Book Reviews

Wednesday
Mar202019

Book Review: Spoken

Spoken. Melanie Weiss. Oak Park IL: Rosehip Publishing, March 15, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 195 pages.

Reviewed by Lisa Lickel.

Melanie Weiss’s debut work of young adult fiction captures the angst and inner workings of a teenager, Roman Santi, whose life is transformed from residing in a mansion with a housekeeper in Los Angeles to sleeping on grandma’s sofa bed with a statue of the Buddha staring at him. The novel is a lovely, refreshingly sweet and poignant story about a kid not warped by a society and whose goal is to live happily ever after, be a friend, find friends, and find the father he’s never known. One of my favorite lines is from Roman’s first day at his new school, when he’s challenged by his mother’s over-the-top appearance as a minor movie star in exile: “Welcome to my world, where I’m happy my hippie grandma is the one taking me to school today.”

Everybody knows about being fifteen. Teens suffer amid the transcending moments. Roman finds his transcending moment when a poem and a girl spark his interest and he joins an after-school poetry club. Weiss, a trained journalist, writes what she knows about Midwestern living and the experiences of the Spoken Word movement in high school and shares her inspiration for the novel. During the late nineties, when the character Roman was born, Spoken Word was incorporated into the English classroom in Oak Park. Weiss credits this performance writing as a means for students to share their struggles and triumphs. Her character, Roman, found his niche in this program, although he decides not to share his poetry with his family. “The only way I can be real about what I write is if I know I won’t have to explain myself to them,” Roman says. Participating in Spoken Word allows him to uncork his bottle of stuffed feelings about his place in life, environment, and upbringing.

When an opportunity to go to Europe arises from a Spoken Word competition, Roman, with the encouragement of his friend, Zuzu, takes a step on a journey to find his father. Roman knows only that his father is a French cruise ship entertainer his mother met the summer they both worked on board. First, he has to earn the right to be part of the poetry team to compete against the team’s London counterparts.

Roman shares his story through first-person present tense narrative, an effective method of bonding the reader to him. Spoken is not one of those in-your-face epic hero journeys. It’s a rare peek into a contemporary high school freshman year, where the onus to grab life and make meaningful memories is a primary objective. It’s difficult to find comparisons to today’s contemporary YA. Spokenis a finely tuned story about coming to grips with identity without needing to kill, die, have sex, travel through time or space, or do drugs. The cover is an evocative rendering of experiencing not only what you learn, but how you can share it. I enjoyed the story and recommend it for middle grade and older readers.

 

Tuesday
Mar052019

Book Review: The Indivisible and the Void

The Indivisible and the Void. D. M. Wozniak. Chicago, IL: D. M. Wozniak, February 15, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 579 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

“The fundamental notion which any voider’s power relies upon is this: Everything in our creation is built out of infinitesimal building blocks, called the indivisible. There is nothing else, besides the indivisible and the void.” Master Voider Democryos

Dem leads the college that trains voiders to manage, and use wisely, their power of voidstones. Lady Marine, his beautiful former student and wife, is hopelessly drawn to power and leaves him for mysterious voider. Outraged over his loss, Dem resolves to pursue and confront her and the traitor. Along the way, he meets an effulgent, Blythe, who leads worshipers of the “Unnamed.” Blythe insists on joining the quest to find Dem’s wife and kill the traitor who seduced her. There is no trust between Dem, who has faith in reason, and Blythe, who follows a guilty, blind faith.

Dem obsesses over his missing wife. Chimeline, a member of the King’s harem who is assigned by the King to please and comfort Dem, joins the quest. Colu, a super strong and loyal wounded warrior with a patch over one eye, also joins the troop on their quest.

They come upon a student voider who has gone mad and dies from a drug overdose. Dem buries him with help from his rival, the effulgent. Dem’s thoughts reveal the struggle within his heart: “I hope that this dirt covers our fears and prejudices, too. As if every shovel full marks a small step towards reconciliation, a common ground between faith and reason.”

