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Book Reviews

Tuesday
Nov122013

Book Review: Too Dark to Sleep

Too Dark to Sleep. Dianne Gallagher. Brayer Publishing, LLC, Frankfort, IL, 2012. Paperback and e-book, 381 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson.

Maggie Quinn was the best detective Chicago's Area One had to offer, until the tragic death of her daughter gave her deep physical and psychological scars. A crippling fear of the dark emerged after this trauma, keeping her from sleeping at night and leaving the house. Now, she merely goes through the motions of life to appeal to her dad and to stay out of the psychiatric ward. 

Through some favors pulled by her father, Maggie gets out of the hospital and back to Area One as a consultant. Her fear of the dark, while still an issue, is kept at bay with the knowledge that she is close to catching the man responsible for her last two unsolved cases. However, when new murders hit close to home, the reader begins to question whether or not Maggie is going after a killer or succumbing to an obsession with her daughter's death. Diane Gallagher's Too Dark to Sleep keeps the reader engaged and hungry for more throughout the entire novel. The tension builds on every page, with the reader constantly asking, “Is Maggie right or is she completely insane?”

This is a debut novel not to be missed! It is very clear that Gallagher did her research—the police interactions and the medical examination scenes all seem very real. They are visual without being grotesque and descriptive without burying the novel in descriptive text. While the book takes place in Chicago, the author's current home, the story could have been set anywhere. In fact, it is easy to forget it’s a Chicago novel until the story mentions that Maggie's apartment is in Old Town. Because the story is so tense and rich with plot twists and character flaws, the setting is of little matter. It wouldn’t hurt to add more Windy City landmarks to the narrative, but it isn’t necessary to the overall plot.

Too Dark to Sleep is a pretty stereotypical crime thriller. The story stars a detective with a dark past that resurfaces as she gets closer to solving the crime. I usually groan when I read these types of clichés, but Maggie's past manifesting through her fear of the dark gives a refreshing spin to an overused plot line. There is enough character-driven narrative to keep the story fresh, which makes the crime thriller stereotype not only bearable, but practically unnoticeable by the end of the book. 

My only issue with this novel is the multiple points of view and how often they switch. Gallagher adopts an omniscient voice entwined in a close third-person narrative. At times, the narrator jumps from point of view to point of view within the same page. Because there are so many characters being introduced, and the point of view is switching so much, I often had to reread portions of the text to figure out which character's lens I am viewing the world through. As Maggie gets closer to solving the crimes, the point of view consistently stays as Maggie's, with only blips of the other characters coming into focus. This emphasis on one character makes the novel more manageable and more exciting as I am able to ignore the writing mechanics and just immerse myself in reading the novel. 

Too Dark to Sleep brings a wonderful twist to an often clichéd genre, enabling the reader to dive heart and mind into Maggie Quinn's life. The book is chock-full of tension, with a lot of questions that are satisfyingly answered at the end. However, there is enough left to the imagination to leave the readers begging for more. Too Dark to Sleep is a must-read for anyone looking for an exciting story that keeps the reader guessing and hungry for answers.

 

Monday
Nov042013

Book Review: Who You’ve Got To Kill

Who You’ve Got To Kill. Russell O’ Fiaich. Published October 8, 2012, E-book, 305 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Marohn.

During an ambush by Iraqi insurgents, a squad of U.S. Marines fighting for their lives kill innocent civilians held hostage by the enemy. This incident sets the stage for political intrigue as the current Iraqi Prime Minister uses the event to unite the various tribal factions and avoid a civil war. The problem for the United States government officials involved is that the surviving Marines must be prosecuted for killing innocents in order to help the Prime Minister maintain his fragile coalition; they become the cost of doing business with the Iraqi government, to maintain its loyalty to the United States.

This is a fast moving book with the story alternating between the Marine base in California and Washington D.C., as Defense Counsel Marine Captain Charles Slidell tries to defend one of the surviving three Marines assigned to him.

The ethos and pathos in the novel are spread throughout. The good guy, Slidell, is a flawed hero, battling a drinking problem as he carries the burden for justice and honesty. While fighting his own demons he defends one Marine, discovering the conspiracy by the few government officials and Congressman involved in sacrificing the three Marines for the “good of the nation.”

The author writes with expertise about the courtroom, as he is a trial lawyer. His service in the U.S. Army as a Military Intelligence Officer gives validity to the plot and the characters. Bringing these experiences into his political thriller gives the reader an authentic read about the Marine Corp and also an education about the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is a very different world from civilian life.

However, this novel is more than a military and political thriller. It is about the frailty of people and how some are corrupted by power. Anything goes, it seems, for the sake of appeasing the powerful in high places of government. Ethics, morality, and law can all be forsaken for a cause—no matter how ludicrous. This is the essence of the book, which makes it a worthwhile story.

If you love military history and political intrigue, or simply enjoy a good thriller you will enjoy this book. It flows, it describes, and it makes one ponder the direction that wars or conflicts lead us as human beings.

As Winston Churchill said, “ War is mainly a catalogue of blunders.” This novel hits home how the wrong decisions are made for the wrong reasons. We live life that way and one can only hope that some good decisions are made along the way.

