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Book Reviews

Monday
Nov272017

Book Review: The Finder of the Lucky Devil

The Finder of the Lucky Devil. Megan Mackie. Independently Published, May 29, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 427 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds

Megan Mackie classifies her novel, The Finder of the Lucky Devil, as a work of urban fiction/fantasy. If you can imagine a story about a corporate-run government in a dystopian future with the noir feel of a ‘50s crime movie, set in a world where magic is real, you would have an idea of what this story encompasses.

Her protagonist, Rune Leveau, is a woman who is both on the run and undercover. The story opens with her being “sprung” from a corporate prison facility by her aunt, one of the most powerful magicians of her time. That corporation wants her back and has no intentions of stopping their search for her. At the same time, she is a Talent, someone with magical powers of her own. Those with Talent are required to register their powers, but Rune is not registered, making her twice an outlaw.

Rune’s aunt gives her a new identity and makes her heir to the bar she runs, The Lucky Devil, a hangout for magical and normal people alike. Rune’s magical power is Finding. Be it lost keys or a missing person, she can Find it. She worked with her aunt to hide her Talent, but her aunt has recently died. Now, Rune faces the task of keeping the bar out of the hands of corporate loan sharks while keeping her real identity and power concealed.

A well-dressed stranger, St. Benedict, enters the situation with a job offer. He needs someone found, and he's willing to pay enough to address Rune’s financial problems. But there’s a catch, and it’s a significant one: The person Benedict wants to find is the woman Rune used to be. Rune turns the offer down, but Benedict isn’t one to take no for an answer. He leaks the fact that Rune might know the location of her former self, and soon every corporate police force and petty thug in Chicago is after her.

When the people who work with Benedict are taken, Rune and Benedict team up in an uneasy partnership. Together, they embark on a journey through a Chicago both familiar and strange, one featuring the gritty alleys and dead-end openings between buildings familiar to any city dweller, along with magically created passages open only to those who know of them. As the pair work together, Rune discovers that she has far more power than she ever imagined, and that her role in Chicago’s magical world is more important than just the possession of an unusual Talent. 

I’ve never read any urban fantasy novels before, but if the genre has half the appeal of Megan Mackie’s book, I may have to delve into it more. The book takes a few pages to really get going, but once she gets it into motion, the story of Rune and Benedict’s flight from one cliff-hanging adventure to the next keeps you reading. The author also doesn’t give any hint of the ending until you get there, which is something I appreciated. Megan gives you characters that have depth and nuance; even the “supporting cast” who only appear for a few pages have the feel of being real people. It’s a good story, and Megan gives herself the opening to write more about these characters, which I hope she does. 

 

Monday
Nov272017

Book Review: Double Kiss

Double Kiss. Darren Musial. Self-published/CreateSpace, Dec. 18, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 218 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

The title of Darren Musial’s third book, Double Kiss, comes from the pool term for a cue ball that hits two balls at once. Max Deacon, Musial’s loyal and capable hero, is right at the point of the kiss as two crime families put this match into play. A nasty turf war causes the thugs to careen off of one another, and we dearly hope that each will be put away with a satisfying smack. Our pool expert Max Deacon is a man of high morals, well-equipped to handle a variety of dangerous situations: fit, fast, and firearm savvy. But a good day for him includes working out, having a few drinks with friends, and managing Dougie’s pool hall.

Max Deacon is the kind of guy that will do anything for his friends. After all, they are as close to him as his only brother, Stan, a Chicago detective. Their danger is, by extension, Max’s danger. When he accompanies his work mate Sharon on a nebulous mission to the Palmer House in downtown Chicago, his interest is piqued by some nefarious gangster types who detain him in the lobby bar. Max’s curiosity sends him off to retrieve his friend, who is on another floor conducting some kind of business.

Max finds out the next day that Sharon had been arrested for a triple murder at the Palmer House Hotel the previous night. Now the cops are looking for him as an accomplice. This is a high stakes murder, with a mob boss and his associates gunned down. Max knows Sharon had nothing to do with the murder but that she’s still keeping a secret that involves the gangsters. She eventually tells Max that she’s trying to buy her half-sister’s freedom from the gang’s drug and prostitution ring. Max cannot stand idly by. The balls are waxed, racked, and ready, and when the action begins it never stops until one way or another, Max has run the table. 

It isn’t often that we find a good guy like Max trying to make things right. He’s not a do-gooder looking for some kind of salvation through good works. He’s not a hard-boiled pessimistic detective out to crack a few skulls, nor is he an effete puzzle solver garnering kudos for his intellect. Max just knows when things are messed up and is willing to put himself on the line to make them right again. He may not be flashy or funny, but he is determined and true to his friends. Perhaps his greatest skill is his ability to think his way out of situations by doing the unexpected with only a pocket knife and his intuition.

