Book Reviews

Monday
Jan022017

Book Review: God on Mayhem Street

God on Mayhem Street. Kristin A. Oakley. Mineral Point, WI: Little Creek Press, September 15, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 308 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

God on Mayhem Street is Kristin A. Oakley’s follow-up to her debut novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois, which was cited by the Chicago Writers Association as the best non-traditionally published book of the year in 2014 and was a finalist for the 2015 Independent Author Network Book of the Year. With these awards to her credit, it is not surprising that Oakley writes well. Her prose is taut and convincing, and her technique is strong. These strengths are abundant in this novel of bigotry and violence in rural Wisconsin.

Leo Townsend, a reporter for the Chicago Examiner, lands a career-making exclusive interview with Griffin Carlisle, an openly gay presidential candidate. The interview is cut short when Leo receives news of his father’s heart attack and rushes home to the small town of Endeavor, Wis. The family relationships are complicated and strained. Livestock suddenly take ill. It emerges they have been poisoned by unscrupulous evangelical bigots that Leo discovers will stop at nothing to take possession of the Townsend family farm by any means necessary. The animosity escalates.

Although God on Mayhem Street is a roller coaster of a novel that rarely slows for its twists and loop-the-loops, the cart jumps the track a few times. The overall structure of the novel is robust, and many of the characters and their relationships are well-drawn and compelling. Oakley has a gift for building and sustaining tension. Yet some characters – particularly the greedy evangelical mayor, Landry, and his minions – tend towards the monochromatic. Landry lacks the complexity of, say, Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous Elmer Gantry.

Further, some of Oakley’s plot choices are confusing, such as Leo’s decision to help Dahlia, his sad, former high school girlfriend. It is difficult to understand why Leo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, thinks that it will be possible to collect enough evidence to expose Landry while protecting Dahlia from the consequences of her criminal behavior.

God on Mayhem Street is a lovely piece of writing from a novelist with talent. Oakley has a feel for contemporary small-town life in the Midwest. Further, it is difficult to argue that a novel about the disastrous effects of religious bigotry in rural America is anything but timely.

 

 

Friday
Dec162016

Book Review: Humble Beginnings: Episode One of the Prodigy Series

Humble Beginnings: Episode One of the Prodigy Series. John F. Thomas. Self published, November 1, 2016, Kindle, 47 pages.

Reviewed by Victoria Morrow.

Humble Beginnings is the first book in a series about a young boy named John Prodigy, who is constantly bullied at school and feels like an outsider in his hometown. In this first episode, we come to know John and the things that motivate him. We also watch him struggle not only with himself, but with finding out where he belongs in the world and wondering if he has anything to offer.

This first episode serves as a promising introduction to the future additions in this series. Humble Beginnings starts with a short prologue that takes place six years before the action of the main story. It is a somewhat cryptic opener, but there was enough mystery and intrigue presented to keep me turning pages.

One of the biggest strengths of this episode is how easy it is to sympathize with John. He is a classic underdog and the target of bullies. As the story unfolds, we witness how John becomes motivated by those bullying experiences, vowing to protect others who are also in need, and to somehow make the world a better place. That may have been a small moment in comparison to others in the episode, but it was one that immediately put me on John’s side and made him a relatable character who is easy to root for. The relationships that John has with his mother, the townspeople, and his new friend, were also endearing elements of his character that could make the story as a whole resonant with a wider audience.

Despite John’s relatability and the dynamic relationships he has with the small number of people in his life, there were ultimately a few hang-ups in Humble Beginnings: Episode One that kept me from being completely immersed in the story.

First, and the most important, there was never a firm sense of place in the episode. I longed for clearer descriptions of John’s school, home, and town. So much so, I never found my footing when it came to these locations.

In addition, with mentions of words like “Emperor” and “Affinities” and “Affinity Trials” there are not-so-subtle nods to the fact that this is a fantastical world in which John resides. However, most of these terms were mentioned off-handedly, and the conversations that followed between the characters did little to clarify the meanings of these terms or provide any background information about their greater context in the story as a whole. It was as though I was expected to know and understand the intricacies of this world already when it hadn’t been defined yet.

While reading many conversations between the characters, or even after reading some of John’s inner thoughts, it felt like I was new to this world, lost without a map and one step behind all of the action. While John was a strong character, he never became the anchor I was hoping for—someone to pull me into the story to help me understand what was happening. Instead, I was left to fend for myself in confusion, with little-to-no explanation, with more questions and concerns than anticipation.

