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Monday
Oct072013

Book Review: Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives a Damn

Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives a Damn. Victoria Noe. King Company Publishing, May 3, 2013, Paperback and Kindle, 46 pages.

Reviewed by Kristina Winters

The loss of a friend is not always perceived as a respected or profound loss. Victoria Noe challenges that notion in Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives a Damn by discussing “disenfranchised grief” that is often not validated or given the same social credence as the loss of a relative when, in fact, it arguably warrants the same level of attention.

Friend Grief and Anger is a somber read centered on the raw, angry emotion often felt when one loses a close friend. Noe focuses on various relationships and losses throughout her life as well as stories of loss experienced by individuals she knows. These examples allow the reader a different lens through which to view varying stages of grief, whether an individual’s departure is sudden, gradual, or perplexing in nature.

In one particular example, Noe highlights her own experience with losing her friend Delle Chatman to ovarian cancer, using this as an impetus to frame her personal anger at seeing Chatman shut out loved ones as she neared the end of her life. In the aftermath of Chatman’s death, the anger didn’t arise at the circumstances that took her life, but with the deceased herself, for not allowing close friends and family to support her through the end of her journey. Other stories focus on anger at incurable diseases or viruses, rage at incidents such as 9/11, or resentment toward perceived negligence, as was evident in the famous death of actor Vic Morrow who lost his life while filming Twilight Zone: The Movie. Director John Landis not only faced a manslaughter charge in Vic Morrow’s wrongful death case, but also faced the warranted wrath of mourners when he appeared at Vic Morrow’s funeral to deliver an unwelcome eulogy. These stories serve to validate the grieving process and provide insight into how the death of a friend rightfully merits anger, sadness, and appropriate time for healing.

What this book does well is allow the reader to understand that there is nothing wrong with experiencing grief in ways that are natural to the individual­—whether that grief is for someone close or a popular celebrity in the news, no one can dictate a socially acceptable response, or demand that one grieve in a way that is largely perceived as appropriate. Although it is not necessarily meant to be constructive, Friend Grief and Anger takes the reader for a walk in someone else’s shoes by exploring the concept that grief is real, regardless of its form, and that we are not alone in our feelings of anger, sadness, and disappointment when working to embrace the loss of a friend.

Tuesday
Oct012013

Book Review: The Englishman and the Butterfly

The Englishman and the Butterfly. Ryan Asmussen. Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, October 1, 2012. Kindle edition, 255 pages.

Reviewed by Marie Becker.

The Englishman and the Butterfly is an undeniably ambitious book, firmly enmeshed not only in literary references, but also in a distinct aesthetic sensibility. Asmussen is a published poet and English teacher, and the heft of this book comes primarily from the loving use of language and the deeply felt respect for the literary canon. The novel follows Henry Fell, a lonely and anxiety-ridden Oxford professor newly relocated to Boston on an academic fellowship. Henry soon falls in with the popular professor Geoffrey Hearne, the awkward and lumbering professor Christopher Moberley, and Julia, a PhD student who serves as the center of a erotic matrix which quickly turns dark and layered with envy, lust and grief, and from which no one will emerge unscathed, if at all. Throughout, these academics and poets (at least aspiring ones) quote, allude, and meditate as they attempt to make sense of what surrounds them, even as it shifts from everyday foibles and neuroses into overt horror. Throughout the book, the language is thoughtful and deliberate, creating its own kind of introspective lull. It’s easy to fall into the lyrical language of this book, a dream-like state that both depicts and recreates the temptations of seeing life through too distant a lens.

The same passion for literary language can also be seen in plot, which veers from satirical takes on self-absorbed academics to a woman in peril to moments of stylized noir to meditations on Zen Buddhism. These shifts in tone, while demonstrating Asmussen’s breadth of interest, also at times lead to some disconnect in pacing. Much as Henry Fell’s literary training has both trapped him and given him succor, The Englishman and the Butterfly sometimes stumbles under its own impressive scope and pedigree. Rather than illuminate, it can obfuscate. At one point, Asmussen slyly presents us with a transcribed interview between Henry and a frustrated police officer, who has no patience with Henry’s allusive—and elusive—answers to his questions, and the investigator’s frustration is not only palpable, but sympathetic, slicing through the indulgences of wit and meta-references that both the book and Henry so rely on. It’s a powerful moment in the text, but almost immediately falls away, leaving the roots of Henry’s eventual epiphanies that much more ephemeral.   

