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Book Reviews

Saturday
Jan262013

Review: The Golden Coin

Down at the Golden Coin by Kim Strickland (Eckhartz Press, 2012) 

Review by Serena Wadhwa

Kim Strickland’s Down at the Golden Coin is billed as an inspirational story, the kind of book to which I, as a clinical therapist, am naturally drawn.

The story revolves around former airline pilot Annie Mullard, who feels as if her life is spinning out of control. Forty-something, married with three kids, Annie thinks her life has sunk to a new low when her washing machine breaks down and she finds herself in a run-down Chicago Laundromat, The Golden Coin. It is there that she meets a most unlikely Messiah, a blue-haired woman, half her age, who claims to have all the answers.

Strickland’s second novel, following her 2007 debut Wish Club , sparks with descriptive and eloquent exchanges between these two very different women whose paths have crossed in this most unlikely place. 

Annie telling this Messiah how her life has crashed: “All I want, all I ever wanted, is a little happiness. A little security. I worked so hard to get somewhere in this life and now I’m watching everything, all of it, slip right out from under me and there’s not one thing I can do about it.” I pause, wave my hand around the inside of the Golden Coin again. “This was not supposed to be my life!” 

Isn’t that what we all want – a little happiness?  Most self-help books claim to have all the answers to achieve some sense of happiness. They provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to reach that goal. But this is a rare book in that it provides a glimpse into the process of how we can change our lives. 

The Messiah reminds Annie, “ You haven’t even spent a nickel and you’re already starting to worry you don’t have enough.” 

And this is an eye-opening observation for Annie. “Holy shit, I think. She’s right. I stop my pacing and  stare at her. I just had all this money fall into my lap and I made myself start thinking it’s not enough, when a few minutes ago it was all the money in the world. The amount of money hadn’t changed, only what I’d felt about it had.” 

Strickland beautifully weaves a story that shows the ability we have to change our lives and ultimately find that elusive happiness. 

Strickland beautifully weaves a story that shows the ability we have to change our lives and ultimately find that elusive happiness. She brings together powerful words and concepts of self-responsibility, passion, faith in oneself and universal experiences to demonstrate how we can write our own happy ending.

Friday
Dec142012

Review: We Hope You Like This Song

We Hope You Like This Song: An Overly Honest Story About Friendship, Death, and Mix Tapes by Bree Housley (Seal Press, 2012)

Review by Randy Richardson

Bree Housley’s We Hope You Like This Song is the true story of her friendship with Shelly and what she did to bring her friend’s spirit back after she died from complications during pregnancy, at the age of 25. This is a book that could easily have been a real downer. But don’t fret, Housley never lets that happen. She tells the story with humor, charm and brutal honesty, and at the end you feel as if you’ve made a new friend.  Along the way, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be inspired to donate to The Preeclampsia Foundation.  This is a touching story that will make you think about your own friends and loved ones, and why you shouldn’t wait to tell them what they mean to you.  For me, Bree Housley’s We Hope You Like This Song hit all the right notes.

As a side note, I met Bree for the first (and so far only) time when we were both on the bill to do readings as part of a local author night at an indie bookstore in Chicago. It struck me when she read an excerpt from We Hope You Like This Song that our books were destined to find one another, and not just because Bree and Cheeseland (the title of my book) seem like a perfect pairing. While my book is fiction (albeit reality-based) and hers is non-fiction, they both are about friendships and death, and how we cope with loss. In both of our books, music plays an integral role. Bree writes, “Music speaks to us in ways people can’t, takes us back to places we can no longer go, and brings out emotions we can’t control. When you open your ears, you open your soul.” At the bookstore, she handed out mix tapes that go along with her book. Much like Bree’s book, music constantly plays in the background of my book.  The two main characters always seem to be battling for control of the 8-track player. On my blog, I provide a playlist of songs, which I titled Cheese Curds.  I wrote, “When you're a teen-ager, music means more to you than at any other time in your life…The songs that I listened to then have stuck with me for the thirty-plus years that have followed. They take you back to a time and a place when life was so much simpler and so much more complex.” Two books, one serendipitous reading.    

