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Book Reviews

Saturday
Feb242018

Book Review: Track 9

Track 9. Sue Rovens. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, April 27, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 221 pages. 

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Track 9, Sue Rovens’ second novel, is a suspense/thriller/psychological horror novel that is brimming with shock, terror, and humor. The characters appear to be everyday people who find themselves facing many of the same challenges we all do. Of course, we don’t all find ourselves unable to escape from an ever-devolving series of nightmares. As with her previous novel, Badfish, this book is a fast read, hard to put down, and takes you to places you never imagined.

The first short chapter describes, in graphic detail, a calamitous train wreck in a picturesque small German town. The accident itself and the repercussions after were so horrendous, the station was never reopened. Six months later, Gary and Grace Wolf, an American couple on their belated honeymoon, are set to return to Bloomington, Illinois, from that very town.

The first leg of their return trip is by rail, and because they are running late and not paying attention, they mistakenly end up in this defunct station. Although the station is bereft of living beings, the honeymooners are far from alone. Soon after the realization they are in the wrong station, Gary and Grace discover they can’t get out. And if that wasn’t enough, there also may, or may not, be a train in the station.

As Gary and Grace struggle to find their way home, their best friends back in Bloomington, Mike and Sarah Waverly, await their return. As their arrival time nears, Mike begins experiencing disturbing premonitions concerning his friends. These premonitions eventually spiral out of control, and as his own secure world unravels, he finds himself unable to put the pieces back together.

While the lives of these two Midwestern couples aren’t always what they appear to be, they could easily be our next-door neighbors. As the story races to its climax, we begin to peel back the layers and discover an ever-changing reality. Rovens paints in short, precise strokes, giving us well-developed characters in few words. The world she’s created makes perfect sense, even when it doesn’t. She builds tension quickly and effortlessly and doesn’t back off. Her use of short chapters moves the story along at a breathtaking pace. I didn’t see the ending coming.

The only fault I found in the story, while minor, concerned some unanswered questions at the end. This did not, however, keep me from thoroughly enjoying the story. I stated, after reading her first book, that she was an author to watch for in the future. I am happy to say, I couldn’t have been more right. Do yourself a favor and check out Track 9. I can’t wait to see where she takes us with her next book.

 

Sunday
Feb182018

Book Review: A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel

A Promise Given: A Henrietta and Inspector Howard Novel. Michelle Cox. She Writes Press, April 24, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 378 pages.

Reviewed by Janet Cole.

A Promise Given’s introduction was difficult because of the prolific use of adverbs and allusions to events of which I had no prior knowledge. However, persevering through those initial pages produced rich rewards as I became immersed in the development of the main characters and the evolution of relationships.

Henrietta, our heroine, rises above the poverty of her family and her sketchy previous employment when Clive, a renowned inspector, falls in love with her and proposes. Their age difference is just a minor inconvenience, and her charm and beauty are more than enough to encourage his aristocratic family to look beyond her humble origins. Matters become complicated when Henrietta’s long-estranged grandfather intervenes in wedding plans and living arrangements to restore this branch of the family to a certain level of respectability. The wedding itself is not without its own set of complications when Henrietta’s younger sister and her “young man” each meet individuals that change the course of their relationship.

The story progresses to the honeymoon “across the pond” and a stay at the ancestral English home, now a crumbling pseudo-castle that houses Henrietta’s husband’s uncle, aunt, and morose cousin. A murder that takes place in the nearby village casts suspicion on a variety of characters, including the inhabitants of the country manor. Clive joins the local inspector in the investigation. The tragedy, coupled with the cousin’s mysterious but regular disappearances and Clive’s involvement in solving the crime, create conflict at first, and then bonding. A mutual understanding evolves between Henrietta and her new husband, who concedes that she has the potential to be every bit an equal partner in his investigations.

