Book Reviews


Book Review: He Counts Their Tears.

He Counts Their Tears. Mary Ann D’Alto. Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, August 27, 2015, Trade Paperback, Hardcover, and Kindle,184 pages.

Reviewed by Mary-Megan Kalvig.

Dr. Aaron Stein, who considers himself “God’s twin,” is a fertility specialist highly skilled at creating life. Unfortunately, he takes far more pleasure in destroying people’s souls. Through charm and subtle hypnosis, Dr. Stein finds vulnerable women and makes them believe they’re soul mates. Then, once the women are deep in his web of illusion, he abruptly breaks things off, leaving them confused and destroyed. When he fears getting caught, he calls upon his cousin Constance, who has always sworn to protect him.

In her debut novel, Mary Ann D’Alto does a commendable job deftly creating protagonist Dr. Aaron Stein, an exceptionally twisted character with a flawless method of crushing women, cleverly portraying him (to the unsuspecting onlooker) as just a guy who broke some girl’s heart. In reality, he causes the girl inconsolable misery. As a reader, you want him to be punished, but since no laws have been broken, there really isn’t anything that can be done to him to get justice for the girl.

As compelling as it is to read about the doctor’s actions and hope he gets caught, the novel gets stuck in repetitive backstory. The narrative starts with a threat to Dr. Stein—a true risk of him being exposed. Unfortunately, rather than letting that drama play out, D’Alto goes into a lengthy description of the doctor and his “method,” which leads into his past and how he became a psychopath.

Because of the large amount of backstory, the first fifty pages of the novel do not drive the story forward. For example, at one point his marriage to Ruth is discussed, going back to their wedding day when she met his ex-wife Lily. While the description of his relationship and marriage to Lily does show a little about the character of Dr. Stein and how he treated his wife, it isn’t pertinent to moving the story forward. At the same time, the lengthy description of his “method” could have been just as easily illustrated with one of his conquests playing out, rather than simply explaining it. The first half of the novel would have benefited from the old adage, “Show don’t tell.”

When the novel changes pace and starts showing what is going on with Dr. Stein and how his “method” works, it is done without any real conflict or threat against him. Near the end, there is one person who stands up against him, but he isn’t truly concerned, and it seems to resolve itself without any real effort. The plot would have benefited from someone throwing a kink into his plans and creating conflict with each woman.   

Finally, I find it problematic that every woman in this novel is cast as weak and gullible. The doctor’s wife Ruth is a submissive “love slave” who is endlessly demeaned despite her being a highly-educated doctor. Every woman he goes after is portrayed as desperate for attention, even after he initially gives them a creepy vibe. While I’m sure there are women like that, I find it hard to believe, for example, that a woman would obsess over a man with whom she had a two-second conversation about dog walking. The one time there is an independent woman who stands up against the doctor, she’s treated like a villain and outcast, even among her peers.  

Mary Ann D’Alto created an exceptionally intriguing character in Dr. Aaron Stein. And while disturbing to most, the character’s method of crushing women’s souls made this psychological thriller an interesting read.



Book Review: Xenogeneic: First Contact

Xenogeneic: First Contact. Lance Erlick. Finlee Augare Books, March 8, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 300 pages.

Reviewed by Paige Doepke.

Xenogeneic: First Contact is an impressive story rooted in science fiction. It follows Dr. Elena Pyetrov, a young and determined astronaut, on her space exploration mission. Her determination comes from the mysterious disappearance of her astronaut father years before. She believes his ship crashed on a faraway planet, Europa, and she hopes to find answers during this mission.

From the start, Erlick pulls the reader deeply into the story with nuanced and intriguing characters, heart-pounding action, and a straightforward and uncomplicated writing style. The excitement begins early in the novel when Elena’s spaceship goes off course and crashes into a planet that she suspects is Mars. She and the others on her mission make contact with aliens and a world very different from our own. Elena has a brief conversation with her father, who has aged rapidly on this unusual planet. Surprisingly, at no point did I question the validity of it all. The characters, human and alien, are extremely well developed and Erlick obviously has done extensive research on space travel.

As a scientist, Elena is entranced by the aliens and their advanced technology. Not only does she learn that they purposely crashed her spaceship on their planet, but they are able to restore human organs, manipulate their actions, and easily cause them bodily harm when they misbehave. Elena becomes determined to figure out their mission and convince them to coexist with humans rather than treat them like animals.

Like all good characters, Elena has many layers that become clear throughout the novel. She is a strong woman in every sense of the word, but she holds a lot of pain from the loss of her father and other family members. She has a complicated relationship with a man on her mission, Marc, and learns that she has a young, troubled sister, Thelma, who falls under her care. 

Despite being a story about space exploration, readers will relate to the characters and the challenges they face. It is a story about forgiving your past and the struggle we all face between doing what’s best for ourselves or what’s best for others. Elena has to make decisions regarding her home planet, her sister, herself, and Marc. 