The troop’s adventures within each chapter will amaze readers. The author has the gift and ability to pull the reader into the story with unexpected and unpredictable twists and turns. Logic prevails and the pages turn at a steady pace.

Dem, coached by Blythe, gradually learns a greater truth behind the power of The Void. He hears voices of souls trapped in void stones. Is he hearing voices or the delusional drivel of the effulgent? As Dem works in concert with Blythe, he learns the true power that the Master Voider holds. He learns “the empowered” can harness the power of axion—the material from which voidstones originated. The empowered, like voiders, are rare, with only a few born in each generation. Their power is based on the axiondrive, which powered a space ship larger than one can comprehend, a citadel flying among the stars.

Mander, a master voider, is empowered by axion, the most formidable force known. He is the traitor who seduced and enticed Lady Marine—who is drawn to this greatest power known at the time—to leave her husband, Dem.

The author effectively develops each character and tells a masterful story with revelations on many levels. While this is a love story wrapped within an enigma, the plot unravels an epic struggle between blind faith and reason, and shows how two individuals can unite to become a greater power. The contradiction between revenge and justice, and the resulting conflict, drives this compelling tale forward.

While each character has a unique story, all the characters struggle to define who they are, what they believe, and why they are on this quest. The characters are so well crafted that the reader feels empathy for each of them, perhaps even the villain. As the reader approaches the conclusion, the author reveals an amazing new reality and does a brilliant job of setting up the sequel, with just two words: “They’re coming.”

 

Sunday
Mar032019

Book Review: Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art

Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art. Leopold Segedin (Author).  Paul Segedin and Benjamin Segedin (Editors). Chicago: Outbound Ike Publishing, 2018, Hardcover, 130 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo

In an Allan Bennett play, an elderly artist named W.H. Auden said, “Am I dead? I work. I have the habit of art.” This quote inspired the title of this book. Such a habit—a stubborn, driving need to paint—compels Leopold Segedin to climb up to his attic virtually every day to create art. His sons, Paul and Ben, recently installed grab bars so their 92-year-old father could pull himself up to his studio—a scene he depicts in several of his paintings as a Sisyphean struggle.

“It’s work. It’s a pain in the ass. But I paint because I have something meaningful to say,” Segedin told Jay Shefsky during a 2013 episode of “Jay’s Chicago” on WTTW-TV 

What an understatement! Judging from this new book, Leopold Segedin: A Habit of Art, Segedin has much to say—through his words and paintings—about many topics, particularly aging, the passage of time, being Jewish, and his sweet home Chicago.

The theme of Chicago comes through the strongest in this beautiful coffee-table book. Many of Segedin’s paintings, reproduced in striking quality, portray Chicago with a distinctive bearing and appealing style, depicting littered streets, cracked sidewalks, rundown “L” platforms, and modest buildings with rich tones and pleasant colors. Some of the street scenes are empty while others are chock full of people rushing somewhere but not interacting with each other, a touch that brings to mind the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.Many of these urban paintings depict windows and doors, wallpaper and ghost signs, brick walls and iron tracks. Glowing in the afternoon sunlight, these objects reverberate with rich detail.

While Segedin’s Chicago paintings might happily hang in anyone’s home, many of his other paintings are captivating yet disturbing. Some show menacing kings and ominous priests; others show troubled faces and muddled motifs. His Holocaust paintings are hard to shake. Segedin notes that he wrestled most of his life with “how to give form to the Holocaust without trivializing it.” His work depicting dehumanized forms, dismembered body parts, discarded suits of clothing, and frozen screams succeed—all too well. “People were hollering, they were crying, and nobody heard,” he said in the note accompanying one such painting.

Segedin continued these themes in paintings he created in response to the Vietnam War. Human beings, represented by organic shapes, conflicted with institutions, represented by geometric shapes. His painting, Parliament of Man, is an ode to snakes and soldiers, power and might. “The responsivelessness of politicians and leaders . . . repeats itself indefinitely,” Segedin writes.

Images of Segedin himself appear throughout the book, often repeatedly in the same painting. The self-portraits at different stages of his life reflect his fixation with aging. Mortality changes as you age into “something you look back on,” he writes. “I’m still startled when the adolescent kid that I still am in my mind’s eye looks into the morning mirror and sees an old man.” 