Max is engagingly human. He is also the rarest of friends, thoughtful and kind. When a sworn enemy is in a car crash, he stops his own car to pull the thug from the burning car as he fears it will blow up. Sure, he wants them gone, but not like this. There are more instances in which he uses lesser force, or only what he feels he needs to stop the violence. He takes his licks as well as gives them, but he protects his friends at all times. He is an honest man, a regular guy with heroic abilities and little artifice.

A book with such an intimate view of Chicago—its ethnic minorities, streets and stores, and good and bad people—can only come from a native of the city. Musial’s Chicago is not hard and mean but a city that reflects both the best and the worst of its residents. An innocent-looking ethnic neighborhood of hard working laborers provides cover for the worst sort of drug and human traffickers. Behind every storefront there is a story of struggle on the right or wrong side of the law. His description of a Polish delicatessen is so good that I wanted to go get a giant ham sandwich on pumpernickel with a huge pickle. 

From angle of incidence to angle of reflection, Double Kiss is a believable thriller. Max Deacon is a good guy with a lot of violent skills, but he knows that the more violent the response, the more violent the recoil. He’s in this business not to create as much chaos as possible but to make everything smooth again with good friends, good workouts, and good pool. If he brings down a gang family or two in the attempt, so be it. This is an exciting read that builds the suspense and shares some real characters and situations with the reader, but it is also about using what skills you have to help a friend because it’s what friends do for one another, no questions asked.


Monday
Oct302017

Book Review: Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey

Housing Projects, Mansions & Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. Roger Prosise. Indianapolis, Indiana: Chatter House Press, June 3, 2017, Trade Paperback, 156 pages.

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

About 10 years ago, there was a popular aspirational slogan Sí, se puede ("yes you can ") that highlighted the message that one can make the impossible possible through hard work and support. Roger Prosise's memoir is a classic example of Sí, se puede.

Prosise grew up as a biracial kid in Chicago's Cabrini-Green public housing project. Cabrini-Green had the reputation of being the worst public housing project in the country and one of the poorest. Not surprisingly, Prosise went through what can be described as a crucible of fire. He suffered with racial harassment, poverty, and a dysfunctional father who beat him with a board and was incapable of participating in the lives of his children in any way that counted.

However, Prosise was fortunate in that he had a strong, positive mother who would navigate him past the temptations and negativities that existed in Cabrini-Green. Without her love and support, who knows what would have happened to him? It's not without reason that Prosise dedicates the book to Lucille Kojima Prosise.

Prosise's mother had spent her teenage years in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. She became the family breadwinner, working hard to care for her ten children and ungrateful, alcoholic husband. She taught Prosise the value of hard work, family, and education. Lucille Kojima Prosise was a heroine, a real Wonder Woman.

Also consider that Roger Prosise went from one of the poorest communities in the country to become superintendent of Bannockburn School in one of America’s wealthiest communities. The value of education that his mother passed to him made him feel alive. It enabled Prosise to embody the concept that as long as you have a dream, you will get there.

Prosise’s story is so engaging story that I read it in one sitting. He told his story with such honesty that I sometimes cringed as I read it. Referring back to his father, he relates that as a high school student, he was physically as big as his father. The days of physical punishment with a board were over. Prosise could defend himself.

I like the book's format. The memoir is divided into three parts: “Cabrini-Green,” “Lake View,” and “Mansions and Schools.” There is a balance to the story. In addition to being a very personal story and a quick read, there is a flow and rhythm that moves the story along. I did notice some minor typographical errors, which were not problematic and can be corrected in a future edition.

Prosise gives context for the events, people, and places he's writing about. In Chapter Four he gives historical context about the internment camps during World War II, especially the Manzanar camp where his mother, as a young woman, was sent. Early in Chapter Two, Prosise gives a historical, economic, and social context of the Cabrini-Green community. This helps to inform and enrich the story for the reader.

The two major themes of the story are resiliency and the importance of friendships. In the “Backbone” chapter, Prosise writes about his mother’s hard life that never kept her down and exemplified the biggest lesson he learned from her. “Life will knock you down – it’s not a matter of if but when. And when it does, what are you going to do?” For his mother, she always got up and started again. Then there is the focus on friendships. There was Phillip, who protected Prosise from the gangbangers when they both attended Jenner Elementary, and Lorenzo, who saved Prosise from getting jumped by some of the high school students at Cooley.

Prosise’s memoir is a feel-good story that we need in these turbulent times. His story shows the power of friendships to annul racial divisions, and the role of education in helping children transcend poverty. It’s also about resiliency – the classic Horatio Alger story of one humane, caring, and tolerant human being who rose from rags to riches. I frankly admit that there were parts of this story that moved me and in some cases caused me to tear up. I’m proud to belong to an educational fraternity that includes Roger Prosise as a member.


Tuesday
Oct102017

Book Review: Super Jack Eats His Broccoli

Super Jack Eats His Broccoli. Michele Hilgart. Mascot Books: November 7, 2017, Hardcover and E-book, 38 pages.

