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Book Review: Original Syn

Original Syn. Beth Kander. Owl House Books, September 25, 2018, Trade paperback and E-Book, 463 pages. 

Reviewed by Ukaisha A. Hall.

The year is 2065, decades after The Singularity, and humankind has dwindled down to tribes while enhanced humans—synthetic citizens—who are synched with technology, rule. They are not only responsible for maintaining and sustaining Syns, but also making laws that govern the people. The leader of the Syn movement is Dr. Felix Hess. Even though he is the eleventh member of the Syn Council, his word prevails because he is the first fully successfully synched human and lead scientist in cyber organics. Dr. Hess is both savior and villain. His logic, demands, and actions spur the story forward. Marilyn, his wife and mother of Ever, follows his every order, even when it means hurting others. Her compliance is matched by Dr. Hess’s two assistants: Jorge, a Vost and second-class citizen, and Kennedy, a more-privileged Syn. While others respect and fear Hess, his daughter, Ever, despises her father’s control. 

As the Syns build great cities and hoard resources, Originals—humans that couldn’t afford to synch or refused to synch—are pushed to the outskirts of Syn society. Tribes of Originals migrate to safe places until the land is commandeered by Syns and they are forced to move on. Ruth Fell is a leader in her tribe and highly respected. Though she can be harsh, she is a protector, so it is her job to keep the tribe safe. Ere Fell loves his mother, but just wants to meet a girl his age that will like him instead of his tall, muscled, and responsible cousin, Cal. 

This science fiction story centers round the lives of Ever Hess, a Syn perpetually stuck at 17 and Ere Fell, a 17-year-old original boy. Ever Hess is bored and longs for authentic experience in her perfect, metallic world. In a fit of exasperation, she runs away. She learns riveting truths about how Originals live, and she also discovers startling and dangerous truths about her father. Ere is also blindsided by the truths his mother withheld from him. Both have to navigate dual worlds while trying to figure out their own hearts and where their allegiances fall.

In Original Syn,Kander introduces a host of characters, each with their own chapters, creating perspective and urgency as some characters discover secrets while others are left in the dark. The story is told from a third-person, present-tense point of view. This approach, in itself, is a very unexpected aspect of the story and at times can actually take the reader out of the moment instead of bringing the reader closer to the action. This feeling of losing connection with the characters could also be the result of a very lengthy back story that seems to culminate in ways that do not always add to the character development. On the other hand, as a first book of a series, the reader is taught how to understand the world of Ever and Ere. Hopefully, with the back-stories out of the way, the second book will leave room for more plot advancement and better character development. 

It will be interesting to see how the war between the Syns and the Originals plays out and what role Ever and Ere will play. Readers will also be interested in supporting characters, who may be putting even more at risk than the main characters as they step up through the ranks.

All in all, Kander tells a story woven with secrets, love, danger, as well as ethical and philosophical questions as old as time. What makes us human? Why are we here? Is there a God? Does love conquer all?



Book Review: Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover: Eleven Short Stories. Rich Elliott. Rich Elliott Productions, October 1, 2018, Trade Paperback, 152 pages.

Reviewed by Florence Osmund.

Duck and Coveris a delightful book of eleven short stories that take place in the sixties in the small town of Milford, Illinois, told through the eyes of adolescents. The title of the book—stemming from the drills school children were trained to do in case of an atomic bomb threat—is also the title of one of the stories told by a sixth-grade boy who reaches out to a girl who doesn’t fit in with the other classmates and who comes from a dysfunctional family. The tale ends in tragedy when the girl’s father makes a fateful decision that affects his whole family as well as the young boy who is narrating the story.

Other stories depict an eccentric grammar school teacher obsessed with diagramming sentences; a boy who is accused of causing bad luck for those who are close to him; a 1959 White Sox baseball card’s effect on a boy, a sports memorabilia shop owner, and his girlfriend; a girl’s crush on George Harrison; and a precocious boy interested in space, missiles, and foreign affairs, who later joins the Army and goes to war in Vietnam.