The setting and certain details of the crime evoked memories of other stories set in similar circumstances. But the author once again made the story her own with the unfolding explanation of Clive’s cousin’s frequent disappearances and his resistance to the wiles and flirtations of the numerous young ladies invited to the once resplendent now crumbling castle.

A Promise Given is a well-told story which, despite the few difficulties I mentioned, had me immersed and wanting more. Well done!

 

Tuesday
Feb062018

Book Review: Gables Court

Gables Court. Alan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 18, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 265 pages.

Reviewed by Sue Merrell.

Gables Court, by Alan Kessler, is the quintessential beach book: fast-paced, entertaining, and tropical. The writing style is easy and dialogue-driven, and the premise and characters are intriguing.  

The story is set in Florida in the 1960s, and it is easy to imagine Miami’s Dixie Highway and the titular motel-turned-apartment complex that provides the setting for the first half of the book. Samuel, the virgin son of a Boston mobster, has moved into the seedy Gables Court to start his first job as an attorney, signing eviction notices for a local firm. He befriends Gary, a student at a nearby college who blows his tuition money on a foolish scam, and the lovely Kate, who’s free with sex for fun but has no desire to find love. Kessler peppers the tale with other interesting characters like the childless, bedridden landlady who collects dolls and demeans her henpecked husband, and Vera, the efficient but acerbic secretary who does all the work at the law firm.

Although Samuel has strong instincts to do the right thing as a lawyer, friend and lover, his nerves and insecurity overshadow everything he does. Samuel moves out of Gables Court as his career grows and he follows his quest to find true love. Reversing the stereotypical male/female roles, Samuel is looking for his happily-ever-after life, while all the women he meets quickly shed their clothes for meaningless sex. This could be an interesting premise, but the author doesn’t follow through since all the other male characters continue the stereotypical locker room banter as expected, leaving Samuel isolated and unable to connect with like-minded males or females. Although the sex scenes are brief and tastefully handled, Samuel has so many sexual encounters over the course of the book, that it’s difficult to track who is who.  

Samuel’s clients, including Haitian refugees and a suspected Nazi war criminal, add to the milieu of interesting characters and plot twists. The eventual resolutions of these legal entanglements are both surprising and satisfying.

Unfortunately, the shallow, sex-starved female characters are difficult to relate to. Even those with strong religious convictions or social justice aspirations were given only a quick swipe. Further, it would have been nice to see more growth for Samuel during the span of a 10-year career.  For one of the last dates in the book, for instance, a lady suggests sailing. Samuel leaves all the details to her, including renting a sail boat and arranging a rescue. He never lifts a finger or a wallet to offer a sailing adventure that might have been more entertaining and less dangerous.

Despite its shortcomings, Gables Court remained an enjoyable read, and many of the issues, such as sexual harassment and immigration problems, echo today’s headlines.

 

Tuesday
Feb062018

Book Review: Leaves of the Linden Tree

Leaves of the Linden Tree (unpublished review copy). Marydale Stewart, Black Rose Writing, June 21, 2018.

Reviewed by Florence Osmund

Leaves of the Linden Tree takes place in a small Midwestern town, a close-knit community where the pace is slow and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The main character, Corrie, owns the local bookstore. Other characters include fellow local business people, Corrie’s friends and acquaintances, and their relatives. The characters are engaging, believable, and unique.

The book exposes readers to a wide variety of interesting subjects: living in a small town, managing a bookstore, working in a horse stable, caring for horses, surviving a tornado, and trapping feral cats. The most significant issue in the book, racism, is handled in a delicate, constructive manner and embraces acceptance and tolerance of all people.

This book was challenging to review in that it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of a novel with a beginning (introduction and initial conflict), middle (rising action and climax), and end (falling action and resolution). Nor does it include the fundamental element of a novel—a protagonist encountering roadblocks when trying to achieve a goal—making it difficult to determine the plot. Instead, the book consists of many sub-stories told from numerous points of view, many of them compelling enough to be the basis of a novel by itself. One of these sub-stories, Breanna’s story, does follow the traditional structure of a novel and would make for an interesting book.

