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Wednesday
Feb202019

Book Review: DreamRail

DreamRail: Connected Short StoriesMichael Ripley. Pen It! Publications, LLC, November 7, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 266 pages.

Reviewed by Gail Galvan.

My first suggestion before reading this book: tune in to a “Twilight Zone” thought process mode before delving in. This tactic will likely help readers understand what’s going on and enable them to enjoy the stories sooner. 

Admittedly, I was a little confused at first. But I guess that’s what happens when a book is different and an author takes a risk. DreamRail takes an interesting and unique approach by connecting short stories and lives. The main character and four co-workers ride separate trains to work and make up a writers’ group that meets for lunch at Poppy’s several times a week. They share strange stories they have written. Often the tales seem more like nightmares than dreams and include paranormal indications.

The author shares many wildly imaginative circumstances and events in his stories, along with some clear-cut interwoven morals. For instance: there is “Tragadar.” On a train ride aboard the California Zephyr, Jim, the main character, narrowly avoids dying in a tragic accident. Why? Because he pays attention to his premonitions whenever they occur—his “tragadar voice,” a combination of “tragedy” and “radar.” Other victims perish, but somehow with his magical, saving tragadar instincts, Jim escapes dying in (foreseen) fatal plane and train crash infernos.

A couple of my favorite stories are titled “And So We Shall” and “Fourth Floor Monitor.” In the first, the author paints an environmentalist picture of talking birds flying off with the main character and then once again, setting him back down. The birds explain that, for the time being, “We put up with certain amounts of poison, even greater amounts of pollution in the world, and your way of building everything opposite to our harmony. Our world, our lives are still worth more than the dangers you pose.”  

The latter story is an eerie tale which deals with modern day fears and realities that health insurance is not always going to see people through a possible health crisis. One of the characters, a health insurance representative, sits by the bedside of a critically ill patient in a hospital hooked to some type of monitor. The author describes the scene in vivid detail from the glistening waxed tile floors to the composition of various musical sounds reverberating through the hospital hallway, that of “rubber soles, baritone feet, unique tones” and, “a strangely unified cadence.”

The sick and dying become not only victims of their diseases, but also of a completely insensitive health insurance agent who calls the shots; he pushes a stop button exactly when “time’s up.”  In one scene, a loving daughter watches her father take his last breaths. Life and story over, just like that.

I like the concept of another story which depicts a character, Thomas, who constantly questions the decisions that he makes. Always prone to indecisiveness, his condition heightens to a critical level, especially after a bullet strikes his car, ricochets off of it, and kills a man. In the end, he is so deeply affected—by his crippling indecisiveness and fear of upsetting the domino effect of whatever might happen due to any and every specific choice and move he makes—that he becomes mentally disabled. The only solution: hospitalization.

I grew up with railroad tracks just behind my house, so I can identify with the author’s connection to trains. Trains give us a feeling as if we can just hop on and enjoy one adventure after another, go wherever we want to. The author views trains “like a spider web” covering hundreds of miles. He makes us picture ourselves sitting on a train looking out the window at the “people going every imaginable direction, riding this cobweb of iron rail, the electric engines.” 

I enjoyed Ripley’s book. Although at times, due to the content, I thought perhaps a more apropos title might be NightmareRail. After reading the book I wondered: as long as trains conjure up this adventurous, dreamy aspect of our souls and the possibility of traveling anywhere, why not add some stories or do a sequel about outrageously happy tales, like “The Little Engine that Could” and movies such as The Polar Express. It figures that a “DreamRail” can lead us to wherever we want to travel, so I’d love to read some wildly imaginative, happy adventures in the next book.  

A little fine-tuned editing would also improve the book, though I am aware that the author belongs to two real-life writers’ groups, so I’m sure he is always working towards honing his craft and perfecting his literary work. 

 

Thursday
Feb142019

Book Review: A Tribute to Tulipia

A Tribute to Tulipia. Chiara Talluto. Self-Published, December 2, 2018, Paperback and E-book, 28 pages.

Reviewed by Bibi Belford

Tulipia is an orphaned tulip with extraordinary powers who lives in a harsh environment oddly called “Oasis.” Adding to her difficulties are her beauty, height, and intelligence, which breed jealousy in the surrounding foliage. Rather than be daunted by her lack of friends and unforgiving environment, Tulipia continues to bloom, confident that someday her goodness will triumph.

When a prowling wolf threatens, Tulipia comes to the rescue, using her powers to influence her neighbors, who in turn save a defenseless bunny. The bunny repays Tulipia by counseling the rest of the foliage to respect and honor her. Tulipia lives on, through winter and a changing environment, until one day another flower, named Rishonich, is planted nearby. They propagate and raise their sprout, Nevanobry, to live honorably and survive in the Oasis. 

