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Book Reviews

Thursday
Mar152018

Book Review: Centrifugal Force

Centrifugal Force. Lisa J. Lickel. Fox Ridge Publications, December 15, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 254 pages.

Reviewed by Kandice Cole.

Centrifugal Force, by Lisa J. Lickel, is a novel that merges romance, suspense, and history. The story takes place in a small college town in Wisconsin. Rachel Michels is a university employee and single mother to her adult daughter, Maeve. Rachel’s life appears to be normal, until she learns that Gervas Friedemann, her former exchange professor from Germany, is trying to contact her. Apparently, Rachel has some skeletons in her closet that she has been hiding for many years. Gervas is Maeve’s father, which no one—including Maeve and Gervas—knows. Rachel has also been hiding an heirloom that belonged to Gervas for over twenty years. Gervas steps back into Rachel’s life, searching for the heirloom he desperately needs to settle a decades-long family dispute that threatens to destroy Germany’s position in the European Union. With Gervas’s return, Rachel’s skeletons are quickly exposed and her life is turned upside down. Rachel finds herself grappling with feelings about her complicated relationship with Gervas back when she was a graduate student.

This book was a fascinating read. The author transitions between the individual perspectives of Rachel, Maeve, and Gervas while providing unexpected twists and turns along the way. Through all of the suspense, the reader is learning about Rachel and Gervas’s past romance, which left Rachel feeling hurt and abandoned. Rachel’s conflicted view of Gervas plays out in the book as she vacillates between despising Gervas and wanting to help him.

The author has clearly done research about international history, particularly as it relates to the European Union and Germany. I appreciated the book being situated in present day, which made the story seem even more realistic. Throughout the story, Rachel finds herself in precarious positions, and the author weaves in facts and plot twists subtly without them feeling unrealistic or out of place. When events in the story seem to be concluding, the author adds another layer of suspense which makes it hard to put the book down. Sometimes, the historical information was a bit wieldy and more difficult to read and digest, but this information provides much-needed context to the plot.

I have read my fair share of romance and suspense novels. This book does a great job of merging these two genres in a way that doesn’t seem forced or artificial. If you are looking for something that is a departure from typical romance books, I highly suggest diving into the latest book from Lisa Lickel.

 

Tuesday
Mar132018

Book Review: Redlined

Redlined. Linda Gartz. She Writes Press, April 3, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 256 pages.

Reviewed by Roger Prosise.

Redlined, by Linda Gartz, is a luminously written memoir of a white family that lived in West Garfield Park, on the west side of Chicago. The Gartz family managed rental properties for more than four decades, starting in 1949. They rented the apartments in their six flat and the bedrooms in the apartment in which they resided. Linda’s grandparents worked sixteen-hour days to make ends meet and to get ahead a little. Selbststandig, the German term for being self-sufficient, and racism, are themes of the book.

Gartz’s memoir focuses on her family’s experience of the transformation of their neighborhood from white to black, and the racism and riots that came along with this change. An abundance of the Gartz Family letters and diaries are used to tell her family’s tale. The author also employs her own research on segregation, which describes how blacks were being systematically kept out of white neighborhoods. She is enlightening about how this segregation had detrimental consequences for black renters and white property owners.

Redlined allows the reader to experience the impact of racism, as well as the struggles of living with someone with a mental illness—her grandmother was psychotic and lived with the family for fifteen years. It is also a beautiful coming of age story of a girl who grew up in racially charged and economically challenging times. Gartz provides authentic and honest details of herself and her family, and even includes her own friendships and games such as the dunk tank at the Riverview Amusement Park, which came to be called racially offensive names. Her memoir includes a love story, the obvious being the author’s relationship with her boyfriend/husband, but a more compelling love story is the author’s relationship with her mother and father.