Sunday
Nov252012

Review: Haunted

Haunted: A Bridgeton Park Cemetery Book (Vol. 1) by Ophelia Julien

Review by Dina Rae

Ophelia Julien’s Haunted is about a young woman, Cassie, who falls apart after the loss of her boyfriend, Daniel.  Cassie bypasses college and works part-time in a bookstore.  She realizes her job is not a career, but the warm, cheerful, friendly workers become the secondary family she desperately needs.

Steve, the owner, hires a new employee, Michael, who Cassie is instantly attracted to.  She knew him when they were children.  The bookstore employees and select customers tell ghost stories once a week.  Michael shares his own paranormal experience as a child.  Cassie was part of the true story and remembered it from years ago.  The ghost stories lead into Cassie’s own experience with the dead.  She and her mother live in a haunted house where a mass murder once took place.  Without spoiling the ending, other issues and tie-ins involve Cassie’s late father.

Ophelia Julien paints a vivid picture of grief through Cassie’s eyes as she writes a list about Daniel, the love of her life.  Through her list the reader learns the back story on their romance.  This is a particularly interesting twist because Cassie met Daniel while he was dying.  Most people would never start a relationship with someone who is terminally ill, but Cassie is not most people.  Julien makes it brilliantly clear that Cassie’s heart is as big as the sun.  Cassie is able to communicate with dead people, even Daniel. 

The way that Julien sets up the clues and old witnesses reminds me of my beloved Nancy Drew books from childhood. 

A dead boy visits Cassie and shines the light onto an old murder mystery that happened in Cassie’s home.  The way that Julien sets up the clues and old witnesses reminds me of my beloved Nancy Drew books from childhood.  Cassie shares her problems with Michael who is also ‘sensitive’ to the unknown.  Both characters fall in love.  Cassie holds back because of her grief. 

Michael is a likeable character.  He, too, has experienced tragedy.  As a teen, he wanted to date Cassie, but a fatal car accident killed his family.  Like Cassie, he isolates and wears his heart on his sleeve.

 Her writing is haunting, staying with you long after the end of the book. 

I would rate this book E for everyone.  It’s part mystery, part paranormal, and part romance.  I enjoyed the story tremendously, and was left in awe of how Julien built her characters in only 132 pages.  Her writing is haunting, staying with you long after the end of the book.  There were moments when I cried as I became more connected to the characters, especially Cassie.  Although there were sad parts, the story ends on a hopeful note.  Look forward to reading more of Julien’s work.  Paranormal lovers are in for a treat.  5 Stars

Monday
Nov122012

Review: Fractured Spirits

Fractured Spirits: Hauntings at the Peoria State Hospital, by Sylvia Shults

Release date for Fractured Spirits is February, 15, 2013. To pre-order, please contact the author at sylvias@darkcontinents.com

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

Haunts of the Mentally Ill

Author Sylvia Shults at the Bowen Building of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, IIllinoisNothing screams haunted more than an abandoned hospital for the mentally ill, or “insane asylum” as they are usually called. In the introduction to her newest book, Fractured Spirits, author Sylvia Shults even refers to the tradition of using an old, decrepit, deserted institution for the mentally ill in both film and print tales of horror: dead crazy people come back to haunt the site of their frequently gruesome lives as well as their equally grisly demises. 

In Fractured Spirits, Ms. Shults does not shy away from the expected haunted-asylum elements: malevolent spirits, ghost hunters, tales of abuse and cruel mistreatment of helpless patients, echoes of the mayhem caused by violent and possibly dangerous inmates. On the other hand, Fractured Spirits is a glorious departure from those same traditional elements, finding hope and light in a place that would seemingly be a pit of despair and darkness. 

The book shares some of the history of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois.

