Book Reviews

Tuesday
Jun182013

Book Review: Through Their Strange Hours

Through Their Strange Hours. Kent McDaniel. Amazon Digital Services, February 14, 2013, 52 pgs. The e-book is $0.99 and available at B&N.com, iBooks, The Kobo Store, Smashwords, and Amazon.

Reviewed by Mike O’Meary.

Storytelling that conveys warmth and humor, and transports you to another time and place.

Through Their Strange Hours by Kent McDaniel is a collection of four interconnected short stories that hang together nicely and give this collection the feeling of a novella. The stories also provide a compellingly realistic portrayal of life in southern Illinois in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a place and time where the biggest challenge was finding ways to ward off apathy and the tedium of everyday life. Accordingly, McDaniel’s characters drop in and out of school, in and out of relationships, and experiment with everything from beer and pot to acid and crystal meth. In such a world, the most innocuous pastime was to grab a six-pack and take a drive with friends on the rural roads between Carbondale (home of Southern Illinois University) and Metropolis (a small town of 6,800 on the Ohio River across from Paducah, KY).

The common denominator in these stories is Joe. We first meet Joe in “At the Edge of Town,” a story about the 10-year-old’s encounter with a local bully. Life seems innocent and wholesome enough at first, as Joe and his best friend, Mike, spend their time pedaling bikes around town and trading baseball cards. Young Joe finally gets his hands on a coveted Mickey Mantle card, but when a local bully steals the card from Joe, the story turns dark. Joe goes to the edge of town to the bully’s home for a confrontation but gets more than he bargains for and comes away with a different outlook.

In “Honoring Mike,” Joe is now a young man – a hippie who opposes the Vietnam War. But, ironically, he is on his way to the funeral of his childhood friend, Mike, who was drafted and then died in the war. Joe is on edge because he knows the only reason Mike went to war was because he was drafted. But now a local reporter and local minister (both of whom were classmates of Mike and Joe) are now trying to cast Mike as a God-fearing patriot who should be seen as a hero/role model for others. Joe knows that Mike was just a regular guy who would have preferred to be at home with his wife and family instead of off at war. In the end, Joe rebels against the hypocrisy of it all, leading to a great final scene.

We also meet Katie in “Honoring Mike,” and Katie figures prominently in the remaining two stories. Katie is a beautiful young woman with Cherokee blood. She is Joe’s first love, and their on-again, off-again relationship has a profound effect on him. In “Through Their Strange Hours,” Joe is now a college student who has joined the Naval Reserve but still experiments with pot and hangs out with people named “Madman,” “Paranoid” and “Mole Man.” Along the way, we learn that Joe has experimented with acid (and is now suffering from flashbacks), and broken up with Katie. He has also attempted suicide and is now seeing a “shrink” and taking multiple medications to battle panic attacks. He’s a bit of a mess – and things only get more complicated when the local Metropolis authorities conduct a pot bust and use scare tactics to get the local kids to rat on each other. Meanwhile, Joe is still holding out hope of a getting back together with Katie. Things don’t look good for Joe, and you wonder if he is going to make it through in one piece.

“Acid Casualties” is the final story in this collection, and it picks up where “Through Their Strange Hours” leaves off. Joe is now rooming with Mole Man, and they have taken in a white cat named Casper who, like Joe, seems to be suffering from flashbacks (the result of a cruel prank by others who gave acid to the cat to see what would happen). Joe nurses Casper back toward normalcy, going so far as to share his anti-anxiety medication with the cat. At the same time, Joe seems to be trying to find his own way back to normalcy. But he’s hanging out with friends who get high and fantasize about forming a “revolutionary cell” and blowing up the local army recruiter’s office with cherry bombs, and he’s still haunted by what might have been with Katie.

The beautiful thing about these stories is that Joe, Katie and the other characters are lovingly presented, flaws and all. You feel for them because, while they sometimes battle with each other, their real battle is with the world around them. It’s an uphill climb, but McDaniel’s storytelling ability pulls you in. There is a sadness to these stories, yet McDaniel also infuses the stories and characters with warmth and humor. In the end, you wish you could sit down on the banks of the Ohio River with these kids, share a six-pack, and just spend the afternoon talking with them. Instead, do the next best thing – read this book and hear their stories. 