Reviewed by Barb Belford.

Michele Hilgart sets out to help parents (and teachers) of picky eaters with Super Jack Eats His Broccoli, a picture book for toddlers, preschoolers, and early primary students. “Super” Jack Murphy is a pirate-enemy, baby-sister-saver, who is quite skeptical about eating vegetables—particularly green vegetables. When he finds out from his soccer coach that superfoods like broccoli and carrots make heroes strong and healthy, Jack decides to give them a try.

Hilgart uses simple kid-language to tell an appealing story about a little boy who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables. Parents will relate to Jack and his superhero persona. Hilgart shows sensitivity to family mealtime by showing Jack’s mom as the only adult eating with the children at the dinner table. It’s never explained whether Jack’s mom is a single mom, or whether work schedules prevent both parents eating with the children at mealtime, and the thoughtfulness that went into the author’s decision about this is appreciated.

Hilgart’s illustrations spread the important message of healthy eating. While they’re not as rich and realistic as some picture books, they will engage children’s imaginations. The speech-balloons create the opportunity for discussions about making predictions and inferences while reading. There’s plenty of white space on each page, and the font is the right size for parents who are teaching early reading skills, like one-to-one matching, and are able to point to words while reading them out loud. As an added bonus the book has a short glossary of ten superfoods, each with a large illustration and a fantastic explanation.

Michele Hilgart lives in the Chicago suburbs, and is a working mom, lifestyle coach, and blogger. Her goal is helping other moms put in place healthy fitness and nutrition habits for their families. Super Jack Eats His Broccoli assists nicely in achieving that goal.

I really enjoyed the clever way Jack became empowered to make good choices for healthy eating. I recommend this book to moms and teachers. I even know of a couple of grandchildren who will soon be reading this book—for fun and for superfood empowerment.

 

Wednesday
Sep272017

Book Review: Lovely Faze

Lovely Faze. Owen Patterson. Chicago: BREVIS Publishing, August 1, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 98 pages.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Melvin.

A deceptively thin collection in an azure cover of flowers-in-motion came across my desk, and the next thing I know, little drops of distortion and disturbances came to me from Owen Patterson’s book, Lovely Faze. As the title would suggest, this poetry collection challenges the reader’s perception by embracing image. The poetry is simple and direct. In a recognizable Midwestern dialect, moments of grief, love, and joy roll across the page. The lasting image of each poem really resonates beyond the initial reading.

Owen Patterson was raised and educated here in the Second City. His background as a tutor, special education paraprofessional, and behavioral health counselor no doubt contribute to his baffling presentation of the human condition. Lovely Faze is his debut work and introduces us to a thoughtful wordsmith of resonating depth.

When I read this work, the faze—the disconcertion—hit me first. I found the imagery in works like ‘There Serene Drama’ and ‘What Remains’ easy to see and follow, yet, like drops of water in a pond, it took a while for the meaning to ripple out and become clear. The work is alluring in that it allows the images to gently evoke the stories and emotions of the poems. The brevity and clarity of the language allows it to be revisited, for that moment to be isolated, until it resonates beyond the words.

The collection is split into three parts. Part One is Lovely, which includes poems about nature and love. There is a resonating heat in these poems supported by beautiful imagery. ‘Ease and Repose’ is a seven-line poem hinged on a single image of “the star in my sky,” and you can feel your entire being exhale as you read these simple direct lines.

My favorite is ‘Missed Inspiration’ from Part Two—Faze. This poem, like others in this section of the book, is full of images that should not make sense and yet are completely correct in spirit.  It speaks of opening and of rain: “I opened my mind/ a wellspring flowed.” The concept of losing that idea in the moment is expressed with this saturated poem. Patterson’s work is often more felt than visualized.

The final section of the book is entitled Memes, where Patterson breaks from poetic construct and instead isolates excerpts of social media. Taking social media commentary or shared moments out of the context of the Internet is powerful; removing the visual cues, the other posts that typically surround an update, leaves the black and white text on an unadorned page. It’s much like speaking to a crowded room that has been silenced. It allows the full weight of the words to ring out on their own to express humor, anger, and sarcasm so that instead of being buried with little ‘likes’ or emojis, the reader is left alone with the words themselves. This robs the reader of the interaction that we so often have with social media, which is to craft our response as we read. By taking these phrases off of social media, readers are encouraged to listen and leave their own ideas at rest for a moment. Instead of adding our two cents, we are invited to just experience the voice of another.

It was after this third section of the book that I went back to revisit the poems and read with a quiet mind. This is a collection of work that can be read and reread, each time finding more in the concise and lovely poems. I would recommend this collection to anyone who wants to set their own voice aside for just a moment to hear, to allow this voice to resonate, to find the story behind the simple ‘sleeping sun’ and ‘waters slipping through my fingers,’ and to enjoy the strength of the written word.