Asmussen likens the book to a parable or fairy tale and in that sense, the language and imagery take significant emphasis over plot. Despite some twists that border on the sensational, the novel remains insular, deeply committed to Henry’s belated coming of age story, sometimes at the expense of clarity. In particular, the characterization of Julia was somewhat frustrating; despite being given point-of-view passages, she ultimately seems to function as a catalyst for the acts of the men around her, rather than a fully-realized character in her own right. The book struggled to solidly connect its plot points of intrigue with Henry’s emotional evolution, making his growth less satisfying and more solipsistic than it might have been. What does shine through, however, is a deep and passionate love for literature, and an earnest questioning of how we navigate between its comforts and its shortfalls. Even if Henry Fell’s epiphanies may be less than satisfying, the writer’s pursuit of them is an admirable one. Asmussen’s passion and intelligence make him a writer well worth watching.

Tuesday
Oct012013

Book Review: Still Having Fun

Still Having Fun: A Portrait of the Military Marriage of Rex and Bettie George 1941-2007. Candace George Thompson. Published: Westview, Inc., Kingston Springs, TN, 2012, 305 pp.

Reviewed by Vicky Edwards.

Writing a memoir is a tricky business. If you’re not famous, you have to make strangers care about you or your family. If you’re writing about events that happened when you weren’t present, you have to breathe life into the facts. Ultimately, you have to disconnect enough from the dramatic events of your own life to share uncomfortable truths in a way that is both passionate and dispassionate.           

Candace George Thompson succeeds to some degree on all these levels in “Still Having Fun: A Portrait of the Military Marriage of Rex and Bettie George 1941-2007.”

Thompson’s father, Rex, was a career Air Force officer who began service on D-Day. His courtship with the popular Bettie Gibson is reminiscent of Amanda Wingfield’s memories of her “gentlemen callers” in “The Glass Menagerie”: the interested parties were lined up on Bettie’s front porch as she came in from one date and changed clothes to go on the next one. In fact, she was engaged to someone else when Rex won her heart.

The opening sections of the book, however, suffer from their archival quality. Events are noted, personal family letters are shared, and her father’s tape-recorded memories are included, verbatim, but it seldom rises above the level of a documentation of family ancestry and into the level of compelling reading. The endnotes do a neat job of putting Rex’s service into the larger historical context, but perhaps that information would be better integrated into the text.

A notable exception is the heartbreaking story of Bettie giving birth to a stillborn baby in 1942. The stunning insensitivity with which medical personnel treated the event is a throwback to an era of “Just don’t talk about it and it will go away,” with the hospital staff routinely taking the baby from a sedated mother who never gets to hold her own child.  Grief unacknowledged is grief that lingers, as Bettie’s does throughout her life.

Once the story enters the 1950s, the narrative picks up with the author’s ability to remember the events she is describing. If you have ever wondered, as I have, that children can be unaware of their own father’s alcoholism, Candace’s surprise and her growing understanding that her father has a problem is convincing; his dysfunction is quietly kept in the shadows and Bettie’s distress has been kept to herself. It may not have been easy for the author to “out” her father to the public, but it was a necessary admission and aided reader understanding of the path addiction sometimes takes.

The final chapters focusing on Bettie’s cognitive decline are also heartbreakingly honest, and the author does a remarkable job of making us understand Bettie’s denial and frustrations, as well as the immense job that Rex undertook as her unfailing caretaker.

Overall, this memoir does a credible job of blending historical perspective with the personal story of two people that the reader feels he or she would like to have met.

Candace George Thompson spent her childhood moving around the country, and served in Venezuela as a Peace Corps volunteer, before settling down in Chicago, where she has lived for over 30 years. 

Monday
Sep302013

Book Review: Mahogany Sin

Mahogany Sin (The Valerie Chamber Series-Book 1). Kellee Gilmore. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, July 22, 2013, E-book and Trade Paperback, 350 pages.

Reviewed by Jessica Cage.

Mahogany Sin is a deliciously unexpected paranormal thrill ride. In the first book of its series, debut author Kellee Gilmore introduces us to Valerie Chambers, a self-sufficient woman who is working her way to the top of her accounting firm. She is focused and determined to succeed, and has tossed aside her bad girl ways, much to the chagrin of her best friend Jordan who is still thoroughly enjoying the wild life. One evening Jordan convinces Valerie to come out for a night on the town and of course, this is the night that Valerie’s life is thrown off its rails.

Waiting for her is a blind date, the handsome and intriguing Edric, who sweeps Valerie off her feet with just one look. The magnetism between them is undeniable, the kind that will throw a wrench into the life Valerie is trying to build. She knows her involvement with Edric will lead her down a shaky path but she chooses to go with it anyway.