The book shares some of the history of the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville, Illinois. It also touches upon the true story of Dr. George Zeller, the extraordinary pioneer of humane treatment for the hospital’s patients, those institutionalized and marginalized members of society in the early 20th century. Instead of restraints and locked doors, Dr. Zeller insisted on quality care, respect, and dignity for his charges. His kind had never been seen before and would probably still be a rarity today. 

Dr. Zeller built the state hospital into a homey, safe place for people who would, at that time, normally have been strapped down, locked away, and most likely forgotten by the general public. As Ms. Shults observes, little wonder that so many of these now-deceased patients are reluctant to move along. Why not cling to the one place that was home to them during their tortured lives? 

Ms. Shults is not only a bona fide aficionado of the supernatural, she is a ghost hunter as well, and so her book is a feast of personal experiences, shared accounts of fellow investigators, and best of all, ghost stories .

And so Peoria State Hospital is haunted, rather like saying that Albert Einstein was a touch intelligent. Ms. Shults is not only a bona fide aficionado of the supernatural, she is a ghost hunter as well, and so her book is a feast of personal experiences, shared accounts of fellow investigators, and best of all, ghost stories . To her credit, she has also gone out of her way to debunk or lay bare many of the urban legends surrounding the place, the tales told in delicious whispers full of details that would do a tabloid proud yet have no factual basis. 

Written in a friendly, conversational style, Fractured Spirits is an easy read that will enthrall and entertain, and - like all good ghost story collections -  linger on in your mind long after you close the book and turn out the lights. 

After all, the stories are true. 

Saturday
Oct202012

Review: Bad Juju

Bad Juju, by Dina Rae is available in e-book format from Amazon

Reviewed by Ophelia Julien

All Good Fun Until the Zombie Shows Up

Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Dina Rae’s Halo of the Damned. Given that the subject matter of that book involved fallen angels, demons, and a blood-thirsty ancient cult, it seemed to be about the darkest story Ms. Rae could have to offer. I was wrong.

Bad Juju is the tale of what happens when the world of a handful of high school students and their families collides with that of an elderly Haitian bokor, or Voodoo priest, who has been incongruously displaced to a trailer park in Hayward, Wisconsin. The bokor, named Lucien Nazaire, knows he is coming to the end of his unnaturally long life and is looking for an heir to the dark wisdom he has amassed, for Lucien is a practitioner of the darkest form of Voodoo: grave robbing, dismemberment, shape-shifting, soul-stealing, zombie-making, everything malevolent that can be imagined.

Enter Jake La Rue and Henry Novak, two high school students who have formed an unlikely bond over Jake’s loner status and Henry’s Asperger Syndrome. Jake lives at the same trailer park as Lucien and has befriended a man he sees as a stately and gracious old gent from Haiti. Lucien is all that, but once Jake brings Henry to meet the bokor, the truth starts to be revealed.

The first thing Lucien teaches his eager students is how to make a voodoo doll, and it’s all downhill from there. Even the basic, hopeful love spells the boys perform bend to the dark side with unforeseen and fatal consequences that affect the boys and some of their classmates. By the time Henry travels to Haiti with his family for a post-earthquake mission trip, the road to hell is not only paved and plastered with the best of intentions, it has morphed into the steepest of slippery slopes.

Through all the dark and shadow in this story, Ms. Rae manages to interlace a bright thread of love and romance.

Ms. Rae clearly relishes gifting her readers with horrific scenarios, each successive image somehow just a wee bit worse than the previous one. But all is not gloom and doom. The light in this book comes from Jake’s sweet, earnest, somehow untainted spirit, and the love he holds for the woman who is married to his abusive uncle. Through all the dark and shadow in this story, Ms. Rae manages to interlace a bright thread of love and romance.

Fans of the dark-and-roses type of fiction will enjoy curling up with Bad JuJu...

Fans of the dark-and-roses type of fiction will enjoy curling up with Bad JuJu, from the opening crisis to the redemptive resolution as the story winds down. Or almost winds down. At the end, Ms. Rae abandons the roses to hand the reader one last slice of darkness to savor when the story has ended, which nicely illustrates the point of this genre: one final nightmare to take away when all is said and done. Enjoy!