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Book Review: A Fine Line (A Sebastian Drake Novel)

A Fine Line (A Sebastian Drake Novel). Dan Burns. Chicago Arts Press, June 6, 2017, Hardcover and E-Book, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

This fine detective novel is a thoroughly engrossing Chicago experience as well as an engaging tale of the corrupting effect of power and privilege. I went down every street with Sebastian Drake. I understand his loyal midwestern friendships. And you cannot know Chicago without knowing that everyone here is connected by less than six degrees. I was also captivated by the incipient creepiness of old Chicago landmarks and the fact that there is no statute of limitations on cover-ups, personal vendettas, and the machinations of the elite.

The leading character, Sebastian Drake, is making his living as a writer and as we are reading about him in this novel, he is writing about his alter ego in a new novel for which he has received an advance. I enjoyed the book within a book device.  It was interesting to see how much of the real case Drake was adding to his novel and how much he was leaving out.

Which brings me to the perfect title of the novel: A Fine Line. Every event we experience has its outcome differentiated by a fine line. It is the fine cut that was made to sever the young woman’s hand from her body. It is Drake’s persona wavering on a tightrope between boozy self-indulgence and disciplined sobriety. It is a fine line of demarcation between right and wrong and knowing when to defend and when to attack.

Drake’s character is slowly revealed.  We are presented with a seasoned specialist skilled in a variety of professions. He is a spy, a journalist, a detective, a bookstore proprietor, a husband, and a father. His qualifications for the jobs he is being asked to multi-task are spot on. This makes his work seem effortless. To be fair, Chicago people do not usually flaunt their abilities. Better to let people find out the hard way. The internal monologue that Drake keeps regarding his work, his family, and his past is stated in a very sober way. Even the way in which Drake deals with the tragedy in his past life is private and personal.  

Drake’s sense of justice may sometimes seem more like poorly handled anger management but he does put the bad guys away without hesitation. For a character that is so qualified in all of his professions he only does what he feels like doing and leaves the management of his empire to others, making him to seem cold and indifferent to one or more of them. Someone else runs his beloved bookstore. His ex-wife cares for his children. His friend Scotty manages the guns and the gun range. His agent manages his book business, and so on.  So although he is a superstar, he is dependent on many others.  Perhaps this is the fine line between who he is and who he appears to be.

He is not always “emotionally available.” Two instances of this come to mind. First, his burgeoning feelings for Angie, a Chicago Police detective, spike and deflate in just a day or two. Once she’s out of the picture, he starts to think about his ex-wife again.  Later in the book when an incident involving his daughter occurs he is less emotional than mechanical.  True, he feels more effective seeking her with his brain and not his heart but we never feel that he truly considers the dangerous consequences if he’s wrong.

This is a compelling read on many levels.  How does a man so qualified for success manage to fail at the things that are personal and succeed beyond expectation on the things that are public? To read this book merely as a detective story is not to see that the underlying tension, the “Fine Line” is the key to Sebastian Drake’s true nature. He lives for the tension in the taut moment of the reveal. 



Book Review: The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id

The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id. Aaron J. Lawler. Black Rose Writing, Nov. 6, 2016, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-Book, 268 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

Aaron Lawler's novel is graced with what has to be one of the longest titles I have ever encountered. That said, the story he tells may need such a gigantic title to encompass it.

Mr. Lawler introduces us to FitzGerald “Fitz” Faraday, a somewhat ne'er-do-well teenager, along with his best friend, a teen whose reputation is even more checkered than Fitz's, and the new girl in town who cannot quite decide how to react to Fitz. He also introduces us to his friend and mentor, the eccentric Oliver Crowley, a former professor of parapsychology and a man convinced he can make thought itself physical. Crowley's efforts are nearing culmination, and Fitz is aiding him as a gofer and occasional lab assistant.

But Fitz is more than just a spare set of hands to Mr. Crowley. The reclusive researcher has realized that Fitz has a gift—the ability to see things others cannot—and he believes that Fitz could be the perfect conduit for proving his ideas. Unfortunately, Crowley's former associates—people who are intent on keeping his research from reaching fruition by any means necessary—have noted his continued activities. Their arrival at Crowley's house is witnessed by Fitz, who has agreed to take his best friend on a surreptitious tour of that same house. Making a stealthy entry, Fitz and his friend witness Crowley's murder by his former associates and learn of their plan to frame another teen—one with a violent past—for the crime.

Fitz decides to learn the secret of Mr. Crowley's plan to make thoughts into reality, and in the process, he hopes to free the teen falsely accused of murder. With his friends, he succeeds, only to draw the murderous attention of the people who killed his mentor. There is a final, fateful confrontation and an ending that leaves the reader wondering if there is another book in the offing that will continue the tale.

I do have a few nits to pick with the story. For one, I am unsure whether The Marvelous Paracosm of Fitz Faraday and the Shapers of the Id is intended to be a young adult novel or not. Whether it is or is not, there are several instances in the story where knowledge of modern slang comes in handy to understand what the characters are trying to convey. There are also a few instances where words are missing or misspelled, not enough to really distract from the story but definitely enough to be annoying.

