Book Reviews

Saturday
May182019

Book Review: The Scar Dance

The Scar Dance: A NovelWilliam Mansfield. Chicago, IL: Eckhartz Press, October 16, 2018, Trade Paperback, 182 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Fox.

Anne, an art teacher on the south side of Chicago, is attacked and mauled by three dogs, and in those few short, terrifying moments, everything about her life changes forever. Screaming for help, she is almost killed in the attack. Her husband is notified and races home to find his wife being loaded into an ambulance, nearly unconscious and covered with blood. Over the next months, Anne struggles to heal from her wounds, both physical and emotional. The attack changes not only her life but that of her husband as well.

The Scar Dance is the story of her recovery, lovingly told by her husband. He begins the book on the day of the attack, a day that starts like any other ordinary day. Anne agreed to do a favor for their neighbors, a couple with three dogs: two bull mastiffs and one Labrador. She agreed to let the dogs out and feed them while the owners were gone, but since she was apprehensive about being alone with the dogs, she had arranged to see them ahead of time—with the owners present. It seemed to be a safe and thoughtful way to handle the situation.

The visit does not go as planned, however. When Anne knocks on the neighbor’s door, the wife calls out for Anne to come in. Anne turns the door handle, and three large dogs rush out to attack her. Anne is knocked to the ground and dragged down a concrete stoop by their powerful jaws. Just moments before, she had been enjoying a beautiful spring morning. Now she was fighting for her life.

The author takes us through Anne’s recovery, and how the attack changes her. He writes how Anne must deal with PTSD. He is honest and forthright in describing how much he has changed as well, and the residual anger he deals with every day. He acknowledges that the entire ordeal and aftermath has taken a staggering toll on their marriage, especially with the escalating tension with their neighbors, the frustration with the press, and a slow-moving court system. Several times I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have responded to the same situation. 

He also writes of the unexpected kindness exhibited by people and the support of the local police force. He writes of the inner strength they find and the ever-changing yet deepening love they have for each other.

I would have enjoyed seeing these themes developed more fully, and the timeline made a bit more concrete. Overall, this is an excellent read, and the story engrossed me from beginning to end. 

 

Thursday
May162019

Book Review: The Surge

The Surge. Adam Kovac. Indianapolis: Engine Books, January 15, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 182 pages.

Reviewed by Jennifer Schulz.

The Surge follows Larry Chandler during the final weeks of his tour in Iraq, as he attempts to overcome his physical and emotional wounds and make a connection with the men he was sent there to lead. 

With five weeks remaining on their tour, Chandler and his men are assigned a far more dangerous mission than any they’d been deployed on previously. The men make it clear they are hoping to finally see some action and earn medals like the ones Chandler received after Afghanistan. Chandler does not share their feelings, but he does not know how to explain why, nor does he believe they would understand.

Throughout the book, Kovac’s writing conveys what Chandler and the others at Camp Tucson are experiencing. He also provides a glimpse of their reality: what they eat, where they sleep, and what they are doing when not actively engaged in battle. As scouts for the convoys, they’re tasked with searching for potential ambushes and bombs and must check animal carcasses along the side of the road to make sure they were not left there intentionally to conceal a bomb. 

Readers are likely to connect with Chandler and understand his men well enough to hope they all make it out alive and intact. Most of the action takes place toward the end, but the whole story is enjoyable and interesting to read, with sufficient action and suspense to keep readers wanting to know what happens next. 

The Surge is not full of high-suspense action or blood and guts. Instead, it focuses on the day-to-day, week-to-week inner workings of one man's mind as he tries to keep his men and himself alive when every day could easily be their last. 

Inspired by Adam Kovac’s deployments with the U.S. Army infantry to Panama, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan, The Surge details the experience of serving in the modern military and how it impacts the thoughts and feelings of the men and women who serve. It’s a good book to grab for an easy and enjoyable weekend read that could be finished in one sitting.