One story I think many of us can relate to is titled “First Base,” the story of a boy in his senior year of high school who hadn’t had much luck with girls. His friends set him up with a girl who happens to have a large, unsightly birthmark on her face. They go to Riverview Park where they go into the tunnel of love and he has his first kiss. Later that school year, she gets the birthmark removed and dumps the boy for the school’s star quarterback. A sad but too often tale of reality for the young at heart. 

I believe many readers—young and old—will be able to relate to one or more of these engaging slices of life. The author includes stories about the lighthearted aspect of survival in the sixties in mid-America but doesn’t ignore the darker side—the threat of an atomic bomb, the spread of communism, mobsters, creepy adults, and death. The mix, while sometimes frightening and not appropriate reading for young children, is a true depiction of life in that era.



Book Review: Pretense

Pretense - Imbroglio Trilogy (Volume 1)John Di Frances. Reliance Books, July 3, 2018, Trade Paperback, 302 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Pretense, John Di Frances’ geopolitical thriller, is the first book of the Imbroglio Trilogy. The definition of imbroglio, as presented in the book, is “an extremely confused or complicated situation,” and as expected from the genre, we are led down story lines that suddenly veer off in unexpected directions. The action is fast-paced, peppered with near-escapes and enough plot twists to satisfy even the most jaded reader. The characters are relatable and believable. While the assassins might be cold-blooded killers, they also plan vacations and ponder what to cook for dinner. The group of “good guys” searching for them are not above their own faults. The book is easy to read and hard to put down.

The story opens with the murder of the Slovakian Prime Minister. Not long after that, the Polish Prime Minister is assassinated in a crowded soccer stadium. While the two deaths could be a coincidence, the likelihood of something more sinister leads to unrest throughout Europe. The assassins are pursued by a team of Polish intelligence and security personnel, led by intrepid Interpol agent, Marek (The Wolf) Farkas. They are eventually joined by an American CIA operative shortly after discovering clues suggesting that the killings may have been sanctioned or even carried out by the CIA. 

One of the more satisfying parts of the book is how the author alternates between the assassins and the group pursuing them. This allows us to follow each path, wondering when they will intersect. Several of the characters are well-realized. We learn some of the backstory of how and why the assassins became killers, and we experience their pettiness and insecurities, as well as their successes. The investigators, too, are well-rounded individuals, including Marek Farkas and Adrianna, a young forensics expert who holds her own on the mostly male team, despite occasionally showing her naiveté. 

If there is any fault to the story, to this reader, it is the author’s extensive use of acronyms and their meanings. While only a minor nuisance, these tended, at times, to pull me from the story. One example is in the phrase, “...still in the final T&E (Testing and Evaluation) phase...” I think it would be enough to just say, “...still in the final testing and evaluation phase...” Another time an individual was referred to as “being at U.S. European Command (USEUCOM).” Again, I believe it would flow smoother without the acronym.

The locations are well-described, due in no small part to the author’s background as a global consultant. John Di Frances has assisted clients in complex problem-solving of Advanced Military Weapons Systems, and has worked with the FBI, SEC, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Swiss National Police. He appears to have been working toward this point all his adult life. He is the author of four business books, the co-author of a fifth, and since 2000 has served audiences internationally as a professional keynote speaker.

The ending of this first book in a trilogy took me totally by surprise. It was quite satisfying, answering numerous questions while also posing new ones. I can’t wait to read the next two books.



Book Review: Unplugged

Unplugged: A Novel (15th Anniversary Edition). Paul McComas. Daniel & Daniel Publishers, October 7, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 100 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

The 15thanniversary edition of Unplugged, originally published in 2002, comes with a full eight pages of accolades at the beginning of the book in the form of short reviews and one-line blurbs from magazines, newspapers, and other writers. Every single praise is deserved. 

Unplugged follows rocker Dayna Clay and her struggle with depression. Paul McComas’ portrayal of depression is vivid, realistic, and accessible. For readers who have never experienced the throes of depression firsthand, the depiction of Dayna’s journey is an excellent aid for understanding its mental landscape. What makes the journey even more poignant is that Dayna herself is complex, real, and arresting. 

