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Book Review: Annabelle and the Sandhog

Annabelle and the Sandhog. Ray Paul. Amazon Digital Services, December 7, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 196 pages.

Reviewed by Janet Cole.

Annabelle and the Sandhog by Ray Paul is a touching exploration of family relationships as seen through the eyes of three generations. The author approaches his subject matter and the well-described characters with great gentleness. Reading Annabelle and the Sandhog instilled in me the tranquil feeling that accompanies rafting down a placid river. My head is thrown back to enjoy the azure sky decorated with cotton puffs and the accompanying sounds of nature. And so, I floated through this tale.

Life in the early part of the 20th century was not easy, especially for a young, unskilled lad fleeing from his home. Because the protagonist was strong, enthusiastic, amiable, honest, and hardworking, he landed on his feet. Those qualities served him well in the grueling and dangerous profession in which he became involved—that of being a sandhog.

Now, if your knowledge of this profession is as scant as was mine, you are probably thinking, “What the heck is a sandhog?” Contrary to the impression created by this nomenclature, a sandhog neither wallows, nor is greedy, nor is a member of the pig family. A sandhog is a laborer who works in the bowels of the earth, blasting and removing rock to make way for the construction of basement supports for buildings that will soon populate an area. It was not the most desirable of trades; it was dirty and it was dangerous. Because of his tenaciousness and integrity, our author’s character not only makes a go of it, but also excels at it. He creates warm and lasting friendships in the process, and he marries the love of his life, to boot!

The author weaves the main character’s son and grandson into the story. There are also references to a great grandson. The reader becomes familiar with their flaws through their interactions with grandpa or great grandpa as the case may be.

The character’s final years in a nursing home are made tolerable by the presence of a sweet and caring nurse’s aide. She has grown fond of this feisty old gent, helping him with his stroke-impaired speech, and encouraging him to get out of his wheelchair and move about. He has developed quite a fondness for her, and she for him.

The story is tender and well told. However, because the chapters jumped from character to character, I sometimes had difficulty remembering whom it was that I was reading about. I wished that I had an organization chart to refer to, and, then, I found the family tree in the foreword of the book. Perhaps if the chapter titles contained the identity as well as the name of the character, my perplexity and the need to reference the family tree would have been minimized. That being said, I found this to be a sweet and inspiring story. 



Book Review: Bend Me Shape Me

Bend Me Shape Me. Debra Borys. New Libri, Mercer Island, WA, July 2013. E-book and Trade Paperback. 219 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson.

Bend Me Shape Me takes a deep and fascinating look into the world of teen homelessness in Chicago. Through the eyes of Snow Ramirez, Jo Sullivan, and Leonard Goldenhawk, author Debra Borys shepherds the audience on a terrifying journey of homelessness, mental illness, family problems, and murder. 

Snow was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but after a couple strange visits with the psychiatrist, Levinson, Snow convinced herself that she was better off far away from psychiatrists. After her squat mate killed himself, Snow began to realize that she was not the only one to have strange visits with Levinson—in Snow's eyes, there was something much more sinister going on in Levinson’s sessions. Unfortunately, it was very hard for people at the shelter and other doctors to believe her when she mentioned that something was wrong with Levinson, especially given her mental state. On the war path to remove her little brother from Levinson’s care, Snow met Jo, a reporter for a newspaper that covered stories about teen homelessness. Snow did not trust anyone, but Jo was the only person who cared enough to dig deeper into the problem. All the while, Leonard Goldenhawk was following Snow to try to connect her with her past and give her some hope for the future. 

This novel was chock full of nail-biting scenes and page-turning tension, making it very hard to put down. Throughout the book, Borys does an excellent job of painting a realistic picture of homeless youth and the struggle they have with mental illness, family, trust, and more. From the very first page of this novel, the audience is pulled into Snow’s story and her struggle to keep her brother and herself safe.

Bend Me Shape Me is the second book of Debra Borys’s Street Stories series. Borys has spent 12 years volunteering at various charities and programs that help the homeless, both in Chicago and in Seattle. Her experience was very evident throughout the novel—there was no question of the reality of Snow’s situation and the struggle she was facing with trust, her mental state, and her past. It’s easy to write what you think you know about homelessness, and how teens would react in certain situations, but it takes an expert—like Borys—to really discover the essence of what life is like for troubled teens on the streets.

For me, this book was both entertaining and eye-opening. The plot twists and multiple narrators kept me flipping the page to find out what happened next, while the reality of Snow’s situation made me want to learn more about how I could make a difference in the lives of homeless youth. As someone who loves psychological thrillers and who is a Big Sister in Big Brothers Big Sisters, this book combined my interests in ways I didn’t think possible. I immediately wanted to know more about Snow and her brother and could have easily read a book twice as long on this topic. 

One weakness I saw in this novel was the shallow character development of Jo Sullivan and Leonard Goldenhawk, two of the three point-of-view characters. Both characters moved the plot along nicely, but I would have liked to know more about them. I realized at the end of the novel that Jo was a reoccurring character in the Street Stories series, so what was lacking in character development here may have been something more heavily discussed in the first novel that I, unfortunately, did not read. With a story as heart wrenching and important as this, I would have liked to learn more about Leonard's and Jo’s past to give the novel even more depth.

Bend Me Shape Me is a chilling and tension-drenched thriller that will enable you to take a long hard look at the plight of the homeless. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes thrillers that make you think—once you pick up this book, you will struggle to put it down!



Book Review: The Swords of the Sultan

The Swords of the Sultan. J. Eric Booker. Booker Enterprises Publishing Co., January 31, 2014, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 378 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Burns.

I must admit that when I first agreed to read The Swords of the Sultan by J. Eric Booker, I was a bit apprehensive, maybe even uncomfortable. I read my last fantasy novel a long time ago and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then I thought about my predicament and realized that is what reading, and living, is all about—forcing yourself to go outside of your comfort zone and experience something new. Well, I forged ahead and read the book and I’m glad I did.

The Swords of the Sultan is the first of three books in The Elysian Dynasty series. The first book tells the story of a young orphan named Baltor, who is plucked from the streets and adopted by a “Guild of Thieves.” The Guild provides him the opportunity to develop and pursue a challenging and yet promising future—one that he might never have imagined. Upon completing his extensive, required training, he sets off on a mission that takes him to ancient and fantastical lands where he crosses paths with a diverse and interesting group of characters—both friend and foe.

The story follows Baltor through his teenage years and into adulthood and highlights his emotional and physical transformations from peasant to Master Thief to Sultan and ruler of the Sharia Empire. The author provides elaborate details of Baltor’s education and fighting regimen, and it was obvious to me that the author included details based on his prior experiences and research. The details regarding the places that Baltor visits on his travels are no less impressive.

Recently, Mr. Booker was kind enough to read the advance reading copy of my latest book and offered many suggestions for improvement of my manuscript. Reading his book, I had a similar opportunity to share my suggestions and I’m pleased to say that he has revised the book once again to ensure an improved experience for the reader. It’s clear to me that he is committed to his craft and willing to continually improve and grow as a writer.

It’s quite an accomplishment when an author publishes a book, but it’s even more impressive when that story is three volumes in length. The story of The Swords of the Sultan is quite effective as a stand-alone book and story, providing the reader with an intriguing premise, clear conflict, and a sound resolution. At the same time, at the end of the first book, the author leaves the reader with a sense of wonder as to what comes next, and that is a sign of a fine storyteller.



Book Review: One Less Elvis (and Other Stories)

One Less Elvis (& Other Stories). Kent McDaniel. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., December 20, 2013, Kindle E-Book, 64 pages.

Reviewed by David Laipple.

Chicago author Kent McDaniel shows us how to have fun with short stories, starting with a novelette, who-done-it murder mystery. The title story, One Less Elvis, is a story about Elvis impersonators prodding a reluctant police detective to find the murderer of one of their own. Kent McDaniel’s hero sleuth—retired school teacher, “white-haired geezer,” and Elvis impersonator, Brendan Culhane—weaves through the evidence and the private lives of a baker’s dozen of suspects, solving the mystery of who killed Larry “Hound Dog” Vasquez and letting the reader wonder if Elvis still drives a pick-up truck.

The first of Kent’s four other stories, Or Someplace Shining, relates how the not-very Reverend McDermott creatively resolves an adolescent’s issue through practicing acceptance rather than judgment, discovering along the way that sometimes doing the right thing involves buying a quarter pound of pot. If you like your comedy with a little tragedy and appreciate a good premise, set-up, and punch line like I do, you’ll really enjoy This and That, which is about making the best of things in life, valuing what you have, and the unintended consequences of the best intentions of others.

In The Great Escape, a young man implements “The Plan” to get free of his crazy family, but his plan is crazier than his family. Things go terribly wrong for the young man and his parents in this dark send-up of the worst instincts of a very troubled mind. In the last short story, Pizzazz, Jimmy Stu, A.K.A. the televangelist Reverend Sloan, is dragging a little bit as he struggles with doubt and coming to terms with his mortality and Mission on earth. He resolves his struggle with a satirical flourish as he delivers a stirring sermon convincing his congregants to fund a cryonic effort on his behalf so he can return from the dead one day to continue his work for God. Pizzazz was Kent McDaniel’s short-story inspiration for his novel, Jimmy Stu Lives, which is also available on Amazon Kindle.

Kent McDaniel’s characters are unapologetic, self-aware go-getters who don’t waste time as they go about their business in a matter-of-fact style that fills his stories with life–and the occasional death–in a fun way. For a good time, read One Less Elvis (& Other Stories),” and then everything else Kent has written.   



Book Review: Growing Up To Be . . . Happy! 

Growing Up To Be . . . Happy! Toneal Jackson. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, February 4, 2014, Trade Paperback, 60 pages.

Reviewed by Sharon P. Lynn.

When Toneal Jackson’s latest children’s book, Growing Up To Be . . . Happy!, arrived in the mail, the first thing I did was ask my favorite 11-year-old to read it. Her assessment: “I liked it, especially the part about bullying.”

This quick read for middle schoolers is about more than bullying, but that is one of the topics, along with depression and happiness, that Jackson covers. Parents or older siblings could also read it to younger children.

The author begins with, “When I was little, my mom would say, ’I wonder what you’ll be when you grow up someday,’” and the poem ends with, “Just make sure that whatever you choose, it makes you happy!” In loose rhymes, the author introduces a variety of career paths and life choices that youngsters can take, as well as the obstacles they might face.

Always sensitive to diversity, Jackson has worked with illustrator Nataly Verdugo, who shares her sensibility. Verdugo’s cartoon illustrations, whether in black and white or full color, help move the short tale along with images of boys and girls of all races.

Jackson has included some questions to help parents start discussions about the three main topics of the book and has provided websites with information about bullying and depression. There are also a few pages of word games to help reinforce the ideas and vocabulary of the book.

In addition to the producing the story in English, Jackson has provided translations of the verses in Spanish and French, making it a nice read-along book for a variety of households.

The author of several other children’s books, Jackson’s experience with her own children gives her an intimate familiarity with her audience. Her spirit of caring and her genuine desire to help others inspires her writing.