Tuesday
Jun182013

Book Review: Fatal Incident

Fatal Incident. Jim Proebstle. Emerald Book Company, Austin, TX, 2011, Hardcover, 377 pages.

Reviewed by Janet Feduska Cole.

The World War II setting for Fatal Incident is one of my favorite historical genres. Without question, those fateful years encompassed a period filled with unspeakable horrors, but they also gave rise to incredible stories of intrigue and courage.  Fatal Incident is one of those stories.

As with many other works of historical fiction, the Fatal Incident tale is rooted in both fact and fiction. This account focuses more on human relationships than on historical incidents. It describes in vivid detail the toll the war takes on two young brothers—based on real-life characters—who love flying above all else. The reader first experiences their carefree and adventurous lives as young men. The war years stand in sharp contrast. One shares the uncertainty, loneliness, and isolation of Nick and his young wife, Martha. Their painful separation is a result of Nick being stationed in Alaska, while Martha is enduring her first pregnancy in Minnesota without him.

Our hero, Nick Morgan, in his zeal to serve his country, converts from being a commercial airline pilot to flying military cargo planes, transporting equipment and troops through bitter and sometimes unchartered areas of Alaska. His courage, intelligence, and skill make him a pilot in demand, resulting in assignments to the most dangerous missions. One such assignment involves taking a high-ranking general and a renowned physicist over barren Alaskan flats while they ponder the feasibility of using the area to test the newly developed atomic bomb.

His skills are so impressive that the general requests for Nick to pilot the plane for a repeat mission. This time, in addition to the general and his entourage, the plane transports troops on their way home for a brief leave.

Unbeknownst to the US military, their Alaskan bases have been infiltrated by Russian operatives. Russia, nervous about the US’s forces being in such close proximity to the homeland, and the rumors of the US having successfully built an atom bomb, are relying on their strategically-placed operatives as well as the recruitment of disillusioned American soldiers to gather intelligence

The insecurities of one nation combined with the perceived aggressiveness of another have tragic consequences for our young hero during this final mission.

Although I did not consider this book to be a page turner (my description for a book that I can’t put down until I’ve sucked every detail from it), I found it to be a compelling, poignant, and well-written read. Unlike entirely fictional mysteries that often have satisfying conclusions, the ending to this saga, based on real-life events, remains a mystery to the families involved, as well as to the reader.

In addition to the author’s meticulous and detailed narration of unfolding events, I loved the references to Wonder Lake and the stark and incredible beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. Having hiked in the rugged Alaskan backcountry and canoed in some of the beautiful Alaskan Lakes, I felt these areas spring to life. Fatal Incident is a poignant and enriching tale of events that take place in one of the most remote areas of our country during a dramatic historical period.

Tuesday
May282013

Book Review: Mollie's War: The Letters of a World War II WAC in Europe

Mollie’s War: The Letters of a World War II WAC in Europe. Mollie Weinstein Schaffer and Cyndee Schaffer. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010, 273 pgs.

Reviewed by Kristina Winters 


Mollie’s War, by Mollie Weinstein Schaffer and Cyndee Schaffer, is an illustrative collection of letters that bear witness to one woman’s recruitment and overseas deployment throughout her time in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II.  The book, taking place from 1943 to 1945, is based on Mollie’s communication between family and friends during her enlistment, which allows the reader to travel with Mollie from basic training, all the way to events following the reorganization of Europe after VE Day. Mollie’s orders carry her throughout London, Paris, and Frankfurt at the height of the Second World War, revealing the peril and hardship faced both by enlisted personnel and their loved ones back home. She cultivates viable relationships throughout the story, lending to the enduring human element that persists in times of warfare.