Whatever reservations may exist regarding a male author writing about a female protagonist’s spiritual awakening—especially when sexual assault is a prominent part of that character’s past, as in Dayna’s case—are unfounded in the case of McComas. He writes Dayna’s flaws, fallbacks, strengths, and victories with insight and sensitivity; her gender identity is not ignored, just never the focus over other things that matter more to Dayna. Her sexuality, although not explored in the traditional sense—since Dayna is certain of it by the time the book begins—is explored in the sense that we, as readers, get to come to terms with it in partnership with Dayna. 

Many introspective novels that focus on a character’s inner journey struggle with external action can feel bogged down, but not Unplugged. McComas adeptly writes the external world to mirror the internal one, solidifying the connections Dayna makes and the way the physical world helps her manage her internal one. The most effective example of this is the lightning bolt shape that Dayna sees in her mind’s eye at a turning point in her life, which subsequently spurs her journey and helps her determine when she reaches her physical destination.

But perhaps my favorite aspect of this novel is how clearly McComas loves the setting he has chosen, reflected in his precise yet sweeping descriptions of the Badlands. Although I have never been to South Dakota, judging by the accuracy of his description of the drive west to Iowa—a drive I have made countless times when I was in college—I can only assume that he has replicated their majesty the best an author can. 

As a unique bonus for the anniversary reprint, there is an accompanying CD for Unplugged featuring the songs Dayna sings and writes in the book, and the reprint even has the sheet music, lyrics, and an “About the Songs” section. Reading the descriptions of Dayna’s music in the book and being able to listen to it is a very cool experience. McComas’ writing talents are not limited to the page—the music functions as an extension of the story but, more than that, the songs are a good listen in their own right. If you buy the book, be sure to buy the CD as well!  

Unplugged is heartfelt, uplifting, and personal. Even if you do not share Dayna’s experiences, the lows and the highs both feel natural, and none of the victories feel cheap or unearned. If you like character studies, genuine emotional and physical breakthroughs, and interplay between the physical and mental worlds, Unplugged is for you.   



Book Review: Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss

Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss: A Southsider’s Journey to Redemption. Bonnie E. HarringtonWindy City Publishers, October 25, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 237 pages.

Reviewed by Michelle Burwell.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago in the 1940s, Bonnie Harrington, like many Chicagoans during the time, did not have it easy. Her family had to be creative to make ends meet and often had to make sacrifices, moving to smaller spaces even as it grew. But the thing that makes Bonnie and her memoir stand out is her enduring optimism. She finds humor in daunting and difficult situations. In Don’t Lift Up Your Hood and Cuss, Bonnie is open, honest, and endearing as she depicts her transformation from a shy, naïve schoolgirl from humble beginnings, to a woman capable of exploring the world and herself.

Bonnie’s early years in Chicago were hard. She was bullied about her weight, her brother was born with an illness that lasted into his teenage years, and the family that is the center of her world dealt with infidelity. She offers paragraph-size vignettes that find the humor in a rotating cast of family pets, a house fire, and her Dad’s mid-life crisis. She weaves a heartwarming tale of a loving, supportive family that time and again finds a way to show up for each other.

After graduating high school, she met the man who eventually became her husband. Together they travelled to Alaska and Japan with the Navy, and over time faced similar predicaments to the ones from her childhood—shrinking living spaces and a growing family. Yet she made the best of her time abroad. She tells of making a friend in Japan who endured a very hard life, and who put Bonnie’s own hardships into perspective. Bonnie describes her amazement, when it is time for the family to return to Chicago after three years in Japan, at how much she has grown and evolved as a person. 

In her writing, Bonnie is able to share the exact amount of detail that makes a story funny or poignant. She is able to take her craft seriously without taking herself too seriously, and it makes for sharp prose. While the memoir carries perhaps excess detail about the family transition back into civilian life, it is overall a great, uplifting read. I would recommend this memoir, especially to anyone who may be deployed in the military or hoping for some sort of dynamic life change.


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