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Book Reviews

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.

Friday
Sep132013

Book Review: The Dark at the Heart of the Diamond

The Dark at the Heart of the Diamond. Sylvia Shults. Dark Continents Publishing, August 15, 2012, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 248 pages.

Reviewed by Christine Collins Cacciatore.

Local Illinois author Sylvia Shults has written several books, among them Timeless Embrace, Fractured Spirits, and The Dreamwatcher. The Dreamwatcher and Timeless Embrace are as USA Best Books finalists. Her latest offering is a book of short stories entitled The Dark at the Heart of the Diamond. From what I’ve read about her, she’s an author who wants to affect her reader. Provoke a reaction. Make them think.

I read this book within the space of a few days. However, the short stories stuck with me longer than that. Each story was better than the last. In the author’s notes, she mentions that she would love it if her readers would stay up late, thinking about a particular story. Well played, Ms. Shults.

Yours truly was one of the readers who did stay up. Her tales remind me somewhat of Stephen King, in that the reader thinks all is normal, until BAM! Suddenly we are dealing with, for instance, a man bound and determined to see through someone else’s eyes. Literally. “The World Through Your Eyes” is creepy but delicious. Another story I kept chewing on long after I put down the book was “Wings of Silver.” It was a heartbreaking story of a loyal little plane realizing it was nearing the end of its usefulness. Although it’s an inanimate object, the author does a great job of making the reader feel pity for the little plane…never mind its naughty behavior.

The collection of short stories starts off with a touching story about a vampire. The second story moves you into a very different world, in which a man receives a letter he is both expecting and dreading. Then there’s a somewhat sad narrative of a forgetful woman who loves roses, but her predilection for them helps her family in unexpected, surprising ways. Yet another story is about a woman who has very unexpected results when battling a large amount of pests. This one is going to linger in your subconscious, especially if you should hear something rustling around your kitchen at night. It made my skin crawl even while I laughed at the end. One of my favorite stories, however, was about Mr. Twilby, whose stubbornness is only matched by his ick factor.

I will be reading these stories over and over; that’s how much I enjoyed her collection. Some of them are dark and disturbing, some are whimsical, and some are just plain creepy, but every one of them is clever and well written. I plan on finding and reading some of Ms. Shults’ other books.

Do yourselves a favor. Get a copy of this book, The Dark at the Heart of the Diamond, and set aside some time to delve into it. It is chock-full of entertaining stories that you will think about long after you close the cover.

 

Sunday
Sep082013

Book Review: Dream Diary

Dream Diary. Katia Mitova. Virtual Artists Collective: www.vacpoetry.org, March 15, 2013, Trade Paperback, 92 pages.

Reviewed by Cronin Detzz.

Mitova bursts strong right out of the gate with a poem incredibly appealing to the eyes by splitting two thoughts with white space, then slowly bringing each line closer together. The visual result forms a letter “y.” The title of the poem is “from the Emperor’s B&B book.” Dream Diary uses the mechanism of “B&B” throughout, using phrases such as, “Black and Bright,” “Being & Becoming,” or “Bold & Bashful.” The title of her last chapter is “B&B”, with one of the letters backwards and mirroring the other.

I try to teach other poets to remember that readers are highly visual creatures, and Mitova understands this. She even goes so far as to place short poems in the bottom right-hand corner of each chapter heading, with each line in a different font.

In short, she is a true artist.

Her poems are collections of dreams. Naturally, the poems are surreal and slightly disjointed, similar to the way we humans dream. For example, on page 25 in a poem entitled, “gateway,” she writes:

“where a woman humming before the mirror / disentangles the young sun from the honey / of her hair and sends it up to the sky”

Mitova introduces us to words that will be new to many readers. On page 67, we learn the meaning behind ancient words like okwa and Kush from the “almost extinct language of the Tehuelche Indians of Southern Patagonia.” In the poem entitled, “Native Word,” we read the imaginative way she uses the word peperuda, and on page 14 we learn about the word albedo, which has multiple meanings that refer to a white reflection. I especially loved Mitova’s mastery in the use of color throughout her poetry.

I cannot even pretend to tell you that I understood all of the poems. Because poetry is such a subjective form of art, it will not always have purpose that can be easily divined. Think of the difference between an abstract painting compared to the paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Both paintings are meant to inspire; however, only the Sistine Chapel’s purpose is commonly understood. If MItova’s intent was to create an abstract painting of poetry, she has masterfully succeeded. If she intended to have the reader understand deeper subcurrents, then I would suggest framing each chapter by explaining more of the themes and interpretations at the beginning of each chapter. But it should be restated that not every poet wants clean, bright lines of understanding and interpretation.

Congratulations to Katia Mitova for creating her own abstract work of art.