The artist’s notes, which accompany his paintings, are one of the most absorbing aspects of this book. While Segedin’s paintings speak for themselves, it’s fascinating—and rare—to read what an artist has to say about his own paintings. Museums are full of “untitled” works that leave you on your own. Not here. Notes supplement most of the paintings, providing perspective and reflection. The notes were derived from interviews with Segedin, first by Richard Cahan, a co-publisher of CityFiles Press, and later by sons Paul and Ben.

How fitting that his sons made this long-overdue book happen, as Segedin is known for saying that there are only two miraculous things in life: children and art!

 

Sunday
Mar032019

Book Review: 1638 East Palace

1638 East Palace. Kathleen McElligott. Adelaide Books, November 2019. Trade Paperback and E-book.

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

1638 East Palace includes a character list before the story begins. It reminds me of the formatting for a theatrical script, and I wondered if I’d need it. But several pages in, I found myself flipping back to that character list time and again—to familiarize myself with the relationships—as names were introduced. The list ends up being a helpful roadmap for a good portion of the book, until all the characters have been interwoven.

The novel begins with news of a tragic accident, although the shock waves are not fully experienced until later when the author creates an emotional connection to the characters involved. This literary choice lends a surreal, numb feeling to the first pages of the story, and it takes a little while to become grounded again and settle into the world of the book. Although effective, it’s uncomfortable and a bit confusing, similar to the feeling you get at the sudden loss of a loved one, hearing about a shocking occurrence, or receiving news of a heartbreaking event.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is no single protagonist. Instead, the author uses an ensemble structure that creates a circular, constantly swirling atmosphere of people and places. Rather than following a linear plot line, the reader experiences an immersive sensation of the passage of time and the evolving circumstances that define the lives of a group of characters that is mostly made up of women. The novel is broken into three parts—or acts—which transition at major turns of events or life shifts.

The absence of both traditional chapters and an unbroken storyline provides a closer, more introspective view into the minds and hearts of the characters in a way that is usually left up to a reader’s imagination. In 1638 East Palace, the reader is granted full insider access to the thoughts, fears, and desires of the main characters. It’s impossible not to continually shift loyalties as more and more information—past and present—comes to light. It’s almost as though each person is privately interviewed in short, intense shifts, telling the tale from their own point of view until something occurs to move the focus to one of the other characters.

The story is centered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but events take the reader briefly to other locales including Chicago, Boulder, and Listowel, Ireland. These travels work to develop or alter relationships, shore up life-changing decisions, and introduce us to some peripheral characters who act as catalysts. The importance of each location is the place-specific history, baggage, and conflict they bestow upon the central characters. In short, the locations themselves are not a focus, but the weight they hold over the characters is brought to light.

The assorted relationships throughout the story represent a broad slice of contemporary society, encompassing many modern social issues including separation, loneliness, single parenting, same-sex love, widowhood, and the challenges that come with disability, age, and infirmity. The author explores some of life’s trickiest terrain. None of the characters are perfect, and while some are more likeable than others, there are no true villains. The flaws and quirks of the characters define and sharpen the relationships, and the story engages the reader like a slowly unfurling southwestern soap opera wherein you root for everyone to be happy—or at least content.

Based on McElligott’s mostly straightforward and relatively unembellished writing style, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of detail used to describe everyday objects and activities. Food, décor, fashion, and human behavior are intricately drawn, and several times I was briefly distracted from a life-altering revelation or reaction by one of the characters. It occurred to me that, as in life, one sometimes notices minor aspects while enduring major difficulty—like the intense colors in a floral bouquet while in the midst of romantic turmoil, or the acrid scent of your supervisor’s cologne while being reprimanded. These momentary shifts in perspective, combined with sensory-triggering detail, serve as a metaphor for a basic human truth: life can be achingly beautiful even in the direst of moments.

