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Book Reviews

Saturday
Jan272018

Book Review: Dog Eared

Dog Eared. W. Nikola-Lisa. Chicago, IL: Gyroscope Books, June 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 336 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Nikola-Lisa uses his yearlong project of sorting and cleaning all the books in his office as a launching pad for an exploration of the joys and challenges of being a self-published author. Cleaning and organizing books may not seem like the noblest of endeavors, but five pages into Dog Eared, you will be dedicated to the project. In another author’s hands, this subject matter could easily stagnate, but thanks to Nikola-Lisa’s humor and wonderfully quirky style, the book is a true delight to read.

Written in short, funny chapters, Dog Eared is at once personal and light. Broken into four sections, each corresponding to a season, the book presents itself as a tour through the self-publishing world, offering insights such as the challenges of marketing one’s own books while also designing and writing them. The real joy of Dog Eared, however, is getting to know its author, W. Nikola-Lisa. Whether he’s sharing the story of how he ended up with his unique name or explaining why he and his wife get mistaken for parking meter patrolmen in their matching yellow bike helmets, Nikola-Lisa’s openness and subtle humor are a pleasure. He shares not only the trials and tribulations of the DIY, entrepreneurial self-publishing world, but also personal anecdotes that create intimacy and familiarity. Dog Eared is laugh-out-loud funny, but Nikola-Lisa doesn’t achieve his humor through cheap gags.

Part of what makes Dog Eared fun to read is that it seems like it was fun to write. A book on the subject of self-publishing could easily devolve into a dry how-to structure, but Dog Eared is far more nuanced. As much as this is a book about self-publishing, it is also a book about what it means to be a writer today. With the consolidation of major publishers and a growing world of indie presses and self-published authors, W. Nikola-Lisa shares how he’s managed to live as a writer. And while the book may take a glib approach to the struggles he faces as a writer, it also celebrates the joy of writing itself, which might be why the book is such fun to read.

Dog Eared is a vicarious adventure for readers, not a how-to guide, even though it’s described as a “romp through the self-publishing world.” If you’re looking to learn how to become a self-published author, there’s very little step-by-step guidance. I found the focus on entertaining a pleasant surprise. And even though this isn’t a comprehensive guide to self-publishing, anyone with an interest in self-publishing will find plenty of useful tips and tricks of the trade.

Ideal for readers with an interest in self-publishing, books on writing, or just folks looking for a good laugh, Dog Eared is a fun and thoughtful book filled with laughs and the joy of writing. Don’t miss out on this delightful, humorous, and heartfelt book.

 

Friday
Jan262018

Book Review: Walk Until Sunrise

Walk Until Sunrise. J.J. Maze. Page Publishing, Inc., November 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 230 pages.

Reviewed by Gerry Souter.

J. J. Maze’s memoir, Walk Until Sunrise, is a visceral tale of a girl’s journey from childhood to late teenage years. The story, and the older-than-her-years voice of the narrator, create a world like that of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye and Jack Kerouac in On the Road.

Maze opens the book with a combination of trauma and self-reflection: 

“I broke down in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“Making one last feeble attempt to join in, to partake of, to affiliate myself with civilization, I politely responded in the affirmative to a young bohemian-looking photographer leaning against his green van. He wanted to take pictures of me down by the Rio Grande River. I was highly amused at my ability to actually be flattered by this invitation in spite of . . . and how willingly and instantaneously I reverted to my overdramatic level of angst-ridden teenage vanity and self-consciousness. Oh, my gawd! My hair wasn’t done, and the faded yellow T-shirt with the peeling parrot decal looked tacky! I must be okay . . . sane . . . perfectly fine if I was able to care about these things.”

The author—called “Heather” by her fractured family—has every good reason to check on the state of her sanity. A light tan, mixed-race child in a fatherless household, with a fractured younger sister and dominated by a white mother, Heather is beautiful on the outside, but bipolar on the inside. Her mother fills the home with wall-to-wall anxiety and a string of sexual partners dragged home to beat the sheets, while Heather and Sis stay out of the way. Mom’s sexual appetites twist her perception, so that she sees Heather as a similarly sex-starved nymphomaniac requiring constant watching and discipline. 