 

Sunday
May052019

Book Review: The Consequence of Stars

The Consequence of Stars: A Memoir of Home. David W. Berner. New York: Adelaide Books, March 28, 2019, Trade Paperback, 212 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

David W. Berner, author of Any Road Will Take You There and There’s a Hamster in my Dashboard, offers in his newest memoir a series of nineteen linked essays traversing his childhood in Pennsylvania through early adulthood to contemporary life. Berner tackles the idea of “home” through a series of defining moments. The opening chapter is a revelation of what home means, launching life from the safety and wonder of the front porch with sleepovers, board games, and plotting explorations of the neighborhood. “This is how one built a life in my hometown. It’s what people did. They grew up in unexceptional little neighborhoods, went to the same Sunday church services, attended the same elementary, middle, and high schools, got jobs at the mills or the local banks, bought homes near their parents, drank at the corner bar with their old high school friends on Friday nights, and raised kids who would grow up and do it all over again. For a time, I was moving straight down that path, doing what you’re supposed to do.” 

Berner’s first inkling of the meaning of home came at age seven when he decided to run away. “Leaving home was supposed to evoke sadness in the person being left behind”; a part his mother refused to play as she cheerily waved him onward. A short trek through the safety of his concerned neighborhood soon routed him back home.

Exploring home takes Berner back to study the lives of his parents, who never ventured far from their natal community. Wartime duty and a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium may have been enough adventure for the couple who married and raised children near their extended family. 

The essays feature themes of growing up, the gradual realization that life is an ever-expanding bubble rapidly enveloping the mysteries of “outside”; “things we don’t talk about,” such as the effects of the Vietnam War to memories of the way we want to believe events unfolded instead of how they truly happened. A look backward shows Berner the truths of friends and family that no one can see in the moment.

“Life is a series of comings and goings,” Berner writes as he prepares to leave for (not very far away) college. He was the “oddball” thinker in a family of blue-collar workers, destined for higher education. By the time he was eighteen years old, he “understood that we must abandon our homes to find our new ones, and leave our hearts behind in hopes that our souls will be endlessly restored.”

Abandoning home eventually meant settling in the Chicago area, 500 miles away, where he lived in several places in the second reiteration of his life, that of a radio host. “I was the first in my family in nearly a hundred years to leave” Pittsburgh, Berner says, evoking the first tears he’d seen his father shed. Raising his family is a serial repeat of watching lessons Berner learned as a child play out in his children. Exotic travel and instilling the sense that no matter how temporary the space, Berner notes that a piece of self stays behind. “Leaving” is always undertaken with the sense of “returning.”

Through a lifetime of experiences calling different places home, from a writer’s retreat in Florida to visiting Europe to meeting a new life partner and molding out a space of his own, Berner concludes, “It is by leaving home we can heal best in order to return.”

“Home is what you carry with you. And, in that spirit, I have been transporting my home with me wherever I go.” 

Lyrically written with earthy language, Berner shares intimate details of a life seeking and understanding his place "to be"—a place of love and acceptance, a place to practice and grow and share himself. The Consequence of Stars is a call for all of us to revisit our lives and reach for the elusive elements of what we call home.

 

Monday
Apr222019

Book Review: Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After

Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After: The Hidden Messages in Fairy Tales. Anne E. Beall, Ph.D. Independently published, November 17, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 103 pages.

Reviewed by Marcie Hill.

Thought-provoking is the best term to describe Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After: The Hidden Messages in Fairy Tales by Anne E. Beall, Ph.D. 

As children, we read fairy tales for entertainment. We were led to believe that “happily ever after” was real because many stories ended that way. As adults, we hold on to these illusions of “happily ever after,” only to keep us optimistic while navigating adult life.

I would argue that very few of us think about what happened to Cinderella and Prince Charming after we closed the pages of that book. I didn't. And, I probably wouldn't have given it more thought until I read Cinderella Didn’t Live Happily Ever After.

After I read Beall’s book, I started wondering why Cinderella wouldn’t live happily ever after. Didn't her fairy godmother give her an enchanting evening filled with a beautiful gown, an amazing carriage, and fabulous glass slippers? Wasn't she selected for an intimate dance with the prince? Didn't the prince marry her after fitting the glass slipper on her foot? How many other women in her town married a prince?

Dr. Beall changed my entire outlook on fairy tales. Although she analyzed several famous fairy tales, Cinderella was the primary focus of the book. In addition to sharing the hidden messages found in these stories, Beall backed up many of her findings with statistics and research. She even breaks down the results by gender, physical features, age, social status, and by how much power each character held. Beall was incredibly insightful in analyzing these stories.