I recommend Who You’ve Got to Kill.

 

Monday
Oct282013

Book Review: Line Change

Line Change: Israel’s a New Zone for Ethan. Mark Lichtenfeld. Mazo Publishers, Florida, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 207 pages.

Reviewed by Mary-Megan Kalvig.

Mark Lichtenfeld’s new YA novel, Line Change: Israel’s a New Zone for Ethan (first place winner in December 2012 Writerstype.com First Chapter contest) has a strong message about priorities and what’s really important. Ethan Conners, a privileged Jewish teen in Chicago, with dreams of playing hockey at Ferris State, lands a spot on Team USA in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. While it’s a great opportunity, it completely ruins his summer plans with his girlfriend. In addition, after discovering that life in an Israeli border town is nothing like life in Chicago, Ethan must examine his own values more closely.

Lichtenfeld’s experience as USA Hockey and ACHA referee and writer for Hockey Stop and Rink Life comes through in the detailed hockey scenes. The reader is thrown into the game with Ethan, fighting for the win and dealing with the heartbreak of defeat. The town of Kiryat Shemona is brought to life, from the chaos of the merchant market to the overcrowded swimming pool and filth of the falafel and pizza food court. Ethan’s teen voice is superbly captured in the narration; however, at times it can be overwhelming and distracting from the story. Ethan has a way of exaggerating and emphasizing his point. For example, “I mean, it’s like falafel idol worship or something. Seriously, Lior’s got this two-handed grip on his pita like a football center readying a shotgun snap.” The description is spectacular, and while it works to capture the voice of the teenager, the repetitive use of  “I mean” and “Seriously” detract from the story telling.

Ethan struggles with identity, especially when he truly looks at the lives of the people in Kiryat Shemona. He comes to Israel with a chip on his shoulder, judging all of the Jews there in comparison to his Orthodox Jewish ways. As the book progresses, though, he begins to question who is the better Jew—the one who prays every day or the one willing to sacrifice himself for the Jewish State. This novel is a great reality check for a character sheltered from the reality of Israel’s struggles. The message is especially powerful for people of the Jewish faith; however, the emphasis on being Jewish, speaking Hebrew, and knowing the customs risks alienating readers who are not familiar with the traditions. While comments made in Hebrew were generally restated in English, this was not always the case, leaving certain words or phrases undefined. A glossary of terms might have helped this problem or even a quick definition clarifying certain terms as they appear. This doesn’t really detract from the story because there generally were enough context clues, but it makes the reading more of a struggle for readers who do not have this background knowledge.

Line Change is a powerful novel that will appeal not only to teen boys (especially boys who like hockey and/or of a Jewish background), but all young readers. Almost everyone at one point or another is guilty of judging someone else, and this novel forces the reader to look at how we judge others and what’s most important in life.

Sunday
Oct132013

Book Review: Shadowlands

Shadowlands. Alan Kessler. Leviathan: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. May 30, 2013. Kindle Edition. 270 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson.

Alan Kessler’s Shadowlands is a dark coming of age story about a boy whose worldview is fractured due to a neglectful mother and an abusive father. The reader quickly realizes that the boy, Steve Goldblatt, is unlike other children—he has created a world where mothers’ words turn into bees and dead grandmothers come alive during Halloween to kill grandsons. As we see the world through Steve’s eyes, we question his reliability as narrator because nothing is real and yet everything could be real. This intricate novel weaves fact with fiction, stuns the reader and forces us to question everything about Steve’s world.

Shadowlands challenges the psyche and horrifies us at times, both in how Steve is treated and in how Steve treats others. However, this is not a traditional psychological thriller or horror—there is more subtlety to how the genre of psychological horror plays out in this book. Steve is not a likeable character—he treats others as a means to an end. His own distorted worldview, no doubt shaped by his abusive father and uncaring mother, forces him to treat others cruelly, though he would never think that his actions are cruel. In his distorted view, Steve believes that pain equals love and that to truly love someone, you have to cause he or she pain. Because of this, Steve hurts a lot of people throughout the duration of his life. However, it is hard not to feel sorry for him or to even justify his actions given his past.

The questioning of reality, the nonchalance surrounding the abuse Steve endures and his abuse of others may come easy for Kessler to write as the description of Steve’s family and the abuse he suffers seems to come from a place of knowledge.

The most difficult part of this book is trying to determine which of Steve’s friends are real and which are figments of his imagination. He builds up this world of people to help him function on a day-to-day basis, even reinventing himself to handle life, but you never really know whether or not these friends exist.  Kessler does an excellent job of making the reader question every action and every character in Steve’s life.

While extremely unreliable narrators such as Steve Goldblatt are sometimes difficult to read, through Steve’s voice Kessler illustrates vivid scenes and actions that come off as feeling authentic, even if the actual events are not. Descriptions of place and thought are absolutely beautiful—ordinary objects are described with such a unique view that the book is worth a read just to see how Kessler, a master of exposition, plays with language. However, I do wish we, as the reader, could better define which characters and scenes are real as it becomes confusing at times. Many readers enjoy the unknowns that psychological thrillers bring, but the complexities of Shadowlands occasionally prevent the reader from suspending disbelief.