Redlined is a family’s journey through turbulent times, and it brings a personal perspective of life during the '50s and '60s, times of tremendous racial unrest. It is a wonderful read and would appeal to people interested in Chicago history, racial integration, coming of age stories, love stories, and stories that give a realistic look at life with a mentally-ill family member. I enjoyed this memoir, particularly the combination of authentic story-telling and research that provided some of the backstory. The author’s honesty and vulnerability make it a compelling read and draws the reader into the story.

 

Wednesday
Mar072018

Book Review: Home and Castle

Home and Castle. Thomas Benz. Snake Nation Press, January 12, 2018, Trade Paperback, 134 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

Home and Castle is an extraordinary short story collection by Thomas Benz.

These are stories about middle-class men each caught in a brief space of time when so many things in their lives are changing, disappearing, or dying. All their middle-class values are in flux: marriage, divorce, parenting, romance, and jobs. This collection is more than stories put together for the reader’s enjoyment; it is more because the stories revolve around middle-class men and their complicated feelings. The book is the perfect accompaniment to an evening by a fireside with a snifter of cognac, a good friend, and a Thomas Benz story to discuss. The writing is so rich and honed that each story lingered in my thoughts long afterward.

While some writers choose to show off their breadth of knowledge by varying their stories widely within a collection, Benz knows this slice of men’s middle years and brings us into them with a close narrator. Much to think about, share, and reflect upon is packaged within this slim volume but Benz never preaches. He understands the private pain of men in the vortex of middle age, like an itchy suit that men wear, brave but not without discomfort.

Some stories call to mind early Joyce Carol Oates, whose characters were richly drawn and then veered off path to extreme consequences. Benz’s characters make dubious decisions, yet we’re not shocked by their weaknesses or inabilities to see themselves. The characters walk into the minefield of their middle years aware of the impending dangers but seem helpless to stop the ensuing mayhem when they are the greatest victims.

In my experience, men in novels and short stories are often epic and grand, degenerate serial killers, or pathetic losers, or some combination thereof. Benz writes about genuine people with lukewarm, under-developed ideas of success, romance, and how to deal with it all in a world that is too real. Some are heroes, devoted fathers, and curious seekers of the world around them. Benz lets us see all the scars they have given themselves as they bang against the rules trying to figure it out. They are people we may know.

This is the beauty of Home and Castle. Each story caused me to stop and think.

I plan to share this title, to talk about these characters and their interesting interior monologues as they go about make their life choices. Home and Castle would be an exceptional book club selection for the wonderful discussion possibilities it suggests to observers of the paths through life some men take as they crawl over the hump of middle age.

 

Tuesday
Mar062018

Book Review: Mastering Stand-Up

Mastering Stand-Up. Stephen Rosenfield. Chicago Review Press Inc., November 1, 2017, Trade paperback and E-book, 256 pages.

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

Stephen Rosenfield’s Mastering Stand-Up is a fun and engaging read, even if you have absolutely no intention of becoming a stand-up comic. But that’s not why the book exists. Comedy is a serious business, as anyone in the industry will attest, and it takes raw talent, many years of experience, and a lot of dedication to achieve a mere modicum of success.

This book is meant as a resource for aspiring stand-up comics who have a dream of performing well and making a decent living—and hopefully a killing—doing comedy. However, it is also an entertaining read for almost anyone because it’s written from personal experience and includes plenty of anecdotes and memories from the author, which give the reader an insider’s view of the world of stand-up comedy.

If you have performing arts education, training, or experience of any kind—acting, directing, improvisation, music, sketch writing, or playwriting—this book will be helpful in an abstract sense as there are skills and aspects of stand-up comedy that cross the boundaries into those artistic forms. If you have absolutely no personal connection to show business or the performing arts but have always been interested in how some people go about making others laugh, this book will answer many of your questions. However, if you harbor dreams of standing alone on stage with a microphone while you make a roomful of total strangers crack up—especially if you dream of making a living doing it—this book could be invaluable. For the amateur stand-up comic, or one with limited exposure and success, this book could assist in building a professional career.