Some of my questions were answered in the second chapter: “My first concern is her lack of qualifications for the job she’s taking.” Dr. Beall was referring to Cinderella’s social status. Based on the story, Cinderella is possibly working-class or middle-class. The mistreatment by her evil stepmother and stepsisters indicates her low status in the household. Dr. Beall notes “that she seems to have some personality disorder that causes her to act like a doormat.” The possibility of Cinderella moving from her social status at the start of the story to a much higher status, in the emotional state she was in at the tale’s end, and without proper preparation, would surely doom her to unhappiness.

Other messages that were painfully obvious to me were that women in fairy tales, as they are in our present society, were treated differently because of their gender. For instance, for women to marry into a social class above their own, they have to be beautiful. This speaks to society’s obsession with standards of beauty, which typically applies to women and not men. 

Dr. Beall also noted that women in fairy tales “love and marry animals or highly unappealing partners, whereas men do not.” I think this also applies to real-life situations where you see men with stunningly beautiful women regardless of how attractive these men are. Beall also asserts that women tend to select mates for qualities other than their looks. 

There are other details documented in the book which reflect society at some level. Most of the characters in the fairy tales are powerful males. They were also typically good people. Women, on the other hand, were passive, less powerful, and were either good or evil. Also, men caused and received the most suffering; women caused the most suffering to other women; children suffered the most. 

This book is a good read, and it will definitely make you think differently about fairy tale characters. Thank you, Dr. Beall, for letting us know that Cinderella did not live happily ever after, despite what the fairy tale says.

 

Tuesday
Apr162019

Book Review: The Butcher

The ButcherAlan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 24, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 205 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Allan S. Kessler’s The Butcher imagines a world where the worst people have grabbed power and only a miracle can change things. The novella is speculative fiction, and while it is a novella, it is broader and more ambitious than most books this length. The Butcher is an engaging read that isn’t just an escape into another world; it’s a reflection on our own.

Mikkel, the protagonist, is a boy approaching manhood who lives in a world with only two seasons, Spring and Summer, each three months long. This world contains two groups of people: those in the Party, and the Burners—a race of people Mikkel has been taught to despise. “He had been taught in school about Burners, this sly, parasitic race who, not content with their sheep and goats, wanted control over the pigs of the world. Elementary schoolbooks depicted Burners as fat, hog-shaped creatures eating mouthfuls of pig meat while blond, emaciated children looked on with pleading eyes. The captions under the drawings were all variations of the one idea: They Feast While We Starve.” The Burners are a reviled race, and Mikkel is on the verge of manhood and well positioned within the Party based on his father’s standing. 

Kessler creates a wonderful tension from the onset because we see that Mikkel, while positioned to succeed in the Party, lacks the bloodlust of his peers. We soon discover that there’s more to Mikkel’s past than just growing up in the Party. When he encounters a member of the Burners, who identifies him as the savior of the Burner people, he begins a journey that is far more challenging than merely conforming to the expectations of the life he was born into.

Kessler does a nice job making the life Mikkel could have enjoyed—if he continued to tow the Party’s line—thoroughly unappealing. The Party is a society built around ritual slaughter, the exploitation of Burner labor, and a patriarchal caste system that leaves even the elite beholden to a ruthless few. The flesh of slaughtered pigs is divided up among the elite, and every part of the pig, down to the dung, is used to such an extent that the ruling class of the society appears downright filthy. In particular, the Butcher, their founder and de facto leader, lives a strange, isolated existence, planning the Party’s next move, which we learn throughout the course of the novella is about to take a horrible turn for the worse.

The world Kessler has created—a world with only two seasons, where killing pigs and making full use of every bit of them while trodding on the miserable Burners—is oppressive, but Kessler crafts characters and effectively reveals information about how the world ended up in this terrible state. While the book opens in a rather grim setting, as we learn things weren’t always this bad and see hope is possible, a momentum builds, making this an exhilarating read. The novella is structured so that we are dropped in the middle of a story where the protagonist is living out the resolution of a struggle that started before he was born. Kessler isn’t just dreaming up some terrible world full of dead pigs; he has a point he wants to make, and I think most readers will find that, by the last few pages, he’s made it nicely. 

A recommended book for readers who enjoy speculative fiction, particularly with world building as a key component of the plot, Kessler's The Butcher is terrifying, fascinating, and surprisingly hopeful.