, squeezing those they do not control out of power, or into their control.

The Saint of Liars begins where the earlier work left off. Newly made the head of an ancient magical house, Rune Leveau is struggling to find her place in the world of magic. She must deal with the pressures of keeping the seat of that house, the Lucky Devil bar, from going broke while learning to use her emerging magical powers. If that wasn't enough pressure, she finds herself enmeshed in the power struggles that are coming into the open.

Old disagreements amongst the magic users threaten to shatter their last bit of political power in the face of corporations learning to use technology to work magic. But the corporations are far from united. Factions in their ranks are engaged in a covert revolt, fearing that a final consolidation of power in the hands of a few is at hand.

Rune's sometimes love interest St. Benedict is back, and the two of them are soon working together to find out who is trying to kill Rune. Their efforts to solve that mystery takes them deep into Chicago's magical side and uncover a plot to develop a technology that would allow the non-magical to harness magic. 

Mackie's magic-noir Chicago may be populated by fantasy creatures, but the problems her protagonist faces, and the landscape she moves through, contain enough of modern reality to make the story believable. Her hero is not perfect, but her errors give her the feel of someone you might know in real life. Put all that into a story that draws you along with a relentless pace, and you have a story that makes an ideal summer read, or a good read any other time of the year. I am not sure if Ms. Mackie plans to write another book in her fantasy world, but I hope she does. I have enjoyed following her characters and would not mind reading more of their story.

 

Tuesday
Jun262018

Book Review: Son of Soothsayer

Son of Soothsayer. Simon A. Smith. New Meridian, 2018, Trade Paperback, 497 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Clayton Blaine’s mother is famous and rich. She has found a shortcut to success—the secret code to the universe—and he was right there alongside her when it happened. The problem is that her secret, or rather, her shortcut, isn’t going to cut it because as Clayton and his family discover, there are no shortcuts to happiness and success; things are a bit more complex. Funny, touching, insightful, and ultimately wise, Simon A. Smith’s Son of Soothsayeris a novel that delights.

Smith’s novel is a response to the wildly successful self-help book, The Secret. Smith imagines the son of that author has written a book responding to the claims made in The Secret (The Shortcutin Smith’s novel). Roberta Blaine, Clayton’s mother, believes that through the sheer power of thought, one can project himself into success and happiness. When she writes a book on this subject, there’s no shortage of folks who are willing to buy into the idea. 

The novel is written from Clayton’s perspective and broken into sections that parody the structure of the original, The Secret. Each section is titled “The Shortcut to...”. This structure allows the book to build on themes rather than a clearly defined linear narrative. Smith jumps in time, showing snapshots of Clayton’s adolescence. He opens with some fun family squabbles, establishing a wonderful cast of characters that breathe life into a book whose premise could easily overshadow its characters. Thanks to Smith’s humor and the wonderfully fleshed out world of the story, this is as much a story about a family as it is a book with a clear statement to make. At a certain point, any sense that this novel is a response to another book becomes secondary to the story Smith is telling.

Another wonderful aspect of Son of Soothsayeris the book’s strong sense of place. Smith explores Chicago as a city of neighborhoods and chooses hidden nooks and crannies to settle his characters. The story opens in the north-side neighborhood of Albany Park where Clayton’s mother, Roberta, is first finding her voice as the future author of a bestselling self-help book. The story takes a journey through many Chicago neighborhoods, all the way to Jackson Park on the Southside. Just as Smith offers a wonderfully varied view of Chicago, he also offers a varied view of humanity. Far too many books set in cities brimming with many cultures and races end up written in a vacuum. Clayton’s life is diffuse with the diversity of the city he lives in, and this enriches the novel, adding a reliable world to the perspective Smith is providing. None of these relationships are perfect; in fact, they’re all flawed. 

I recommended this book for anyone interested in laughing out loud while engaging with a challenging and thought-provoking story. If you’re a huge fan of The Secret,this might not be the book for you, but if you love literature rich in character, humor, and intelligence, then Son of Soothsayeris a book you will enjoy. Lastly, this is not a novel for the faint of heart; people die and hearts are broken. Clayton Blaine may be the son of a self-help guru, but he’s a long way from having it all figured out, which is what makes this book so delightful to read.

 

Tuesday
Jun262018

Book Review: They Called Me Margaret

They Called Me Margaret. Florence Osmund. Self-published, January 31, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 322 pages.

Reviewed by Deb Lecos.

They Called Me Margaret is a work of fiction, a creative telling of an author who suddenly finds her ordinary life filled with intrigue, much like the plotlines for the “cozy mystery” novels she creates. Florence Osmund answers the question, “Is everything as it seems?” And the answer in this vibrant tale is “no.”

The author brings a reader along on a turbulent six-month period in Margaret’s—a.k.a. Mags, Maggie, Marge, Madge, Margie’s—life. About to open a bookstore, her twenty-one-year marriage is suddenly in shambles. Margaret’s challenging and injured mother-in-law must necessarily become a long-term houseguest and her twenty-year-old daughter is incommunicado and perhaps missing in Costa Rica. In the midst of all this familial upheaval, personal items, like a Limoges box with a pearl earring inside, a watch with a personalized inscription “Time is a Gift,” and a silver bracelet disappear in a manner reminiscent of one of Margaret’s mysteries.

When we meet Margaret, she and her husband, Carl, have arrived at their lake house, and she has just learned he has never fully read any of her novels. This sets her to wondering if her marriage is as good as she has assumed. Carl’s flirtation with a neighbor doesn’t help matters, nor does his frequent, inexplicable disappearances. Not certain she has a stable marriage, Margaret feels unsafe, and flashes her story back to when her mother left the home when she was a six-year-old child. It is stunning timing when her mother chooses to return as everything dramatically falls apart, and Margaret fully realizes that nothing is what it seems.

Side characters run throughout the book: Darlene, the woman Carl appears enamored by, Lance, Darlene’s husband who is brutally injured when an unknown assailant hits him from behind, and Portia, Carl and Margaret’s daughter who arrives unannounced with tragic news. When Margaret is struck with a sudden, and difficult to diagnose illness, Katherine, Margaret’s mother-in-law, and her freshly returned mother are primary players in coordinating the opening of the store and maintaining the business.

Ms. Osmund’s many-plotted novel comes across as a mystery movie with threads going in multiple directions, purposely done as a means to distract a detective- viewer from getting to the final discovery too soon. While this is successful, some of the material is not expanded for moments of poignancy and therefore, deeper relationships with the characters may be difficult to achieve.

Throughout, the author weaves in helpful hints to writers regarding self-publishing, boosting creativity, and writing-time allotment. There are many writer-isms which bring a homey-scribe feel to those who play with sentences. Margaret isn’t an easy character and has traits, like those many writers carry, that she blends into the story, including a propensity to desire long hours of seclusion and criticizing word choice as though life is a game of Scrabble. It is those “flaws” that can make Margaret relatable to wordy-readers. 

As I read this story, and as Margaret’s dream for a bookstore became a hard-won reality, I celebrated her success and hoped for a return to this character’s good health so she may enjoy her efforts. They Called Me Margaret is an enjoyable read for those lazy summer afternoons and low-key winter nights, and the chapters fly by as the plots are followed to the final, unusual reveal.