This book highlights the less examined perspective of the Second World War by accenting the day-to-day experiences of enlisted women, focusing on their valuable contribution to the war effort.  Although the number of enlisted women has inevitably increased in modern times, the inclusion of women in zones of warfare is still a matter of debate to this day. Similarly, experiences like that of Mollie came amid a time of fierce opposition to women in uniform, often leading to fear that a surplus of women in the military would challenge the personal notions of femininity, brand them as easier targets to become POWs, and would lead to more men being driven from safe jobs to combat zones due to women’s inability to fight on the front lines. However, the Women’s Army Corps was often praised by military personnel for their contributions, with leaders such as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower emphasizing women’s immense competence, ability, and fortitude in times of war.

Many books that focus on the women’s effort during World War II highlight the shifting paradigm of authority on the home front, with women taking highly skilled positions in fields previously male-dominated, and proving to be more than capable of managing a wide variety of tasks and challenges. Later focal points are indicative of the difficult adjustment women faced with changing culture, and how expectations and gender roles quickly transformed with the ending war and men’s re-integration into both the workforce and society. Mollie’s War provides an exclusive perspective of the war abroad, often relating tales of misconstrued notions on the part of family and friends back home, attributable to the need to maintain secrecy on the part of deployed enlisted personnel abroad. We are challenged to review our notions of the woman soldier as we read Mollie’s lasting exasperation with the global perception of women’s roles in the military, and as we sympathize with her frustration at the end of her deployment.

Mollie’s War presents an essential, first-hand perspective of one enlisted woman’s life during World War II, and I found it to be an enjoyable and informative journey highlighting women’s underscored contribution to efforts of war and peace. Developing historical context for both the genesis and development of discourse on that topic is prime motivation to read this book.

 

Tuesday
May282013

Book Review: The Wall & Beyond

people caught in oddity,

bashful, open their faces

and cast around

little question-hooks

 

they catch nothing

save identical faces

of other passengers wrapped up

in wall-like silence

 

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
May072013

Review: Cancelled: Stamps to Die For

CANCELLED: Stamps To Die For by Janet Feduska Cole. Pegasus Books, San Jose, California, January 2013, 182 pages.
 
Book Review by Ray Paul
 
Having just finished a second reading of Cancelled: Stamps to Die For, a short mystery/suspense novel written by Janet Feduska Cole, I’m struck by the similarity in our late-blooming writing backgrounds and the dramatic differences in our writing styles. While each of us turned to writing fiction after careers in technical writing or in my case business communications, Janet is a master of turning her historical and geographical research into a fascinating learning experience.
 
The story itself is a classic chase told in the first person. A female writer, Elyse, reconnects with a male friend from her past, Karl, who has a collection of stamps and women. Following his supposed death, she is moved to research and write an article about a stamp collection thought to have been stolen by certain Nazi leaders toward the end of WWII. While obtaining facts for her article from various locations around the globe, Elyse attracts a following of allies and evildoers interested in the results of her research. Among the latter is her ex-friend Karl, who has miraculously risen from the dead, and his newest female companion and members of a secret society of philatelists seem intent on doing her harm.
 
The highlight of the author’s story was reconnecting with my youthful stamp collecting history by recalling many of the famous stamps she lists in one of the chapters of the book. In addition, the references to World War II and the postwar Nazi migration to Argentina, rekindled my interest in that fateful period of our modern world. Equally enjoyable for me was reading her descriptions of the Southwestern United States and the petrography found there in certain Utah Canyons. Because the author implies her story is fictional, I suspect some of her places and references are made up. However, because the author writes so convincingly this reader was content to believe that all of the places and events in the story were real and historically accurate. Never once was I tempted to check out the validity of her details.
 
With the exception of some light asides by the protagonist narrator, the writing style is rather refined and academic for this particular genre, something I personally found refreshing. Overall, the plot kept my interest throughout and the story never labors. While I did have to go back and reread some chapters to make sure I was getting “it,” I chalked that up to poor reading rather than any flaw in the storytelling.
 
However, I do wish that the author would have developed her characters further. Because of a lack of emotional attachment, I found it hard to feel a strong level of fear or dread during the protagonist’s journey. Moreover, the evil pursuers always seemed more like nutty bunglers than vicious criminals. In her future writing I hope the author will shed her intellectual tendencies and dig into the hearts and guts of her characters so the reader can enjoy her story on several levels other than her intricate plot.
 
Although the book is short, it packed a punch and I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel.