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Book Reviews

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. 

Monday
Jul082013

Book Review: Dateline: Atlantis

DATELINE: ATLANTIS. Lynn Voedisch. Fiction Std., April 16, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 278 pages.

Reviewed by Opal Freeman

Dateline: Atlantis is a well-written novel with a continuous flow of excitement and surprises throughout. Voedisch has graciously combined her experience as a newspaper reporter and author to create an awesome adventure with a purpose. Voedisch specializes in contemporary fantasy, and her specialty is clearly demonstrated in her new book–she is able to interact with the reader as they use their imagination, moving from page to page. I really enjoyed reading the book and appreciated the cover design, sea-blue waters and buried treasures that set the stage.

Amy Quigley, a seasoned news reporter, is challenged with a normal work assignment for the Los Angeles Star newspaper: a possible underwater Atlantis. The assignment becomes far from the norm and involves an unexpected investigation, compounded with issues surrounding family, history, love, murder, mystery, and self-discovery. Amy’s quest for personal and professional closure, as it relates to completing the assignment, exhibits determination and a strong will despite adversity.

The framework of the story provides enough depth and history for each character, so the reader clearly understands their purpose. The ability to keep the reader’s interest is beautifully crafted by alternating the good, the bad, and the ugly, all working towards or against the reporter as she uncovers an underwater lost world. A collaboration of family, friends, and colleagues help initiate the unraveling of documented history and the connection to a missing link in the life of the reporter.

What an awesome ride of adventure. Voedisch is able to project a variety of places and times, a blend of people with different ages, genders, educational levels and interests, and miraculously connect the dots for a greater good. The real adventure lies in reading through the transformation of Amy and the rest of the characters, all with their own reasons for either hiding the truth or uncovering the truth about the underwater activities that initiated the newspaper assignment.

Voedisch’s writing on each page kept my undivided attention. I was captivated by each character and clearly visualized traits of greed, power, business acumen, persistence, resilience, and motivation. The presentation of words, pictures, scenes, and expressions gave me the opportunity to feel a connection with the characters, various climates, suspense and humor, as I read the book from cover to cover.

Voedisch’s style is such that you are drawn to the characters, because she brings them to life. Reading the book was a fun experience, and I found myself rooting for the unexpected but favorable ending. My imagination was elevated and the anticipation of things to happen made it a challenge to put the book down. I highly recommend Dateline: Atlantis for other readers.

Friday
Jul052013

Book Review: Company Orders

Company Orders. David J. Walker. Allium Press of Chicago, September 1, 2012, Trade Paperback and e-book, 324 pages.

Reviewed By Sharon P. Lynn.

Despite having a priest as the main character and being set in Chicago, David J. Walker’s Company Orders is no Father Dowling-type mystery. Walker’s Father Paul Clark isn’t a kindly old pastor with a feisty housekeeper and a spunky young nun as a sidekick. (There is a feisty old pastor who plays a significant role in Father Paul’s life, but he is not the type to shoo away trouble with a dishcloth.)

When we meet Father Paul, he is an up-and-coming young priest who has been noticed by the hierarchy in the Chicago Archdiocese. Father Paul, however, has a secret problem that he must try to resolve without involving the archdiocese – at least not any more than he has already involved it.

This is the central tension of the novel, which is as much thriller as it is mystery. And the threads of the story seem to be widely separated when it begins outside a filthy, frightening, south-of-the border prison. A fearful young man is rescued by a vicious duo, apparently mercenaries. From there, the action moves to Chicago, where Father Paul is finishing early morning Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. As he changes after Mass, we learn Father Paul is troubled by some secret, but the nature of the problem remains elusive as we meet other characters.

There’s the mysterious Ann – is she CIA or something else? – who has some kind of hold on Father Paul and an uncanny way of finding him when he least expects it. And there’s Father Larry, perhaps Father Paul’s only friend, who is attacked in an isolated back alley just as the priests are getting out of a car after a handball game. Is it really a random mugging or is it a warning that Father Paul might be next?