Another element that kept me from becoming fully immersed in the story was the choice of tense. Humble Beginnings: Episode One is told in the third person, present tense. While there is of course nothing wrong with that, the criticisms that I had in regard to a sense of place were even more noticeable because of the choice to tell the story in present tense and the inescapable immediacy that comes with that. Background information was forgone in this episode concerning all of the characters, John included, which did not allow for a chance to know what kind of characters they are outside of this present day story that is supposed to be happening right now.

There is more than enough material in Humble Beginnings: Episode One for the author to work with, and many storylines and backgrounds to flesh out as the episodes go along. It will be interesting to see the direction The Prodigy Series takes now, and the ways in which John will attempt to find his place in the world. 


Friday
Dec162016

Book Review: The Science of Choosing (the Right) Clients

The Science of Choosing (the Right) Clients. Jennifer Brown Banks. PDF, 24 pages.

Reviewed by Brian Johnston.

There are many talented, aspiring writers among us. But for many writers, including myself, figuring out where and how to even begin a writing career can be a daunting task. As difficult as creating a great piece of writing can be, often times that is the easy part. Many writers have trouble finding opportunities to get the word out about their work and achieving the ultimate goal of getting paid for doing what they love.

Jennifer Brown Banks attempts to guide aspiring writers through this process in her new book, The Science of Choosing (the Right) Clients. Banks holds a business management degree and draws from her experience in professional writing to pen this short book.

The focus of the book is on how to identify the right clients, people and businesses, who will pay writers for their work. The biggest strength of this book is that it offers inspiration for writers and helps them to understand the importance of putting a proper value on what they do. Writers should not allow clients to take advantage of them. Rather, they should know what their services are worth and approach clients accordingly. I actually found her insights on how writers should value themselves to be applicable to other areas of my life as well.

Banks describes several characteristics of both good and bad clients, citing a few examples from her professional career, so that writers can identify them ahead of time. Many writers are not naturally inclined to be outgoing people who aggressively market themselves, but Banks stresses the importance of people and business skills, which are just as critical as writing skills in order to have a successful career in this field. Banks definitely knows her stuff, and her experience shows.

There are lots of helpful tips in the book that will benefit both new and seasoned writers. However, the book is limited in scope. While the author does list several places that writers can go to find paid gigs, the book lacks specifics on how to actually get clients or to solicit people and organizations for work. In fact, other than briefly discussing blogging, Banks provides little detail about the type of professional writing she has done. In discussing the different types of clients, good and bad, additional specific examples from the author’s experiences would have been helpful. Punctuation is also a concern; the excessive use of commas in particular was at times distracting.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, this is useful for people who are trying to make a living as a writer. Banks clearly has a passion for what she does and a desire to help others succeed. Those who have lots of questions about becoming a professional writer will not find all the answers here and will need to pursue further research, but I walked away feeling more confident in my abilities and valuing my skills much more. That alone makes the book worthwhile.

 

Monday
Dec122016

Book Review: The Summer of ’47

The Summer of ’47. Frederick H. Crook. Solstice Publishing, October 6, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 366 Pages.

Reviewed by Ken Sawilchik.

When I was a child, I lived near a popular toboggan run. The ride was awesome, but what everyone still talks about was the climb to the top, consisting of approximately 125 stairs reaching nearly 100 feet high. We made the climb carrying long wooden sleds over our heads in freezing temperatures. During the course of reading The Summer of ‘47 by Frederick H. Crook, I was often reminded of that experience.

Set in the period shortly after the conclusion of World War II, Aron Wakefield returns to his home in rural Illinois, unwittingly with his two dead brothers and a series of otherworldly beings in tow. Aron endured a succession of injuries during the war, one of which was severe enough that he actually died, but the military medical staff brought him back to life. Upon his revitalization, he "sees dead people." After his eventual release from a string of armed forces hospitals, he moves back in with his family and the sightings come with him. This spooks his parents but not Christina Johnson, a family friend since childhood and girlfriend of his now deceased brother, David.

The first half of Crook's fifth novel lacks anything compelling except for a minor bit of action in which the apparitions reveal themselves. In contrast with the toboggan run, I had no idea where the story was heading for the first half of the narrative. But much like it, the latter portion of the novel was an exhilarating ride down a steep incline at breakneck speed, taking me on a trip that was unique, attention grabbing, and entertaining. This is not a typical ghost story by any measure. It is a well-written genre mashing effort that gets your mind churning and contemplating possible outcomes. Unfortunately, once you reach the bottom of the slope things turn a bit rocky.