Heather has a natural gift for music, but her lack of self-esteem, overshadowing self-doubt, and destructive self-punishment eventually drive her from home, hitch-hiking somewhere, anywhere.

Being on the road is nothing new for Heather. She had already experienced intervals of living with her mother and sister in their car after being driven from home due to her mother’s lack of rent money, eccentric behavior, and paranoid fears.

Following her departure from home, Heather hurls herself into a nomadic world of characters—good, bad and surreal—testing her sexuality and easing herself in and out of her chromium-plated shell of self-loathing/loving to blend in with various hippy, bohemian, life-affirming, amateur criminal situations into which she caroms like a pin-ball.

As with Holden and Kerouac, Heather’s internal dialog dwells between beat-down realities and thinly-crafted safety nets sustaining her ability to keep seeking a better place just down the block, down the road, or across the map.

Gradually, she hones her end game.  At the finish of her journal, having come full circle, she leaves the reader—like Holden and Kerouac—with an open-ended hope.

This is a riveting read and to anyone—like this reviewer—who has felt the road under foot and the wind at their back will find a kindred spirit in Heather in Walk Until Sunrise.

 

Wednesday
Jan242018

Book Review: Stars at Naught

Stars at Naught. Owen Patterson. BREVIS Publishing, January 2, 2018, Trade Paperback, 113 pages.

Reviewed by Gail Galvan.

Owen Patterson, author of the poetry collection, Stars at Naught, does what poets do best. He uses his creative, abstract imagination to share heartfelt sentiments and expressive imagery. As a poet and hypersensitive observer, Patterson contemplates human connections and universal existential issues. With his poetry, he takes us star-gazing amid the prose.

The reader will probably often wonder if what he/she perceives is—much like or nothing like—what this author intended or perceives. Yet, his collection is another interesting literary journey for soul-searchers to enjoy and interpret.

Patterson often compares and contrasts philosophical meanderings. I think he is saying that life can be a struggle, much ado about many things, or “naught” much ado about nothing, until we struggle to overcome the nothingness. Star-gazing can assist us toward self-examination, perhaps answers, and even the capture of wisdom, not merely its pursuit.

I especially liked two of his poems about writing and writers: Block Writer’s and Buckin Star. He often does that—reverses titles; for example, he uses Block Writer’s rather than Writer’s Block.

“Save the mind

Cool art embraces

Not unkind…

And smile

And happy

And again

Write…”

 Often, happily, I felt positive messages flowing through his words, sometimes not.  As usual, poets do tend to challenge readers sometimes by sharing more intense, darker concepts and imagery. From a poem titled Shadow, he writes:

“Shadow at the door

Shades from time before

Do not call its attention

Neither call its name

Choose not make mention

Nor play its lonesome game.”

Then, he retreats from melancholy sentiments and weaves humor into his literary tapestry of thoughts. From there, he goes on to give snippets of monk-like observations and advice.

I love the glossy, jet-black cover with a blue sky on the back and a colorful, starry-lit night sky on the front.      

Critiquing poetry is sometimes like talking about syntax and petty grammatical issues rather than the essence of content. So, with reservation, I’ll just add this. There are a few minor formatting details, like switching fonts, that I or others might have done differently, but I think all was intentional by the author. I’ll just leave it at that.

In summary, Patterson’s book of poems is an intriguing read. His words stir our emotions which cause us to feel and think, to zoom into our mind-filled telescopes and dare to go star-gazing, even at the risk of finding truthful unknowns. So, I’ll ask, who is ready to experience an explosion of feelings and get a stiff neck?

 

Saturday
Jan202018

Book Review: One More Foxtrot

One More Foxtrot. Joyce Hicks. Encore Books, October 19, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 248 pages.

Reviewed by Renee James.

In a pop culture media world devoted to sex, violence, and instant gratification, Joyce Hicks writes quiet, charming stories about an elderly Indiana woman and her family that delight and amuse us, and remind us of the best moments in our own lives.

