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Book Reviews

Tuesday
Aug132013

Book Review: The Coach House

The Coach House. Florence Osmund. Published by CreateSpace, N.Charleston, S.C., 2012, Trade Paperback, 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ray Paul.

The Coach House is a tense story with two plots set in post World War II America.  Marie Costa, a young college graduate, is quickly moving up the management ladder at Marshall Fields in Chicago when she meets and falls in love with Richard Marchetti, a handsome, beguiling medical supply salesman with a secret business life involving the underworld. Of course, at the time they are married, Marie is clueless. All she knows is Richard is devoted to her and continually professes his love for her. However, after they marry, a variety of incidents and chance encounters with some dangerous gangsters eventually drive her into hiding.

From that point forward, Marie attempts to escape from her husband and build a new life.  Her odyssey starts by breaking into what she assumed was a vacant home. From there she travels to a number of distant cities to find safety beyond Richard’s reach. After eventually settling in a coach house on an estate in a suburb of Kansas City, she reestablishes her life, finds a sidekick, Karen, and hopes to be free of Richard and his threats. But this was not to be, because she is never beyond his reach, and she experiences a number of terrifying incidents when Richard tracks her down. This is plot number one.

Plot number two involves Marie’s search for the father she has never known. While her deceased mother had always told Marie her lover was a “good man,” she left very few clues as to who he was. Sure, someone set up a bank account to fund Marie’s college education, and there was a group picture with her mother and several men. Other than that, his identity was kept from her.  By the end of the book Marie solves the puzzle. She not only learns her mother was truthful in calling him a “good man,” but she finds out all the reasons her mother kept his identity a secret. 

Personally, I found much to like in The Coach House. The third-person narrative was gripping and believable. All the characters were unique, rich and well-rounded. The dialog itself was crisp and telling, and did a wonderful job of building suspense and moving the story along.  Furthermore, the author’s rich descriptions of Chicago’s sights, and all of the other places in which Florence Osmund places her characters, added depth to the intense story line. While the point of view was decidedly female, I wouldn’t describe this story as a chick book. The characters, both male and female, were utterly believable and the story line so unique. I really enjoyed the time I spent reading it, particularly the satisfying ending regarding the search for her father. That being said, the only aspect of the book that didn’t wholly satisfy me was the resolution to plot number one. But the ending made sense, and that will probably be enough for most readers.    

The Coach House is an enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone who reads to be entertained.         

Tuesday
Aug132013

Book Review: My Life: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

 

My Life: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. James Pierce, Translator. Robert Dohrenwend, Editor/Translator. Published by Rilling Enterprises, Loves Park, Illinois, 2012, hardcover, 220 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

This translation of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs will be of interest to scholars of colonialism, Prussian military history and World War I but few other readers.

Despite a foreword that hails von Lettow-Vorbeck as “one of the few true heroes of the 20th Century” and an introduction that describes him as “in many ways representative of the best in his society and time,” the general remains an obscure albeit successful figure whose greatest accomplishments occurred in the World War I sideshow of German East Africa (today Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda).

Although von Lettow-Vorbeck’s account contains much history, it also includes boasting, self-justification, sniping at the French and British, and claims such as “I am certain that we could have won” the Great War.

Born in Prussia, von Lettow-Vorbeck went on to become a masterful military leader who was undefeated during four years in German East Africa despite being greatly outnumbered by Allied forces. Although he embodied the honorable, even chivalrous, Prussian military tradition, his claim to fame was leading a guerilla force: destroying forts; tearing up railway tracks; and seizing enough arms, ammunition and provisions from the enemy to continue fighting them. This was a proud, disciplined, highly decorated member of the old school fighting bush warfare, which he had claimed to despise. 

Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoir deserved to be translated, and James Pierce did so some time ago although the work was never published. Robert Dohrenwend, the editor/translator of this tome, is to be commended for polishing up the translation and getting it published. A linguist and military historian, Dohrenwend wrote A Multilingual Glossary of Firearms Terms 1550 to 1850 and has translated a number of works dealing with German military history.

That said, it would have been helpful to the reader of this book if Dohrenwend had provide more background and context; footnotes throughout; more and better maps; a glossary; and an index.

The memoir, itself, must be read with a grain of salt. Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s daughter, who acted as editor and did an unknown amount of what she described as “sifting”, wrote the foreword to the original edition.