So, did I enjoy the read? Yes. The story line keeps the reader moving along, and while the ending leaves you wondering if there is another book to come, it is fulfilling enough to satisfy. Would I recommend it to others? I think I would, but it might depend on what the person who asked likes to read. Some people will enjoy the characters and love their journey. Others, especially those who are annoyed by some of the compound-word slang used by modern teenagers, might find the level of use off-putting. As with any reading experience, what the reader is looking for is often the final arbiter of whether they will like the story or not, but I give it a positive review.



Book Review: Of This Much I’m Sure: A Memoir

Of This Much I’m Sure: A Memoir. Nadine Kenney Johnstone. She Writes Press/Spark Point Studio, LLC, April 11, 2017, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 329 pages.

Reviewed by Deb Lecos.

Of This Much I’m Sure is the author’s story of her brave fight to bring a child into her loving marriage. Nadine Kenney Johnstone answers the question, “How far will perseverance carry someone when there are no guarantees of a happy ending?” The author navigates the often demeaning and disempowering situations that accompany infertility as well as a medical disaster that nearly takes her life. The reader is brought into the story as the young woman is striving to use her voice, learning to trust her intuition, and grappling with balancing her needs with those of her extended family.

The experiences that shape Ms. Johnstone’s parenting journey are woven throughout Of This Much I’m Sure: the impromptu introduction to her husband, Jamie, and subsequent move to an unfamiliar and more rural area; her ongoing difficulty asking for what she needs; her painful and strained relationships with her mother and sister. The author is candid about the devastating moments when she wants to stop trying to conceive, the anguish that at times overwhelms infertile couples when friends and family become pregnant, and what happens when a pregnancy test is finally positive.

The pages of this memoir are full of frank descriptions of the toll infertility takes on a woman’s body and mind. The reader sees the moments of intuition that lead Ms. Johnstone to her own happy ending. Shortly after a doctor asserts to Nadine and Jamie that they are unlikely to have a baby without medical intervention, the Johnstone’s are shocked to discover that Nadine is pregnant. Though it seems the young couple scaled their biggest hurdle, their difficulties continue when an ultrasound shows their fetus with a potentially deadly malformation. Undeterred, the young mother continues fighting for her unborn child, courageously holding onto optimism when facts could have easily given way to despair.

Stories of infertility or difficult baby making are not often shared. Ms. Johnstone, however, shares the truth of what it feels like to be childless when it seems the world is full of children, which makes this memoir an inspiring and helpful read for others who may be searching for their own happy ending. She tells the truth about how couples struggle to remember who they were when they met, how they wonder if they’ll ever be content again, how they feel they must keep their pain hidden behind polite smiles when their friends become parents, and how they endure both the sadness and the joy that accompanies birthdays and holidays.

Ms. Johnstone’s gripping and honest account of her struggles to become a mother provides would-be and new parents insight into how to maintain peace of mind in order to experience what a difficult, spontaneous, and magical life has to offer.  



Book Review: Regina Shen: Resilience

Regina Shen: Resilience. Lance Erlick. Finlee Augare Book, May 4, 2015, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 241 pages.

Reviewed by Serena Wadhwa.

As a sci-fi fan, I previously reviewed other books for this author and really enjoyed his stories. If you are a sci-fi fan, chances are you will enjoy this series as much as I did.

In this first of four books, the author introduces Regina Shen, a 17-year-old female who seems like most 17-year-olds. She is clever and inquisitive, interested in boys (and maybe more so since they don’t exist on her planet), a bit rebellious, and searching for a better life for her sister and herself. As someone who is at the bottom of the “caste” system in the series—living in the swamps—Regina wants to know the reasons she and others like her cannot move up in the world, without having to sacrifice something in return. This book provides a solid foundation to understand how the world Regina lives in was set up and how the GODS—Grand Old Dames—rule the world. Most of what the GODS designate, at least from what I gather from Regina’s perspective, has some foundation in fear.

Regina finds herself in situations where she is trying to do the right thing. Guided by a woman—whom Regina calls Mo-Mere—who treats Regina as her own and exposes Regina to the world of real books and how-things-were-before-the-GODS-took-over (the Great Collapse), Regina believes that the current world can be better for everyone. She realizes that much of what existed before—books, historical artifacts—had been destroyed by the GODS.

If you like action, this has much of that. The descriptions provided by the author are amazing. I visually had the images within my mind’s eye while reading. The book is a quick read, it’s not a complicated story, and there are a few plots to keep one’s interest.

Through the twists and turns, Regina comes face-to-face with the head Inspector, a woman pursuing Regina, as she and the GODS believe Regina holds the key to the survival of the female species. Originally, females were “produced” through a fertilization process; however, as time passed, this process began losing its efficiency. The GODS, worried about extinction, are desperate to find a solution, as eggs are no longer as viable as they once were.

In this first volume, the author introduces the main characters of this series. I enjoyed learning about each character’s personalities and their motivations. Erlick vividly portrays hints of the hierarchy of women in power and how the caste system in this futuristic world works. The reader is introduced to how harmony must be maintained at all costs. 



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.


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