The first half of the book contains predominately background information and snippets of each character’s life. No significant action takes place until halfway through the book, again not following traditional novel structure. Perhaps a better place to have started this book would have been when this critical action occurs. 

Marydale Stewart has a background in teaching, technical writing, and editing. Leaves of the Linden Tree is her second novel.

 

Tuesday
Feb062018

Book Review: Poison Girls

Poison Girls. Cheryl L. Reed. Diversion Books, September 12, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 372 pages.

Reviewed by Dennis Hetzel.

“My teeth felt gritty, as if I’d been sucking on the couch lint in my sleep.”

Those are the memorable and very noir-like words of Chicago Times reporter Natalie Delaney when she wakes up in a strange man’s house after a night of heavy drinking—all in pursuit of a story. Natalie is the main character in Cheryl Reed’s novel, Poison Girls.  No couch lint here. Poison Girls works exceedingly well as a crime thriller, and it transcends the cop-thriller-procedural genre by at least the distance between Chicago’s poshest suburbs and grittiest neighborhoods. It’s a powerful story framed by what happens when these worlds collide.

Sometimes fiction is the best path to fresh insight. In this case, the story illuminates the widening gulfs in our country between the upper one percent—you know, the ones who were born on third base and think they hit triples—and the bottom 10 percent. Reed understands Chicago’s neighborhoods, its moods, and its cynical, dark corners. And it’s a story with much to say about corruption, not just the official kind that Chicagoans know so well, but the corruption and erosion of local journalism. The rot seems to fester both within and without.

More than anything, though, Poison Girls is Natalie Delaney’s story. She’s a single, thirty-something female journalist coping with the suicide of the one love in her life and the subtle and not-so-subtle sexism inside and outside a newsroom where every reporter worries if today is the last day on the job.

As one of the best reporters in the Times newsroom, Natalie prays she has a measure of job security. She knows how to do whatever it takes to get a story, and she takes pride in her ability to distance herself from her subjects.

But, not this time.

Events, including her own troubled past, drive Natalie to care too much about a pair of young girls who have the potential to help her respond to a mandate from her bosses: Get scoops and put human faces on the opioid crisis.

The driving premise of her editors, along with the rest of the local media, couldn’t be more cynical. Everyone understands, with no need to say it, that a story about rich, white girls dying of drug overdoses in mysterious ways is far-bigger news than the deaths of poor blacks.

The “Poison Girls” are suburban girls from prominent families who are dying from “poison,” a lethal form of heroin, as they journey into inner city neighborhoods seeking riskier highs. Why and how is this happening? Is it revenge by black street gangs, disgusted minority-community leaders, or something even more evil? In a very Chicago-like way, several of the victims are connected to the powerful brokers of local politics. It’s also bad publicity for the city at a time when a senator from Hyde Park is running for president and the city leaders are going all-out to host the Olympics.

Natalie meets Libby and Anna, two teens who are equal parts victims and connectors. It’s the opening Natalie needs, and she works hard to convince the girls to let her observe the journey, never imagining she’ll become a participant. It isn’t long before Natalie is deeply imbedded in a world that challenges her ethics, leaves her deeply conflicted, and puts her career and life at risk.

Writing a literary crime novel requires an ability to respect the genre but avoid clichés (such as “ink-stained wretches”) and pat dialogue. Reed succeeds in all but a few, scattered spots, and the story gets stronger, and more twisted, the deeper you go.

Reed’s comfort with the subject matter makes sense. She’s a former editor and reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, an award-winning investigative reporter and the author of Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, which chronicled time she spent living with nuns. Currently a professor at Syracuse University, Reed drew on experiences reporting drug use among girls for this, her debut novel.

It’s a terrific debut, indeed. Let’s hope Cheryl Reed gives Natalie Delaney more stories to tell.