This story does not shy away from hard choices, ugly situations, or uncomfortable truths. Instead, it embraces the natural messiness of true human connection—longing, sacrifice, inevitable adjustments, promises kept and broken, and ultimately, the excruciating loss when the connection is severed. In the end, 1638 East Palace is a tale of modern women intertwined at various stages of life by circumstances that sculpt and define each of them for a time—or forever.

 

Wednesday
Feb202019

Book Review: DreamRail

DreamRail: Connected Short StoriesMichael Ripley. Pen It! Publications, LLC, November 7, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 266 pages.

Reviewed by Gail Galvan.

My first suggestion before reading this book: tune in to a “Twilight Zone” thought process mode before delving in. This tactic will likely help readers understand what’s going on and enable them to enjoy the stories sooner. 

Admittedly, I was a little confused at first. But I guess that’s what happens when a book is different and an author takes a risk. DreamRail takes an interesting and unique approach by connecting short stories and lives. The main character and four co-workers ride separate trains to work and make up a writers’ group that meets for lunch at Poppy’s several times a week. They share strange stories they have written. Often the tales seem more like nightmares than dreams and include paranormal indications.

The author shares many wildly imaginative circumstances and events in his stories, along with some clear-cut interwoven morals. For instance: there is “Tragadar.” On a train ride aboard the California Zephyr, Jim, the main character, narrowly avoids dying in a tragic accident. Why? Because he pays attention to his premonitions whenever they occur—his “tragadar voice,” a combination of “tragedy” and “radar.” Other victims perish, but somehow with his magical, saving tragadar instincts, Jim escapes dying in (foreseen) fatal plane and train crash infernos.

A couple of my favorite stories are titled “And So We Shall” and “Fourth Floor Monitor.” In the first, the author paints an environmentalist picture of talking birds flying off with the main character and then once again, setting him back down. The birds explain that, for the time being, “We put up with certain amounts of poison, even greater amounts of pollution in the world, and your way of building everything opposite to our harmony. Our world, our lives are still worth more than the dangers you pose.”  

The latter story is an eerie tale which deals with modern day fears and realities that health insurance is not always going to see people through a possible health crisis. One of the characters, a health insurance representative, sits by the bedside of a critically ill patient in a hospital hooked to some type of monitor. The author describes the scene in vivid detail from the glistening waxed tile floors to the composition of various musical sounds reverberating through the hospital hallway, that of “rubber soles, baritone feet, unique tones” and, “a strangely unified cadence.”

The sick and dying become not only victims of their diseases, but also of a completely insensitive health insurance agent who calls the shots; he pushes a stop button exactly when “time’s up.”  In one scene, a loving daughter watches her father take his last breaths. Life and story over, just like that.

I like the concept of another story which depicts a character, Thomas, who constantly questions the decisions that he makes. Always prone to indecisiveness, his condition heightens to a critical level, especially after a bullet strikes his car, ricochets off of it, and kills a man. In the end, he is so deeply affected—by his crippling indecisiveness and fear of upsetting the domino effect of whatever might happen due to any and every specific choice and move he makes—that he becomes mentally disabled. The only solution: hospitalization.

I grew up with railroad tracks just behind my house, so I can identify with the author’s connection to trains. Trains give us a feeling as if we can just hop on and enjoy one adventure after another, go wherever we want to. The author views trains “like a spider web” covering hundreds of miles. He makes us picture ourselves sitting on a train looking out the window at the “people going every imaginable direction, riding this cobweb of iron rail, the electric engines.” 

I enjoyed Ripley’s book. Although at times, due to the content, I thought perhaps a more apropos title might be NightmareRail. After reading the book I wondered: as long as trains conjure up this adventurous, dreamy aspect of our souls and the possibility of traveling anywhere, why not add some stories or do a sequel about outrageously happy tales, like “The Little Engine that Could” and movies such as The Polar Express. It figures that a “DreamRail” can lead us to wherever we want to travel, so I’d love to read some wildly imaginative, happy adventures in the next book.  

A little fine-tuned editing would also improve the book, though I am aware that the author belongs to two real-life writers’ groups, so I’m sure he is always working towards honing his craft and perfecting his literary work. 

 

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