Aron and Christina get tangled up in a murder investigation in which the ghosts play a key role. The result is a one-of-a-kind journey that deviates substantially from the customary continuous string of fright scenes that you might anticipate. These apparitions are intelligent, mischievous, and useful, but the methodology of how they appear is inconsistent. At times, their presence seems random and at others premeditated. The unfolding action is captivating enough that those transgressions can be dismissed. Why spoil a good time by getting trapped in details? The resolution of the mystery is telegraphed a bit, but not enough that the ride is ruined.

Once the murder investigation is solved, the conclusion takes another unexpected twist. The wrap-up was confusing and dissatisfying, and I found myself questioning the meaning of the entire novel. In lock step with my winter adventure analogy, I reached the end of the ride a little bewildered from excitement. It differs in that the ride was not captivating enough to give me the wherewithal to begin another excursion to the apex of the hill.

 

Monday
Dec052016

Book Review: Be Cool: A Memoir (sort of)

Be Cool: A Memoir (sort of), Ben Tanzer. Seattle: Dock Street Press, February 1, 2017, Trade Paperback, 372 pages.

Reviewed by Susan Dennison.

Be Cool is an amuse-bouche of essays—30 bite-sized pieces that take the reader through Tanzer’s efforts to be one the cool people in the 1980s through the 2000s. Cool, for Tanzer, is wanting to be “noticed and . . . Finding a way to be heroic and larger than life.” Sometimes he finds a fleeting fame; at other times, the attempts to be cool go tragically and humorously awry when he gets swept up in imagining how he will swoop in and save the day.

Tanzer is direct and unapologetic for his desire to be special, the sun around which others orbit. What child hasn’t dreamed of that? On the surface, the book seems like it could be a portrait of a “hip” writer who pursues coolness with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Anyone who sees a picture of Tanzer will think this is probably someone who was born with more than his share of cool quotient. His headshot—dark framed glasses, suitably messy hair, the shimmer of an unshaved face, black shirt and jacket and blue jeans—it all winks at you and says, this is cool. However, with his willingness to admit what he is now is not what he was growing up, one suspects he may still struggle today.

Once you dive into Tanzer’s essays, you recognize that he was so NOT cool growing up and bordered on absolute nerdiness. So, he may have metamorphosed into a cool Chicago writer, but that transformation was pockmarked with embarrassing crushes (Parker Stevenson), fumbling sexual encounters (the dreaded snap front bra), binge drinking (if you say you don’t have a drinking problem, do you?), and fashion faux pas (dressed as Sweeney Todd for a day at the beach).

Were it not for Tanzer’s unflinching honesty, humor, and at times poetic writing, this collection would drift into the pile of I-was-an-awkward-kid-growing-up-and-now-I’m-writing-about-it memoirs. Happily, Be Cool rises above those memoirs. One is never quite sure if Tanzer actually does have his act together, and the book is stronger for that.

Although a few of the essays fade out with the sense there was more to say than was on the page, there are ones that soar off the page and take the reader for a ride. When Tanzer hits a sweet spot, you get wrapped up in the story and the language, drawing you into his world where his words and voice swirl around you.

“Sketches from the Accident (For Andre Dubus)” is one such essay. It’s a nod to author Dubus’ debilitating accident in 1986, when he was struck by a car while helping two stranded motorists. Dubus lost his leg and was eventually confined to a wheelchair following the accident. Like Dubus, Tanzer suffered a life-altering accident. At fourteen years old, he skied into a tree, separating his thigh muscle from the bone. What follows is a detailed and mesmerizing account of his hospital stay and recovery. Before the accident, Tanzer was an avid runner and it was months before he was able to run as he once did. With short, punchy sentences, Tanzer conveys the injury and its aftermath with an objectivity and matter-of-factness that gives weight to his essay. There’s no wallowing in “poor me,” and for that I think this essay is one of the strongest in the collection.

Tanzer is as honest and open in “My (not quite) Cancer Years,” in which he endured months of back-stabbing pain and invasive examinations before passing a kidney stone. All good memoirists understand the power of honesty, even when it may make the reader cringe, and cringe you may while reading this essay. The willingness to lay bare one’s body and feelings is not for the timid. Some of the essays start as stories, but along the way, the reader gets more, going a little deeper into understanding the author more and learning something in the process.

Who hasn’t admired someone from afar or made an ass of themselves? Who hasn’t wished for a do-over or realized the need to make a different choice based on circumstances? But a writer who is willing to admit he doesn’t have it all together, even now, is worth reading and enjoying. 

 

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