Still, a high school history teacher of mine (even though he was a football coach) ingrained in me the need to read original source material. This book provides that opportunity regarding a tenacious fighter, brilliant tactician, and charismatic military leader, who was also a concerned citizen, resourceful survivor and thoughtful observer during a very long life spanning a fascinating period of history, 1870-1964. Reading it will make you want to seek out a biography of this remarkable, elite Prussian warrior. 

 

 

Friday
Jul192013

Book Review: Dabblers: Windsong Lake Series, Vol. 1

Dabblers: Windsong Lake Series, Vol. 1. Kathryn Flatt. Write Words, Inc., Cambridge, MD, 2012. Kindle Edition sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 240 pages.

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

A crackerjack plot is crucial – it’s what keeps us reading. The plot of Kathryn Flatt’s latest mystery, Dabblers, is compelling from start to finish. Artist Stefanie Durant inherited Uncle Hank’s house on Windsong Lake, a refuge for several blissful summers during a childhood otherwise far from normal.  Stefanie was born with an unusual mind. She has outstanding creative and pattern-recognition skills but problems with basic concepts like reading and math. At puberty, a strong psychic ability called the Ken – the “knowing” – exploded into her life, bringing terrifying visions of future disasters. Stephanie learned to suppress the Ken and, for more than twenty years, kept it secret from everyone, even Paul, her beloved husband and soul mate.

From the moment Stephanie arrived to inspect her new property, she knew something was terribly wrong. Uncle Hank, whose body had apparently burst into flames after a lightning strike, left Stefanie not only his property but also the hidden key to a room crammed with recently acquired books on weather and the occult – two important clues in unlocking the mystery.

We learn right away that two of her childhood friends had adopted a pagan religion and dabble in magic, Amy Greenleaf for good and Melinda Van Zant for evil.

Who killed Uncle Hank and how and why? Was it the old friend who embraced dark magic, or was it the builder of the mysterious altar-like structure in the woods behind Hank’s property? And will releasing the Ken help solve the mystery or will it drive Stefanie to madness?

Fascinating characters are as important as plot.  More than twenty people show up in Dabblers, most, of course, in minor roles, but even these are distinctive. For instance, we peer into the minds and hearts of Lorna Nesbitt, Uncle Hank’s reclusive next-door neighbor, and Adam Greenleaf, Amy’s ex-husband, who decided that living with Amy and their daughter Hannah is a grounded, day-by-day way to love everything in the universe, ultimately more rewarding than the ascetic Buddhist discipline for which he had left his family.

Several weeks after I finished Dabblers I was still thinking about the relationship between Stefanie and Paul. They both insist they’re “the two halves of some greater whole.” After twenty years of marriage, they remain passionately in love.  However, Paul monitors Stefanie’s every syllable, which Stefanie, who says she needs protection, supposedly welcomes. For twenty years Stefanie has not told Paul about the Ken, and during most of Dabblers she lies to him by omission about her activities to unravel several Windsong Lake mysteries. The couple at first seem like a classic example of codependency to Stefanie’s old friend Amy – and to me, the reader – and yet the moment Amy sees the two together, their separate auras merge into a single, pure white radiance, something she has never seen before.  They are old souls, and their relationship is complicated.

Flatt is a very good writer. The book is easy and delightful to read, provides the requisite tension of murder mysteries, leads the main characters into a deeper understanding of themselves, and, at the same time, weaves in themes like global warming and corporate greed. As one who knows many New Age, or pagan, practices myself, I was impressed with the author’s succinct explanations of hands-on healing, gemstone therapy, and auras.

Dabblers is the first book in the new Windsong Lake Series, which is Flatt’s third series. She has published one stand-alone novel and two books in each of two other series. See her blog, kathrynflattsauthorpage.blogspot.com, to find more information about Flatt and her works.

 

Thursday
Jul182013

Book Review: The Rebel Within

The Rebel Within. Lance Erlick. Finlee Augare Books, March 24, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 270 pages.

Reviewed by Serena Wadhwa.