In One More Foxtrot, Betty Miles is spreading her wings as a septuagenarian widow in Chicago while her daughter, Sharon D'Angelo, is back in Elkhart, Indiana, trying to launch her own bakery business and maintain solid relationships with her husband and in-laws. Mother and daughter share concerns about each other, and even some guilt about being apart, but they are both on paths of self-realization—Betty, exploring the worlds of art and culture that had been invisible to her during decades of life as a homemaker and mother, and Sharon, trying to make a career out of her great passion for baking.

Life for both of them is a series of small conflicts that flare up and die and we settle into a pleasant, interesting story with a distinctive Midwestern pace and flavor. Then a young college student shows up at Sharon's bakery, claiming to be related to her, and sharing her passion for baking. From this point on, One More Foxtrot becomes a story about family secrets, as Betty tries to shield Sharon from the truth about an affair her late husband had, and Sharon contemplates telling her mother about her father's other family. The ensuing drama is engaging—sometimes gripping, sometimes fun, and always interesting—as Ms. Hicks takes us on a lovely ride through a modern Middle America that is as real as it is entertaining.

Joyce Hicks is a wonderful wordsmith and storyteller. Her prose is clear and easy to read, her characters lovingly drawn, her dialogue lean and moving, yet just as real as the chatter in a beauty salon. The book is filled with humor—mostly quiet humor that makes you smile and maybe think of people and events from your own life. It's also a tale in which all of the characters have strengths and flaws, which makes this narrative textured, complex, and a lot like life itself.

One More Foxtrot picks up on the lives of Betty and Sharon where Ms. Hicks' first book left off. Escape from Assisted Living is set a year earlier, when Betty decides she's got plenty of life left in her and runs off to Chicago to see what she can see. One More Foxtrot can be fully enjoyed without having read the first book, but you'll want to read them both, in any order. 

I recommend One More Foxtrot very highly, especially to readers of women's fiction. It is realistic, fun, sophisticated and yet simple, and a great companion for one's quiet moments with a hot drink and an easy chair.

 

Thursday
Jan182018

Book Review: The Pear Tree

The Pear Tree. K. M. Sandrick. Green Ivy Publishing, Illinois, August 29, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 315 pages. 

Reviewed by Christine Cassello.

The Pear Tree is a debut novel by K. M. Sandrick, who has written award-winning medical and science articles. This is historical fiction chronicling the destruction of the Czech town of Lidice, which was blamed for harboring assassins of a chief Nazi official. The novel is told from the perspectives of four characters: Chessie Sabel, who was separated from her son and sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp; Klaudie Cizek, who was also sent to Ravensbruck; Milan Tichy, who joins the Czech Resistance and searches for his mother; and Ondrej Sabel, a young boy who later becomes Oskar Wolffe.

Ondrej becomes fascinated with Nazi soldiers arriving in Lidice and tries to emulate them. It becomes his ambition to be such a soldier, and when he is taken from his mother, adopted into a German family, and renamed Oskar Wolffe, he refuses to identify with his Czech roots. Even when the Nazis surrender and the war is over, he has no desire to reunite with his mother.

I always felt I learned more history from reading historical novels than textbooks, and I certainly feel that way about this book. I discovered things that weren’t taught in history lessons, including how non-Jews as well as Jews suffered under the Germans. I never knew about the destruction of entire villages and towns, the men murdered and thrown into mass graves, the women sent to workhouses, or the women with Germanic features sent to whorehouses to be impregnated by Nazis in an effort to develop the “Master Race.” Children like Ondrej were put into German homes and indoctrinated in German thinking and lifestyles. Women and children who could not be indoctrinated and were unfit to work were killed in gas vans. 

Sandrick gives careful treatment to factual events and people. At the start, she lists historical characters and provides a sentence or two about the roles each plays in events she writes about. Her fictional characters give the reader a sense of what her real characters endured, how they felt, and the ways their lives changed as a result of the Nazi occupation. She occasionally uses Czech and German terms and language to add authenticity and provides a glossary at the story’s conclusion.

The book is sad, but Sandrick doesn’t leave us horrified or grief-stricken. Her story covers the end of the war and tells of new connections made by those who lost family members. Two characters join efforts to learn the outcome of a baby born to a woman at Ravensbruck who died in childbirth, creating the opportunity for a sequel, which I hope Ms. Sandrick will write.