Books that help children cope with being ostracized and bullied will always find a place on the parental bookshelf. Talluto wrote this allegory for adults and children, but her use of challenging vocabulary may prevent younger readers from obtaining the full meaning and message of the story on their own. Fortunately, she includes a list of vocabulary words for further study and page of names with their meanings.

Talluto was inspired to write this short work after spotting a lone tulip amid overgrown brush on a forest trail. The imagery and symbolism of a single flower in an austere environment are indeed compelling, and the photographs of nature that illustrate the cover and each page are effective companions to the text. 

The author could easily adapt the story into a picture book for younger readers by scaling down the vocabulary and limiting the story to Tulipia and the foliage, wolf, and bunny. For now, adults and children can follow the exploits of some very smart flowers in this entertaining story.

 

Thursday
Feb142019

Book Review: The Patch of Green

The Patch of Green. Greg Kaup. Elk Park Press, October 17, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 289 pages.

Reviewed by Hallie Koontz.

The title of Greg Kaup’s slice-of-life, coming-of-age tale, The Patch of Green, serves as setting for a story in which the protagonist, Greg Garrity, undergoes a lifelong quest to repay his two best childhood friends for saving his life one stormy afternoon on Lake Michigan. The “patch of green” refers to a section of Rogers Park belonging to the parish of St. Ignatius Church, where Greg’s life journey begins.

The Patch of Green is perhaps too ambitious as a slice-of-life novel. The author describes some conversations and actions that seem unnecessary; detailed descriptions, that don't communicate any new information or character personality, often hinder the otherwise compelling narrative energy. Also, a bit too much effort is concentrated on creating emotional energy, often leading to the opposite result. For example, some dialogue is capitalized to communicate shouting, a technique that can overshadow any emotional intensity that might otherwise have shown through. The novel feels like a story told by an acquaintance at a party rather than a slice-of-life work of literary fiction, and it seems the facts of the protagonist’s life are dropped in one at a time rather than novelized. 

I felt that some facts about Greg’s life were worthy of further description and exploration but were pushed to the wayside. The author details how Greg breaks up with a girl he had seen for about a year before leaving for college. Later, the protagonist cheats on his significant other, but this event is never fully described. Although a longstanding affair later in the book is given attention, it is heavily implied but never acknowledged that this was a regular occurrence. Although we often get "hello, how are you" types of exchanges written out, many more valuable and interesting conversations are summarized instead. It is not that Kaup’s stories are not worth telling—they are; but it seems the focus of the writer’s craft is not honed on the right things. 

The story has a heartwarming conclusion, and Greg’s feeling that he must repay his best friends is a predicament that lends itself well to the slice-of-life genre. The friendship between the three characters is genuine—the beating heart of the novel—and this thread carries through the entire narrative, culminating in a pay-off that completes the story in a neat and effective manner. Kaup's story is sincere, and he conveys his energy and passion with emotionally poignant moments.

The Patch of Green is for readers who enjoy stories of personal growth and development and will interest Chicago natives who will enjoy reading about the city neighborhoods and local sites.

 

Monday
Feb112019

Book Review: Demon Zero

Demon Zero: An Urban Fantasy Adventure (Dark Matter Book One). Randall Pine. Dapper Press, December 17, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 198 pages. 

Reviewed by Ukaisha A. Hall.

Simon Dark and Virgil Matter have been best friends since they were children. They are in their mid-twenties, but everything about their demeanor and personality screams teenage boys. They live in the town of Templar at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Templar is a typical town except for the occasional supernatural event or incident. Their favorite hangout spot is the Squeezy Cheez, a throwback pizza arcade from the eighties. Virgil has the great idea that he and Simon should become town heroes who investigate the weird occurrences and fight evil. Simon, who is more levelheaded, ignores Virgil’s foolishness until he is forced into action while visiting his sister’s grave. A zombie, fresh from crawling out of a grave, attacks the young men. Despite a stumbling success fending off the zombie, they decide they’re ready rid the town of the demon in Mrs. Grunberg’s basement. 

Simon and Virgil’s relationship is the main focus in this silly, slightly scary, PG-13 buddy comedy. The banter between Simon and Virgil is never-ending. At times, the voices of the characters merge, twist, and reassemble themselves as the story moves forward. Virgil should be the comedic relief, while Simon should be the more serious character, since he has a more depressing backstory, but having been friends for so long, they can often understand each other with just a look, and even say in unison, “Templar needs heroes!” It is easy to lose track of who is saying what. This is a useful plot device that may validate the characters, confirming the solidity of their long friendship, or cover up poor character dialogue development. 