In this dystopian YA novel, Annabelle is a typical 16-year-old girl living a not-so-typical adolescent life. Taking place after the Second American Civil War, the books describes how Annabelle lives in a world where everything is monitored to enforce harmony, where uniformity thrives, and being different has consequences. Losing her parents at the age of three, Annabelle is later adopted by a woman whom she respectfully calls “Mom.” Mom, a state senator, fights for girls and women to have opportunities in the government-controlled world. “Mechs”—female warriors who are trained to protect the state, enforce harmony, and capture fugitive males—are also the ones who destroyed Annabelle’s family. Males are viewed as the enemy in this female-dominant world. Yet Annabelle struggles with common issues for individuals her age: doing what’s right by the society she lives in versus doing what’s right for her, as well as trying to understand the physical and emotional reactions she experiences when she sees a boy. Erlick gives the reader a view of what it is like for Annabelle to live in a world where male connections are forbidden and people disappear if they are not promoting “harmony.” Yet Annabelle yearns for some independence, some freedom, and to know who she really is.

No telling who might post my thoughts. Soc-net police are on the lookout for any backlash against the Federal Union.” In Erlick’s America, privacy is a thing of the past, but for Annabelle, it’s something she wants to fight for: the right to be independent, to think for herself, and to pursue her own dreams.

Annabelle also vigilantly tries to find her biological mother, despite the consequences of getting caught: “ ...rows of metal desks have virtual computers, where I’ve tried to access information on Dorothy Montgomery, my birth mother. It’s not that Mom hasn’t been good to me; she has. I don’t like the Federal Union forbidding me from finding by birth mother. The desks can’t access out-of-state records without going through a department filter. That would ID my search and land me in another prison far away.

Erlick does a good job of bringing the characters to life, vividly bringing to the reader the ways in which Annabelle overcomes obstacles and distractions in following her passion and discovering her mission. Annabelle is a believable adolescent fighting for what she believes in: “I speed to school. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, yet it feels right. All I have to do is get Janine to go home with Mom and tell them I have to return Brooks’ car. What could go wrong?“

Dara is another lively adolescent who uses her size and power to get her way. When she and Annabelle end up fighting a Mech battle against each other, readers will find themselves unable to put the last chapters down, as Erlick weaves a few surprising twists into the story.

Red and blue uniforms circle around. With every ounce of strength I hit and kick. Anger, not just at Dara, but Surroc, the Union, Voss, Hernandez. Everyone tells me what to do, who to be, how to behave. The union took my parents, grabbed that boy, hunts Morgan. Dara hurt Janine.

If you like action, suspense, and vivid characters, look no further. In fact, after finishing the book, I asked if there was a sequel to the story.

Friday
Jul122013

Book Review: Recalled to Life

Recalled to Life. Dan Burns. Published by Eckhartz Press, Chicago, June 3, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 254 pages.

Reviewed by Dipika Mukherjee.

Recalled To Life is a Chicago story about family ties and the redeeming power of love. Dan Burns takes us into the world of Peter O’Hara, a talented architect whose career is on the upswing. His stable family life with wife Melanie and son Jake is suddenly interrupted when a crisis involving Peter’s father, Jack O’Hara, turns their lives upside down. Jack moves in with Peter and although he forms a very strong bond with grandson Jake, his declining mental health tests the limits of this family.

Burns deftly outlines the challenges in caring for an elderly parent. He deals sensitively with the trials of aging, particularly in dealing with failing physical strength and the frustrations of memory loss. Peter’s quandary, as he juggles managing his father and keeping his own family happy, is emotionally charged.

Jack O’Hara is instrumental in compelling Peter to make a choice about his career and this choice is made in a way that ends the book on a high note. The opening pages are slow however, and the pacing can be frustrating, but once Jack moves in with Peter the story picks up quickly.

Although Burns describes the growing bond between Jake, Peter and Jack with skill, there are some raw edges: there is a suggestion of a transgression on Jack’s part (adultery? neglect?) which is hinted at but never fully revealed; Peter’s client, Gattling, seems exceptionally interested in Jack O’Hara’s health and it appears that this may lead to an interesting development but nothing materializes; it’s implied that Peter is attracted to an office colleague but this thread fizzles out.

Burns writes with great empathy for all the characters. The scene of the O’Hara family eating hot dogs during a baseball game is both memorable and touching. Melanie is a wonderfully drawn character who is initially sympathetic to her father-in-law’s situation, but unwilling to be a martyr when his behavior jeopardizes the family. The situations that Peter confronts at his office—heavy doses of nepotism and incompetence—are handled with gravity and humor at the same time.

Overall this is a touching Chicago story about intergenerational bonds, and the love that keeps a family together despite the challenges of life.