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Book Review: Asher's Fault

Asher’s Fault. Elizabeth Wheeler. Bold Strokes Books, Valley Falls, NY, September 17, 2013, Paperback and E-book, 264 pages. 

Reviewed by Marie Becker.

Fourteen-year-old Asher’s family and friends don’t understand why he not only likes his vintage Minolta camera, with black and white film, better than digital photography, but refuses to photograph people. Instead, he zeroes in on a twisted pine tree or the church steeple against a backdrop of clouds. These motifs--the distance provided by a camera lens, the sharp contrast of black and white, and whether we can trust what we see--are threaded throughout the novel.

The book opens on the day Asher’s aunt gives him the camera, the same day his father moves out of the family home. Not long after, Asher finds himself at the community pool, kissing the new boy in town in the locker room at the very moment his younger brother Travis is drowning outside. The author reveals all of this in the book’s opening pages. This novel’s heart lies in seeking to portray honest and devastating emotional authenticity.

Wheeler is a strong, evocative writer, and the book offers some lovely turns of phrase, shifting easily from lyrical description to prickly adolescent sarcasm. Punctuating the chapter openings with descriptions of Asher’s photographs works beautifully to set the mood (some of the photographs can be seen on Wheeler’s website, a nice touch). In some ways, the tone wonderfully captures the atmosphere of early adolescence: the uncertainty, the powerlessness, and the uneasy navigation of a world where the rules are suddenly changing. In particular, I was struck by the way Wheeler handles grief; it is neither linear nor melodramatic, but quietly permeates the last two-thirds of the book without any false promises of an easy resolution.

Elizabeth Wheeler is a high school English teacher, and one way this book impressed me was in its obvious respect for the full emotional lives of the teenage characters. Although I certainly wish to have seen several of them more developed, there are no cheap shots, easy targets, or manipulative clichés. Garrett, the boy Asher kisses, refuses to be pigeonholed as a target of homophobia. Kayla, the prickly Goth offers a lovely moment of compassion just when it’s needed. In order to tell a story this centered on complex and conflicting emotions, it’s absolutely essential for the author to fully engage in, and respect, the importance of moments that could come off as melodramatic in less sensitive hands, and Wheeler succeeds.

The quiet, meditative tone also produces one of the book’s main weaknesses. Major revelations occur in the last fifteen or twenty pages, leaving little time for neither the character nor the reader to appreciate their impact. The lack of closure on many, if not most of the book’s issues may be a realistic snapshot of adolescent angst, but it’s not completely satisfying as a narrative. It feels a bit jarring in contrast with the pacing in the first third of the book; if the opening arguably lays out the plot too soon, the conclusion relies a bit too heavily on a short, sharp shock. Also, Asher’s encounters with Garrett remain unresolved, in a way many which readers looking for a more prominent coming-out story or a romantic arc may find disappointing.

However, despite the uneven pacing of the reveal-heavy end, Wheeler has undoubtedly drawn a portrait of a sympathetic and thoughtful teenager grappling honestly with real issues. Tighter plotting in future books (a sequel may be in the works) will only enhance her already sensitive characterization and insight. 



Book Review: Torn in Two

Torn in Two: The Files of Tatum Soaren. Brit Sigh. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, May 7, 2012, Trade Paperback, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Deanna Frances.

Torn in Two by Brit Sigh is a fictional psychological suspense novel about the troubled life of young college student, Tatum Soaren. The novel begins as a flashback to the young man’s childhood, which reveals that from a young age, Tatum has been different from normal people.

After witnessing the horrific death of both of his parents at a young age, Tatum is thrown into a difficult life. A little under a year after the accident, Tatum’s uncle, and primary caregiver, brings him to a psychologist named Dr. Tristyn Holmes. When Dr. Holmes diagnoses Tatum with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, she becomes fascinated with the young man and believes that his troubles expand beyond post-traumatic stress.

Dr. Holmes realizes after some time that Tatum also deals with severe multi-personality disorder, and that his alter ego, known as Landon, is more deadly and dangerous than she could have ever expected. After many successful treatments, Dr. Holmes is able to cure Tatum of his dangerous alter ego.

Unfortunately, after Tatum is enrolled in Dr. Holmes psychology class at the University of Minnesota, Landon is able to return to Tatum’s mind and becomes more powerful than ever, leaving Tatum unable to control his own self.

This novel is captivating to readers in multiple ways. Author Brit Sigh uses a third-person point of view to be able to cover every aspect of each character’s relationship to not only Tatum, but to his alter-ego Landon as well.

Torn in Two features a small cast of characters, but each character has a specific role to play in the story, and the narrating voice is able to convey every thought track of each character.

Sigh is able to perfectly portray Tatum’s psychological distress through his writing. A graduate of psychology from Union College in Nebraska, Sigh uses his knowledge to be as accurate as possible.

The novel not only features sci-fi, but also a little romance between Tatum and his college classmate, Robin Chase. The romance adds a lighter side to the intense novel, which is a nice touch.

This novel is perfect for anyone that enjoys sci-fi thrillers or intense fiction. Brit Sigh has written a captivating novel. 


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.



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.



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.