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Book Reviews

Monday
Mar242014

Book Review: Give Me Chocolate, A Kelly Clark Mystery

Give Me Chocolate, A Kelly Clark Mystery. Annie Hansen. Published by Weaving Dreams, May 11, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 261 pages.

Reviewed by Roxe Anne Peacock.

Give Me Chocolate is set in a quaint town along the Fox River in Geneva, Illinois, one hour west of Chicago. Kelly Clark has left California to start anew. She turned her husband, Steve, into the authorities after he tried killing his pregnant mistress. He had already served three years of his thirteen-year sentence when she left penniless to live with her younger sister, Nikki, above the old Victorian which housed the specialty bakery. After several emails from someone in her past and several break-ins within the last month in the historical neighborhood, Kelly wondered if her past didn’t follow her. And when someone she grows found of is found murdered at Chocolate Love, she looks for clues as to who the killer is before she becomes the next victim.  As the story progresses, the suspects—as well as bodies—begin to stack up.

When Kelly Clark arrived in Geneva, she had no plans on ever dating again. But Nikki had other ideas, which included yoga in Batavia. Along with the yoga, Nikki hoped Kelly would rekindle a relationship with an old flame. Kelly’s only interests these days were to work on her antique murder series for her editor and continue her jogging in the morning.

Kelly’s older sister, Adelle, and her husband, Mike Stefano, seemed to have it all: three children, large home, and a construction company. Guess who needed a babysitter? But not all was cozy with the Stefano family. They seemed to be having marital problems.

Author Annie Hansen truly weaves the reader through her cozy mystery somewhat in the same sense as Jessica Beck. Lately, it has taken me days to read books, but Ms. Hansen’s descriptive writing kept me turning pages. I finished the book in one sitting. I am looking forward to the next book to see how the author continues the series. There is a bonus recipe at the end of the book for chocolate lovers.

Annie Hansen was a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America 2011 Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship. After reading Give Me Chocolate, I understand why she won the award. Ms. Hansen is a graduate of the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Biology and lives in the suburbs of Chicago.

 

Thursday
Mar132014

Book Review: Death by Children

Death by Children. Bull Garlington. Everything Goes Media, Chicago, October 2013, Trade paperback and e-book, 169 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Marohn.

“There were times I wasn’t sure my son belonged to me. I worried perhaps there’d been a mix up in maternity, like maybe one of the nurses held my actual son in her arms, his cherubic mug illuminating the entire ward, then looked at me and thought, ‘This can’t be right. Give him the trucker baby!’”

The quote from Death by Children highlights author Bull Garlington’s humorous bent about his children, and he carries that humor throughout his compiled series of essays. Those who have had children and then shooed them off into the world, or who still have children at home, will find solace in these writings. Garlington’s book is funny and descriptive of parents and their kids interacting in a modern family of a stay-at-home dad and a working mom pursuing her legal career. The reader will be entertained while reading many of the crisp stories, and it is a book easily read in one sitting. It’s also a book to enjoy and relish by reading one essay a day as a funny anecdote to help unwind from a hectic day at work—a daily dose of humor if you will. After all, who hasn’t struggled in a conversation with a teenager, asking, “What did you do at school today?” and often getting the standard flat answer of, “Nothing.” Even dumb parents know that something had to occur at school. Really!

The book doesn’t stop with revelations about the author’s son and daughter. It goes beyond to the pets. Read this to whet your appetite: “I love our dog. I love the fact that he’s mildly retarded, that he thinks every command means beg, that he has an uncanny, nearly supernatural ability to sock me in the balls every time he jumps up into my lap, and that eats watermelon and popsicles. He is unbearably cute and truly remarkable and I’m going to miss him—but he has to go.”

Thus, the author uses his sarcasm to educate others who may not know kids and pets and, as you finish reading the book, you begin to understand why his book’s subtitle exists: “I had kids so that you don’t have to.” He is on a comical crusade to warn others about kids and pets while at the same time trying to rationalize his parenting. Let’s face it, we do not become parents through formal education on parenthood but through trial and error and hopefully from sound advice from others such as our own parents—that is, if they were good teachers. It is no wonder that when our children reach the teenage years they become formidable in countering our attempts to parent at every step of the way. This books serves to enlighten us about life, to show it isn’t perfect out there. Maybe we should chuckle about it.

The author is a syndicated humor columnist whose works appear in Chicago Parent and NY Parenting. He co-authored the popular foodie compendium, The Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats (Lake Claremont Press). Garlington won a Gold Award for best humor article from the Parenting Media Association in 2014. Check out his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/christopher.garlington.

Thursday
Mar132014

Book Review: Detours

Detours. Emma Gates. Wells Street Press, January 15, 2014, Trade Paperback.

Reviewed by Vicky Edwards.

Detours is a book that bridges the changing times, and the changing world, from the political protests at Indiana University in the early 1970s to political unrest in Kuwait in 1983, focusing on the uneasy relationship between love and politics.

The story begins in 1983 with the protagonist, Clare, scanning a list of people she will see at an upcoming trade show. She sees the name of Lowell Goodenow, triggering an extended flashback to her meeting Lowell when she was an idealistic freshman co-ed and Lowell was a self-assured East Coast upperclassman. Sparks fly, both political and personal, but when Clare is involved in a political activity Lowell doesn’t support, their relationship is tested.

The social unrest of the intervening years unfolds before us: civil unrest in Mexico, a bombing in Beirut, the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Gates has a good eye for vivid details and a good ear for the language of the times. Guitarists strum to Leonard Cohen and Cat Stevens, the Establishment is dissed, and bras go unworn. The descriptions of time and place ring true, although they are, in the end, backdrop for the romance of the two central characters.