The two other main characters are Abby, an empath, and Llewyn, a wizard. Abby is witty and acts as a springboard for sarcasm. On the road to vanquishing the demon in the basement and learning about how magic works in their world, they provide continuous silly moments, awkwardness, and doubt.

In Demon Zero, the characters recognize that their world is different but are pushed further into the supernatural aspect with the realization they are amongst the few people who carry magic. This means the plot follows the progress of the young men as they learn about new powers, other dimensions, and creatures. Therefore, the reader is learning along with the characters. The main drawback of this approach is that when a character doubts how the world is built, the reader does too. Once again, the author employs a device that either makes the characters seem more real or attempts to cover up any questions about the world building and potential plot holes.

The author writes description that is so very carefully laid out, especially when it comes to the demon in Mrs. Grunberg’s basement, and creates vivid imagery that helps establish scenes, which works in contrast to the witty banter that continues even when the young men are fighting for their lives. It will be interesting to see how the characters develop throughout the series and whether they will become iconic characters or just annoying.

Randall Pine has created a fun, quick read that begins a new series that will delight fans of The Iron Trial (Magisterium) by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan, and Magyk by Angie Sage.

 

Friday
Jan252019

Book Review: Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I

Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I Marcella Bernard. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, October 11, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 768 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

When I was asked to read and review Pro Patria and learned it was about World War I, I realized how little I knew about this war. What I did know was based mainly on reading Ernest Hemingway’s book, A Farewell to Arms. However, I read that book fifty years ago. So, this was new material for me to explore. 

I was struck by the irony that this book was released during the 100th anniversary of World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. Thus, I was eager to “time-travel” back 100 years to delve into this important global conflict that would shape what followed in the 20th Century.

My first impression when the book arrived: BIG! The book is a hefty 751 pages, is based on the wartime journals kept by Bernardino Bernardini, and includes his 250-page memoir of his military service in the Italian army from 1915 to 1919. He wrote My Military Life two years after returning to his home in Chicago from his service as an Italian Army infantryman.

The author, Marcella Bernard, is the niece of Bernardino Bernardini. She included family history, historic facts, and events, combined with her imaginative enhancement of the story. She describes her Uncle Bernardino as a man whose national identity vacillates between his American citizenship and Italian heritage.

As I began to read this book, I soon realized it is not a “page-turner.” Rather, the author slowly develops the family history, background, and nature of each family member and reveals the growing conflict within the young protagonist over his sense of self and blended loyalties. When he decides to travel to Italy and join the Italian Infantry, and relinquish his American citizenship, the story begins a daily account of his activities. There is a military adage common to all armies that the daily imperative is to: “Hurry up and wait . . .”

Thus, this story proceeds, day-by-day; we follow the movement of his unit marching from one town to another. Day by day, week-by-week, little or nothing happens except constant marching, rumors, and reversal of orders. Yet, as always in war, the infantry will end up in the trenches, at the frontline, or in the fifth-line at the rear. Wherever positioned, the soldier is subject to sudden death or injury from poison gas attack, artillery barrage, machine gun fire, snipers, bayonet wielding enemy infantry charges, and so much more. Plus, even in the rear, deserters are commonplace and exposed to death by firing squad. Bernardino is captured and endures risk of death from starvation, illness, and infection of his injuries. Even death by suicide stalks these miserable men.

If one can find a more positive side to this war story, it is found in the travels across northern Italy, as Bernardino’s unit marches from one town to the next. The historic features and architecture of each town captivate him. A fascinating travel-log emerges to keep the reader engaged and offsets the horrific war scenes.

As the reader travels along with Bernardino, another engaging feature emerges in this story: the fellowship and close friendships he makes with fellow soldiers. His relatives in many towns emerge too. In this way, the reader comes to know and appreciate the various Italian provinces and their unique history, art, and culture. The reader also learns the customs, traits, and nature of the people in the provinces.

Since this book is peppered with statements in Italian, it would have been helpful to a reader like myself, who does not speak or read Italian, to have a translation. Without a translation, the statements work like a “speed-bump” to slow, or stop, the reader as one tries to discern from context or inference what the Italian words mean.

I find this book to be a historic and extraordinary achievement. It will be of great interest to historians, especially in the study of early 20th Century war and culture. It is also an important study of Italian and American cultures and the merger of the two for immigrants in that era. While not exactly a “page-turner,” it is still an epic story of great historic and cultural importance.

As a native of Kansas City, which is home of the National World War I Memorial and Museum, I plan to take my copy of this book to the director of the museum on my next visit. This book should be an important addition to their archives and be offered in their bookstore.

And, From Patricia Needham:

For me the book was a fascinating read. It was never boring, dull nor did it drag. It was an in depth, inside look at Italian culture. I learned a great deal of "new" information about WWI, Italian geography, her customs and people.