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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.



Book Review: Praying for Rain

Praying For Rain. Emma Gates. Wells Street Press, February 1, 2014, Trade Paperback.

Reviewed by Sarah Sadik.

Emma Gates’s Praying For Rain gives a gritty insight into the lives of not only women in the Saudi Arabia culture but also men. The book gives the reader an inside view of Saudi Arabian culture from an American woman's point of view. The main character, who is a teacher (Gates adds a touch of irony here), tries to stick to the curriculum, but the girls that she teaches want to learn about various topics and talk about taboo subjects like religion. Students whom the woman teaches acquaint us with different viewpoints on Saudi culture. Finding it hard to keep to cultural norms, the teacher seeks help from fellow faculty members who are experiencing the same thing. They have all lost their sense of identity and a sense of their own culture. As the book continues, the teacher soon realizes that there is a chance to find a bit of America in Saudi Arabia, and she has the ability to find the corrupt nature within people. She seizes on this and uses this characteristic for personal gain, such as manipulating others through sex. She soon learns that meshing her versions of America and Saudi Arabia could end in her own departure. She now is becoming the student instead of the teacher and realizing how powerless she truly is in this land.

The story revolves around teachers who come from America and want to immerse themselves in this culture, wearing the hijabs and following the societal rules. Although the characters whine that they aren't being accepted into the culture/society, they often complain about the culture itself, almost making it seem barbaric. The aspects of the hijab and the lack of interaction between men and women make the Americans feel as if the culture is savage. The Saudi Arabian students are so intrigued by the American culture, on the other hand, which is quite interesting. The concept of an East versus West struggle is portrayed by the media as infinite hatred between the two, but, in this book, it seems as if a lot of the hatred is coming from the West.  

Gates does a good job of summing up the Saudi Arabian culture, but she neglects to analyze it further. Generalizing an entire culture or an entire setting paints a stereotyped picture that the reader already knows, one of sand, a hijab, oppression, powerful men, etc. However, that's not how it is in every household. That is a big generalization; the women in many Saudi households play a major role and are usually looked at as patriarchs in some regions. Also, I wish there were some comparisons between the West and East to point out negatives on each side. The book’s biases are counter to what the characters would want to avoid if they were trying to "accept the culture."

The repetition of references to Arabian Nights was outrageous was well. That book is used as a fairytale for kids in the Middle East (rarely), and the themes about the story are so overdone, creating a picture of the Middle East as just Ali Baba, big swords, snake charmers, flying carpets, etc. In Praying For Rain, Gates touches upon derogatory terms that are used frequently (e.g., towel head) for Saudis. However, shouldn't Ali Baba be considered one?  

I was impressed with the characters’ viewpoints and that there were various Saudi views. I thought that was a very good concept to have in the book because it defies the American stereotype of the culture. It was interesting, for example, to have some women say they loved wearing the hijab. One main thing I loved about the book was the time period; I loved that it was pre-2001. It's very impressive to see an author return to that era instead of going post-2001; it was informational and entertaining.


Book Review: She's Out. I'm In.

She's Out. I'm In. Solutions to 7 Relationship Problems. Toneal M. Jackson & Dominique Wilkins. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, December 29, 2013, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 95 pages. 

Reviewed by Robert Kingett.

If someone were to ever get into any kind of relationship, they would undoubtedly run into a few snags here and there and quarrel a bit. There are many resources on the web that address this situation, but there's nothing definitive in its own way and in a singular binding that's also conveniently small—until now.

She’s out. I’m in, despite what the title hints at, is a book that a person of any gender can learn from regarding such issues as cheating, self-esteem, money agreements, physical and emotional abuse, blended families, communication, setting boundaries, trust, and many other barriers to a healthy relationship.

Each scenario begins with a fictionalized account, with fictional people, effectively acting out the scenario, much like a self-help video. The fictional characters and situations are centered on the main topic of discussion as referenced in the chapter title. The scenes depict how the couples meet and provide a bit of background on everything from the way they grew up to their history in regard to the overall relationship, making a real nice and even transition into the main discussion and problem at hand.

After the scenario is presented, the following sections provide detailed solutions, looking at the fictional scenarios to point out key aspects of rhyme and reason and building up to many effective solutions. There are different facets that unravel the fabric of a healthy relationship, some within bigger issues, and the solutions provide a basis for solving many possible problems. Everything is described in a naturally calm style that will have every reader effectively understanding the problems and solutions. Excessive medical jargon is not used, so it would appear that the book serves its purpose: to act as a stable foundation where people can begin the journey to discovery and improvement.

The book definitely delivers what it promises, but the fact that every problem started with a fictional event kept pulling me away from the message that I was supposed to hear and grasp. The characters in the fictional scenes acted in ways that I would have handled differently, so when the solutions appeared a few pages later, I constantly compared myself to the characters portrayed and felt that I’d never do what they did or that I would have acted in a different way entirely. Because the reader is supposed to learn from the character’s mistakes, rather than analyzing their own possible mistakes, I couldn't really feel as though the solutions were for me to behold. As a result, I was left with a definitive disconnect throughout the book, thereby ruining the author’s intentions completely. It was as if I had stumbled into a private psychology session only to eavesdrop, and this technique didn't hold the weight as it might for other readers.

Even though I didn't feel a connection or feel as if this book really “understood” where I was coming from with my line of thinking, the vast array of resources provided throughout the text and the solid solutions to the given problems make this a very usable book. The book is suitable for individuals who want to glimpse some very small and yet effective solutions to situations they—or someone they know—may be going through. This book didn't leave me feeling a sense of resolve but there's a lot of substance behind every page, clearly defined and outlined in a book that is just right for readers who will benefit from it.



Book Review: Red Clover

Red Clover. Florence Osmund. CreateSpace Independent Publishing: February 22, 2014, Trade Paperback and Kindle, 248 pages.

Reviewed by Ray Paul.

Lee Winekoop is the youngest member of a wealthy, suburban, Chicago family. He is consumed by how different he is from his two older brothers—Nelson and Bennett—in terms of looks, abilities, and interests. While his brothers are comfortable with the parental demands required to maintain a wealthy lifestyle, Lee is constantly in therapy to remake him into a young person comfortable with his surroundings. In the eyes of his demanding father, a son should have an interest in making money and playing and following team sports, neither of which appealed to Lee. However, by the time Lee had left home and had some university experiences under his belt, he found that his choice of study was horticulture and specifically the genetic modification of plants for medical research. In addition, his sport of choice was karate. Both choices further distanced him from his family, When an uncle he had never met died and left him a substantial inheritance, including a large parcel of farmland, Lee had the means to separate himself from his family, work in an area that held his interest, and associate with people who enhanced him and furthered his self-esteem. For the reader with a rooting interest in Lee, the trip is certainly worthwhile.

There are many wonderful facets to this story. First, the characters are all well-rounded. They can be weak at one moment and strong at another, overbearing in one setting and accommodating at a different time. Lee, the hero character, has his flaws, while most of the less worthy characters still have their redeeming qualities, and all except one, who I hated all the way through the book.

Another strength of the book is that it takes place in a number of settings: lavish homes in large cities, lake homes in upscale resort areas, farms, small town bars, research laboratories, police station cells, and court rooms. A pleasant surprise for me was the inclusion of a number of references to places in my hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and a number of surrounding small towns of which I'm familiar.

Technically, the author's descriptions are concise and clear and her dialog is realistic though lacking in attribution at times, which on occasion made it difficult for me to know who was talking. That being said, in my opinion, Florence Osmund has written a wonderfully detailed story about a man overcoming his upbringing and becoming his own man. The finished product, both the man and the story, are exemplary.