The title refers to the detours the characters make before reconnecting in 1983, but more generally, to the way we try to create a path our lives will take when we are in college only to find a decade later that the path took far different turns than we could possibly have envisioned.

There are times when the detailed descriptions of characters and their settings overwhelm to the point that they are less human and engaging people than they might be, but overall the book is readable and, at times, even poetic. The opening page, for example, depicts an icy December sky in Chicago that is “spitting white dots and dashes” and later, Lowell looks at hills in autumn “where gold and scarlet were just staining the leaves.”

Gates knows the backdrops she has described in the novel well, having attended college in Bloomington, Indiana, and having worked in both Mexico and Saudi Arabia. She earned an MBA with a concentration in Arabic/Middle East studies and now lives in the Chicago area.

           

             

Wednesday
Mar052014

Book Review: Spartanica

Spartanica. Powers Molinar. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, November 12, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 388 pages.

Reviewed by Paige Doepke.

Spartanica is the first book in this young adult sci-fi series, The Survivors of Sapertys, which chronicles the accidental slip of the main characters, Marcus and Ty Mitchell, from their own earthly reality into a parallel reality on the planet of Sapertys. Each of the boys has their own strengths, physically and intellectually, that help them make sense of the strangeness that suddenly surrounds them. The brothers must use their wanderlust and excitement for the unknown to help restore some sort of rightfulness on the new planet that they come to realize as home. 

Author Powers Molinar’s true passion for the sci-fi genre oozes from the pages. The novel lends itself to comparison against other notable teen series—namely The Hunger Games and Harry Potter—but it really is an idea and a world all its own. The very descript scientific details of the story set it apart from others, and in fact, make the surreal concept of travelling between planets, with time virtually standing still back at home, feel incredibly real. A smart reader, even a smart reader of fiction, questions the likelihood of the story in front of them, and Molinar really covers his bases. That’s a sign of a great writer.

Part of what makes the story feel so real is how relatable its main characters are. Marcus and Ty have grown up in the care of their aunt and have never questioned the death of their parents when they were both very young. As we all know, the monotony of everyday life doesn’t always leave much room for questioning. However, when they wander into their aunt’s Archaeological study, they fall into a world of possibility. Oddly enough, that opportunity for possibility, Spartanica, the capital city of Sapertys, is in ruins. Therefore, the boys bring possibility with them, but also find it there for themselves. Spartanica, in all of its ruin, is a symbol of hope; what once was there is quite literally a foundation for what could eventually be. 

They boys learn that maybe life, here and back on Earth, is malleable. Maybe they aren’t who they have always thought they were. Maybe there’s more to the story about their parents and about where they came from than they had originally thought. While they learn about their history and the history of Spartanica, the brothers start to look past the annoyances of their relationship and realize each other’s value as well. 

The book also explores the relationships among people who are different from one another. Though the children of Sapertys—Bellona, Enmity’s, Yard, and Irina, to name a few—come from different backgrounds, languages, and cultures than each other and Ty and Marcus, the commonality of their passion, Sapertys, dissolves those differences. Connecting on a human level trumps cultural norms.

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first started this book. Young Adult sci-fi series are becoming so popular and often the question arises: is any idea really novel anymore? I feel the need to answer “yes” to that question after reading Spartanica. It was fresh, smart, and didn’t feel too young. I’d recommend it for pre-teens and older readers who enjoy thinking outside the box and being surprised. I’m waiting with great anticipation to read the rest of the series.  

 

 

Thursday
Feb272014

Book Review: The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro. Joa͂o Cerqueira. Translated by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay. Austin, TX: River Grove Books, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 168 pages.

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is the antic and deeply wise story of an imminent war between Fidel Castro and JFK with God, Jesus, Fatima, J. Edgar Hoover, and unnamed powerful advisers trying to prevent it. The story is at once alternative history, magical realism, and satire. The author tackles the biggest topics there are – religion, politics, economics, history, mythology, even ecology and, at the end, astronomy. 

The author, born in Portugal in 1964, has a Ph.D. in art history.  He has written seven books, three of them novels, the other four on different topics.  The Tragedy of Fidel Castro is his most recent and well-known book and has received strongly favorable, if sometimes perplexed, reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. 

From the outset this book baffled, intrigued, amused, bored, irritated, and awed me. Having such a mix of strong reactions made me respect the writer and keep reading even though sometimes I would have liked to quit. By the end, however, I was laughing aloud at the topsy-turvy way Cerqueira sees religion and politics.

An example of the author’s views on religion: God asks Jesus to return to earth to diffuse the looming war, reminding his Son that times had changed. “[H]e didn’t need to be born, reducing confusion about dogmas of virginity and metaphysical intercourse.” Cerqueira lists other differences: “[T]he Romans no longer ruled the world; …crucifixions had been abolished; prostitutes were no longer stoned in public; miracles had been considerably reduced; the price of treason was below thirty coins; ...plastic surgery had replaced transfiguration.”

Some things, however, are the same. “[T]he majority had identical resentment against men who wanted to change the established order; women continued to have more faith than men despite being excluded from religious functions; …using God’s name to wage wars continued to be highly effective; …prodigal sons returned home when their money ran out…”

With so much to admire I had to think about why The Tragedy of Fidel Castro didn’t affect me more deeply. The plot is ingenious, the ideas powerful, the writing style too ornate for my tastes but nonetheless well-wrought.  What the book lacks is heart. With novels, I look for fascinating, complex, emotional characters that change over the course of the book. Cerqueira’s characters may have names like Jesus and JFK, but the characters are personifications, not people. If stuck, they wouldn’t bleed.

My own take is personal and does not diminish the razzle-dazzle, the mirth, the insights, and the intellectual meatiness of Cerqueira’s book. He is a gutsy satirist with talent to burn.

See his website for more information:  www.joaocerqueira.com