Walker, a former priest, captures interactions between priests that most people don’t see, such as the relationship between Father Paul and his housemate, the elderly Father Jake Kincannon, and Father Jake’s dog, Max. It’s clear in a few words that they look after each other in small ways. Walker also shows us the nature of Father Paul’s relationship with the cardinal who leads the archdiocese, a relationship that is tense, terse and business-like, outward cordiality notwithstanding.

Walker vividly paints the temptations and fears crushing a priest who finds himself in the midst of murder and international intrigue, who feels his connections to his God fraying and stretching, and who learns just what he will sacrifice to protect someone for whom he feels responsible.

The title, Company Orders, is itself a hint of the conflicts that will face Father Paul. Will he take more seriously the “company orders” of a secretive government agency or the “holy orders” of his priesthood? Walker’s novel is well worth the time to find out, and a compelling argument for taking a look at some of his previous work if you haven’t already read his Wild Onion series or Mal Foley series.

Wednesday
Jul032013

Book Review: Any Road Will Take You There

Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons. David W. Berner. Little Big Man Press, May 27, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 300 pages.

Reviewed by L.E. Schwaller

David Berner knows Jack Kerouac. He knows On the Road and the Beats and music. What he doesn’t know – and what permeates his latest book, Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons – is how to be the world’s greatest father or son. And the best part, Berner knows that none of us really do. He understands we’re all making it up as we go along, trying our best just to  be there and not screw things up. There is no manual, Berner reminds us, on how to be fathers or sons.

Any Road Will Take You There is a thoughtful, fast-reading memoir centered on a cross-country road trip a father embarks on with his two teenaged boys after re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Using the modern literary classic as a roadmap, the recently divorced Berner rents an RV and heads west from Chicago with his two sons. When they reach Denver, an important town for the Beats and Kerouac in particular, Berner’s friend Brad (a fellow middle-aged divorcee whose own clarity of consciousness and direction is lacking as much if not more than Berner’s) joins them for the second leg to California then back again. Throughout the journey, Berner reminisces on his relationship with his recently deceased father and the life of his teenaged sons, all while contemplating the writings of Kerouac and the importance of what the road has to teach us about ourselves. 

At times the narrative of Any Road Will Take You There  may seem to detour away from the story and into the meandering, interconnected memories and recollections of the narrator. This is, however, the point of Berner’s work. Any Road Will Take You There is a memoir that strives, as Berner writes, “to balance the world he’s building with the one he left behind.” His narrative flows the way one's memory might, drawing lines between our past, present, and future journeys.

The book succeeds most when the reader is provided with snapshots, moments of genuine and heartfelt recognition. How Kerouac has affected and continues to influence Berner and his life is less impactful than how his relationship with his father has shaped the father he strives to be—for the sake of himself and, most importantly, his sons, Casey and Graham.

Casey and Graham, along with Berner’s father, Norm, are the central figures of the book. This seemingly outlandish journey is brought to life through Berner’s care and love for his two sons and his fond recollections of his father. Interwoven into Berner’s memoir are stories of his boys’ adolescence and his own reminiscence of his father, all of which achieves a continuity between the generations of men and the parallels of their lives and personalities. We feel, as the reader, Berner’s quiet pain at the loss of his father and the hope and love he has for his teenaged sons.

Any Road Will Take You There is a book for fathers and sons. It’s a book for middle-aged men, for wives looking to better understand their husbands, and mothers to get to know their sons. Berner’s latest book (his follow-up to the 2011 Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize Winner, Accidental Lessons) engages and teaches you something about yourself or possibly the man closest to you. His threading of memories and stories about his father, his sons, his failings and successes, and how the journey is the most telling and important piece of our lives may just inspire you to take a trip of your own. At the very least, you’ll set out to read Kerouac, be it for the first time or all over again.