Yes, you want Valerie to be okay - you want her to have the successful life she is building - but you cannot help wanting Edric to shake that all up for her. When they are near each other, she is more alive, more vibrant, more herself. But Edric brings something else out in Valerie, and that something isn’t just a more lively social life. There are some serious demons hidden in Valerie’s past that she will have to face.

The paranormal twist to this story is one that is completely unanticipated and is very well done. All the while you are reading this book, you are waiting for it. You know it’s coming (after all, it is paranormal fiction) and when it is finally revealed it is both devastating and enticing, and done in such a way that you find yourself lost inside the pages all over again.

Fair warning: there is some adult content that was a bit more than I expected, but I have no complaints. Kellee is descriptive without being vulgar. Mahogany Sin is definitely one to add to your collection if you love paranormal work that contains a heated sexual atmosphere. At times you will feel a bit naughty reading it, but it’s the good kind of naughty.

Mahogany Sin is Chicago author Kellee Gilmore’s first book. The story combines her love for her city, horror movies, and paranormal fiction into one tempting story that will leave readers begging for more.

Sunday
Sep152013

Book Review: Dead of the Union

Dead of the Union. Brenton Harper-Murray. Holy Crow Press, November 2, 2012, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 214 pages.

Reviewed by Meghan Owen.

Want a better, good old fashioned, chew em’ up zombie story? Add in a rich but brutal historical period, such as the American Civil War, a classic yet under-utilized Patient Zero storyline and gritty realistic characters with combat-bred survival skills and you’ve got a zombie crisis that’ll go down in the history books.  Brenton Harper-Murray brings all of these components and more together in his dark and inventive novel Dead of the Union.

The original printing of Dead of the Union was made possible by a successful Kickstarter, thus allowing Brenton Harper-Murray to self publish his novel. However, this isn’t the first time around publishing for the author. Harper-Murray has written several short stories in the genre of “strange fiction”. One story, after being set aside for a period of time, eventually fleshed out to be the 214-page novel we have today, Dead of the Union.

In a literary market already saturated with the trope of zombies, and the supernatural overlapping with the historical (i.e. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies}, Dead of the Union stands out because it doesn’t bank on the kitschy effect of taking an important figure from the past and mixing in a strange, otherworldly occupation (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter…cool, but it can only be done once). What makes the Dead of the Union float as a piece of fun historical fiction is that it focuses on everyday people of the era: a soldier, a spy and a widow. On top of that, the soldier and the spy have experience in both combat and the minimalist/survivalist aspects of war in the mid-1800s.  So, their lengthy struggle against the zombie horde translates as believable. And, as for the widow, if you think a woman living alone on a farm for months has nothing to contribute to the apocalypse of the undead, you have another thing coming when you read Harper-Murray’s book.

Another refreshing element to Dead of the Union is its use of zombie lore. Instead of riffing off the causation of disease, biological warfare, or a mishap whilst diving in the Yang-Tze River, Harper-Murray’s novel focuses on the age-old origin of the “zombi” created by Voudon priests. Yet, instead of only utilizing the concept of soul-less bodies commanded by a skillful Voudon (such as the legend of coffee girls in New Orleans}, Dead of the Union incorporates modern zombie speed and appetite to boost the tension and give the incorporation of voodoo a strange and original flavor. Plus, this is no ordinary tale of a Voudon priest; this is also a tale of the Loa, and one of the most powerful and tricky Loa spirits, Baron Samedi.  Those who have studied the top hat adorned, cigar smoking Lord of Dead, know that a story that includes Mr. Saturday can never be interpreted as boring.

The faulty aspects of Dead of the Union lay in its pacing. Any good story needs exposition, but it takes reading a decent chunk of the book in order to get to the action. Even then, once you’re there in the thick of it all, Harper-Murray will occasionally run with the logic that “quantity means quality,” and instead of simplifying the succinctness of the brain-bashing action, he’ll draw it out until it becomes a little redundant and overextended. Other than the pacing, the only other aspects that hinder Dead of the Union are that some of the characters have questionable intent, and there are some promising plot devices that get abandoned which cause the end of the novel to suffer a bit.

All that being said, Brenton Harper-Murray’s Dead of the Union is a delightfully gristly and suspenseful tale. It induces fear, disgust, wry amusement and unexpected sympathy. Harper-Murray has not only successfully invented a unique plot, but also a dense and magically bizarre environment. His use of zombies takes a common trope and spins it into an eerie, original book that makes you question if you’ve read The Zombie Survival Guide enough times to stand up to the monsters that Harper-Murray has skillfully created.