Xenogeneic: First Contact is an exciting and provocative novel for readers of all ages interested in science fiction. It will stay with you long after you’ve read the last page.



Book Review: Only the Holy Remain

Only the Holy Remain. Alverne Ball. Vital Narrative Press, November 11, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 304 pages.

Reviewed by Jessica Cage.

Alverne Ball is a Chicago native who attended Columbia College, where he studied fiction. With this publication, his dedication to his studies shines through. Alverne uses his knowledge and experience of Chicago, having grown up on the West Side, to bring readers a gripping thriller set in the gritty city. From the first turn of the page, the reader is thrust into a mystery that raises questions about both the victim and the main character, Calhoun, a former chaplain in the U.S. Marines.

Even as one reads Calhoun’s story, there is a sense of suspicion due to his background and unfortunate relationship with his father. He is a flawed character with a lot of emotional baggage that often seems to influence his judgement. He makes rash decisions and acts on emotion, which ultimately gets him into a lot of trouble. Even though his actions seem irrational, and you find yourself wanting to shake him, you hope like hell that things work out in his favor and that he finds the answers he is seeking.

The story is well written, fast paced, and well balanced between action and character development. The author provides a clear picture of the main character and what drives him as well as what may lead to his downfall, such as his shaky relationship with his father and his stubbornness and resistance to following orders. There were a few scenes that felt a bit rushed, and I would have liked to explore the characters in those moments a bit longer, but other than that, it was a great read. The structure of the book, with short chapters, made it a page-turner that fit the pace of the story.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers looking for a great mystery with characters who are real and honest.



Book Review: Murder at Venegoni’s

Murder at Venegoni’s. Christopher M. Rutledge. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, September 23, 2016, Trade Paperback and Kindle editions, 168 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Murder at Venegoni’s, Christopher Rutledge’s novel of the feuding Venegoni and Graziano Mafia families in Chicago, reads like a fast-paced movie. You can almost feel the bullets sailing past the pasta and marinara sauce. The cast of characters could be plucked straight out of Central Casting, with characters named Giuseppe, Dionisio, Primo, Gino, and Pope John.

The story starts off with a bang, literally, and accelerates from there. As in tragedies throughout history, the protagonists are made to suffer as a consequence of tragic flaws. In this instance, the fatal flaw is the inability to grasp the realization that they are fighting for a centuries-old perceived wrong, one that has nothing to do with them, the details of which many of them no longer even remember.

One of the strengths of this book is the dialogue, which is authentic and clever. Some of the scenes, especially within the families, made me laugh out loud; little things, such as the fact that an antique oil painting of ‘The Last Supper,’ hangs in the house of one of the Dons who goes by the moniker, Pope John. This same individual also has a lucrative side job involving the Church and real estate.

There are numerous levels of intrigue and misunderstanding in the story, some of which deliver, some which could be more fully explored, and a number of which could use more description to place us more fully in the moment. The scenes of violence are often described in general terms that distances the reader from the action instead of involving us. I would have liked to experience the story through the characters, rather than being told what happened to them.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the action revolves around two rival gangs in Chicago. These gangs have a history going back two hundred years to northern Italy, where both families were successful winemakers. The two families eventually merged their successful businesses into one, and for a while, it thrived. Eventually, through a series of missteps, misunderstandings, and the death of the head of one of the families, it fell apart, each side blaming the other.

This short novel came about through the author’s reengineering of his finished screenplay and at times, I felt as if the scenes were given basic stage directions, knowing the director would add depth and detail. I have no doubt that this would make a terrific movie. It is action-packed with an interesting plotline and recognizable characters. I believe it would have been a stronger book, though, if more attention had been given to fleshing out the characters, their motivations, and setting. That said, it was still an entertaining story and a quick read. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Rutledge has in store for us next. 



Book Review: 62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block

62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block. Marcie Hill. The Write Design Company, June 7, 2013. Trade Paperback, Workbook, and Kindle, 116 pages. 

Reviewed by Sue Roupp.

I was pleased to receive the soft-cover edition and accompanying workbook for 62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block. Though the title is listed on Amazon as a Kindle book, it is available in paperback from Ms. Hill’s website. Written in 2013, it is still an informative and relevant book. I checked out many of the websites referenced throughout the book and they are still active and useful.

The book covers various types of blogs and where to find the information and sites that allow one to upload free videos, photos, presentations, etc. Ms. Hill also details many ways of approaching the art of blogging, with chapters including: Most Popular Posts, Multimedia Posts, Honoring Others, Engage Your Audience, You’re the Authority, You’re the Resource, Humor, News and Views, Lists, Additional Posts, and Rounding It Up. Each chapter contains pros, cons, and other considerations for different types of blog posts.

The straightforward book is an easy read that is likely to be most useful to beginning bloggers wanting to explore all the possibilities of blogging from a successful practitioner. Additionally, Ms. Hill’s website,, is updated often with good information for freelance writers.


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