Shadowlands tells a dark story of abuse and mental illness as Steve Goldblatt matures into an adult. While the extremely blurred line between reality and imagination is sometimes hard to swallow, this book is an interesting read. If the reader begins the novel knowing that some characters and scenes may not be real, the journey through the book will be a very exciting one to take. Just remember, nothing is as it seems, yet everything could be taken as it is. 

Sunday
Oct132013

Book Review: New Jack Rabbit City: Starring the Chicago Hares

New Jack Rabbit City: Starring the Chicago Hares. Mike Evanouski and Gail Galvan. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Charleston, SC, June 6, 2013. 174 pages. Listen to ten original songs by the authors and Dan O’Connor at www.newjackrabbitcity.podomatic.com, voice by Gail Galvan.

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

On the title page, the reader meets two rabbits, both with enormous ears cocked. One rabbit is doleful, apparently hearing nothing despite those big ears. The other, a super rabbit and no doubt a resident of the idyllic New Jack Rabbit City, wears earphones and appears transfixed by the vibes he’s picking up from the stratosphere.

Beneath this sketch of the two rabbits are three enigmatic words in capital letters: “IT’S THE FREQUENCY.”

That phrase appears throughout the book. The “frequency,” as well as an unexpected artesian well with a will of its own are what make New Jack Rabbit City possible. 

Over many decades, jack rabbits had migrated to scrubland at the edge of a huge sand dune outside Bruneau, Idaho.  Life was hard in the original Jack Rabbit City: food was scarce, and the water supply unpredictable.  The ranchers, whose large herds of cattle overgrazed the area, moved on, leaving the land in ruins. A few jack rabbits barely survived.

Then a miracle occurred, changing everything for the rabbits.  An artesian well sprang from the ground, the rabbits drank and grew large, some as tall as six feet, and all were suddenly able to blend into the landscape, invisible if they wanted to be. New Jack City, comprising fifty acres of land, a 470 foot sand dune, two lakes, and a mini-mall, is protected by dense vegetation which ”gives the impression of a maze to the uninvited.” As the Mayor of New Jack City explains to three humans and two dogs he admits to the city, its residents can maintain one hundred percent visibility or invisibility whenever they choose.

Another miraculous event soon occurred.  When the world began to switch from analog to digital frequencies, the rabbits, whose two-antenna ears are “wired like no other animal,” began to pick up images, sounds, scenes from strange places and visions. As the Mayor says, “We tuned in, caught on . . . Within months we were up to speed with the human race.”

Rumors of the good life in New Jack City began to spread.  The authors, one of whom lives in suburban Chicago, focus on Chicago rabbits to illustrate the story of rabbits emigrating in droves to find their hearts’ desire in New Jack City.  The balance of the book is about what happens to the “good” rabbit settlers when some Southside Chicago gangster rabbits visit New Jack City so they can double or triple in size and win gang wars back home. Greedy humans find out about the artesian well and plot to steal the water in tanker trucks. The story unfolds in an exciting, fun to read way, with a convincing magical realism that gives it the quality of a fable. The subtext is the story of immigrants everywhere, with some rabbits working constructively for a better future, a few becoming criminals in their new home, and a few who already live there exploiting the newbies.

Mature readers need not worry that the book might be too cutesy; it isn’t cute at all. The authors convey spiritual wisdom without getting preachy or didactic, and the nuggets sprinkled throughout the book are real gems.

For instance: The wise Mayor invites the gangster rabbits to stay in New Jack City, knowing they will change. After all, he says, the Southsiders “began losing their way many years ago, due to one heartbreak or another.”

A visitor to New Jack Rabbit City reflects: “It was magical, this moment, the last step before turning back, the dawn that’s always rising, the sun that never sets. A spin of reality, the glimpse of what can be—a tunnel into the open mind.”

There are also some wonderful lines in the lyrics of the songs that accompany the book: “If the cards are stacked against you/Buy another deck of cards….” and “Chase life fast, chase life slow/But chase it hard, chase it long/It’s the only way to go.”

Although the style of much of the book is sheer narrative, moving us from one episode to another, there are some beautiful passages.  For instance:  “Morning breaks early in the desert. Dancing waves of red light race across the horizon as the sun slowly rises. With the sky clear as a mountain stream, the day started fast and furious.”

One criticism of the book – and, for this reviewer, a major flaw - is haphazard copy editing, especially in the last half of the book. A common error is omitting commas before names when one character is addressing another, e.g., “Stay back Rush’ and “No Sis no.” There are spelling errors: “you lousy….I ougta” and “staring out with a peak at the springhouse.”  Mistakes like these are frequent enough to become irritating.

All in all, though, New Jack Rabbit City is an enjoyable book with a multimedia approach. The book is available as both a high-quality paperback and an e-book. The original art and graphics are appealing, especially the color portrait of the Mayor on the cover of the paperback; and the ten songs from the book are available on a podcast.  

NOTE: Based upon this review, the authors made revisions to the book and the new, revised Kindle version is available on 11/1/13.