Of course, there is no personal guarantee of success included with this book, but from the very first chapter it is easy to believe that you will at least make decent headway by following Rosenfield’s advice and applying yourself. He certainly has the experience and knowledge to get you on the right path. As the Founding Director of the American Comedy Institute in Manhattan, Rosenfield has a long list of teaching and directing credits and decades of experience in the industry. His list of past students reads like a “Who’s Who” in American comedy. His book instills you with the confidence that he knows the business inside and out, and that he sincerely wants to share it.

My favorite thing about the book is that it made me feel like Mr. Rosenfield was speaking directly to me. His tone is approachable and friendly, yet accomplished and assured. I also appreciate that the book is broken into five logical and clearly defined sections, which are essentially: who the book is written for, the stand-up comedy forms, the act of writing stand-up comedy material, the art of performing stand-up, and the steps to getting “undeniably good.”

For fans of stand-up comedy, or full-on comedy geeks, who immerse themselves in the stand-up scene or follow the careers of successful comics, the book is worth reading for the anecdotes about famous stand-up comics. Even more valuable are the actual examples of their written material. These examples are broken down and analyzed similarly to the way algebraic equations are dissected and serve as vital teaching tools for anyone studying the crafts of stand-up comedy and comedy writing. Like any practical handbook, the reader might well repeatedly return to the book for guidance.

Unlike many books that teach acting skills or other performing art forms, this one is not dry or stuffy. Rather, it feels like a handshake and a welcome, with a wink on the side, because we are talking about comedy, after all. The very last sentence provides the author’s email address in case the reader has questions. How often does that happen? (Answer: Not. Very. Often. ***rim shot***)

 

Saturday
Feb242018

Book Review: Track 9

Track 9. Sue Rovens. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, April 27, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 221 pages. 

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Track 9, Sue Rovens’ second novel, is a suspense/thriller/psychological horror novel that is brimming with shock, terror, and humor. The characters appear to be everyday people who find themselves facing many of the same challenges we all do. Of course, we don’t all find ourselves unable to escape from an ever-devolving series of nightmares. As with her previous novel, Badfish, this book is a fast read, hard to put down, and takes you to places you never imagined.

The first short chapter describes, in graphic detail, a calamitous train wreck in a picturesque small German town. The accident itself and the repercussions after were so horrendous, the station was never reopened. Six months later, Gary and Grace Wolf, an American couple on their belated honeymoon, are set to return to Bloomington, Illinois, from that very town.

The first leg of their return trip is by rail, and because they are running late and not paying attention, they mistakenly end up in this defunct station. Although the station is bereft of living beings, the honeymooners are far from alone. Soon after the realization they are in the wrong station, Gary and Grace discover they can’t get out. And if that wasn’t enough, there also may, or may not, be a train in the station.

As Gary and Grace struggle to find their way home, their best friends back in Bloomington, Mike and Sarah Waverly, await their return. As their arrival time nears, Mike begins experiencing disturbing premonitions concerning his friends. These premonitions eventually spiral out of control, and as his own secure world unravels, he finds himself unable to put the pieces back together.

While the lives of these two Midwestern couples aren’t always what they appear to be, they could easily be our next-door neighbors. As the story races to its climax, we begin to peel back the layers and discover an ever-changing reality. Rovens paints in short, precise strokes, giving us well-developed characters in few words. The world she’s created makes perfect sense, even when it doesn’t. She builds tension quickly and effortlessly and doesn’t back off. Her use of short chapters moves the story along at a breathtaking pace. I didn’t see the ending coming.

The only fault I found in the story, while minor, concerned some unanswered questions at the end. This did not, however, keep me from thoroughly enjoying the story. I stated, after reading her first book, that she was an author to watch for in the future. I am happy to say, I couldn’t have been more right. Do yourself a favor and check out Track 9. I can’t wait to see where she takes us with her next book.