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Book Review: Clever Gretel

Clever Gretel. Jennifer Dotson. Chicago Poetry Press, March 24, 2013, Paperback, 96 pages.

Reviewed by Cronin Detzz.

Clever Gretel by Jennifer Dotson is primarily a light-hearted, witty collection of poems – even though it reads more like prose that occasionally rhyme – that leaves  readers feeling as though they’re engaged in a friendly conversation with the writer over a cup of coffee.

In Clever Gretel, Dotson writes about her personal perspective of everyday occurrences with clever poem titles such as, "Wonder Woman is in My Yoga Class" and "Why I Don't Eat Oatmeal." It takes a certain amount of skill and finesse to write about the mundane, but Dotson pulls it off and more as she tackles events like cleaning and oiling her old bedroom dressers, riding in an elevator, doing a backstroke ("I am a mermaid with goggles") and eating creamed chipped beef on toast.

Dotson is also able to project herself into other people's shoes – literally – when she writes, "I must smile when I am / ignored by women who / think I'm a Barbie... / the Agency doesn't care / that my feet ache and swell / in my high heeled shoes."

The poetry is so visceral it makes one wonder if perhaps Dotson herself has worked a fragrance counter. But that’s the impact of a poet's imagination: one never knows if a poem arises from personal experience or from a poet's ability to imagine another emotional world.

If you are in the mood to poetically reflect on the seemingly small details of your life, read Clever Gretel. You may come to realize the magnitude of the beauty in your own life's microcosm.


Book Review: The Coffin Haulers

The Coffin Haulers. Gregg Cebrzynski. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, August 19, 2013. Kindle edition, 234 pages.

Reviewed by Kathryn Flatt.

Gregg Cebrzynski’s The Coffin Haulers is a mystery set in Chicago in 1974. Attractive, young, Polish immigrant, Aneta Chelmek, goes out to buy a newspaper as she does every Sunday. A few hours later, she is found brutally murdered. The police quickly determine it’s another gang killing, a simple mugging in an area where Polish and Italian immigrants are being edged out by Latino gangs.

Private detective Joey Boloccini doesn’t agree with the official conclusion. Joey grew up in the Little Village neighborhood and sees the investigation as a chance to take his detective business to the next level by solving a real crime. But there are secrets being kept among these working class people, and many of Joey’s friends and neighbors are not what they seem. They have blurred the lines between right and wrong, and Joey will have to do the same in order to bring Aneta’s killer to justice.

The Coffin Haulers is an excellent story that sank a hook into me from the beginning with the murder victim’s last days and then reeled me in with explorations of the lives of the people around her. Personal histories reveal suspects and their motives in an intricate plot with a sustained theme of justifying one’s acts in the name of survival and the search for the promised “good life” in America. Each character is distinctly drawn, evolving into a “real” person, allowing the reader to begin puzzling over which of them committed murder even before the private detective enters the picture. Very little verbiage is spent on describing the looks of each character, and yet they appear in the mind so clearly. As the story neared its climax, I experienced the feeling that all authors hope to inspire in a reader: I just couldn’t put it down.

Mr. Cebrzynski excels at creating succinct word pictures, such as, “The rain pipes were mottled with so many holes that they sprayed water like a showerhead whenever it rained.” He also deftly employs wry humor, as in a quote from Joey to his history-loving friend: “You’re better than me. I don’t even know when the Fourth of July is.” There are thought provoking philosophical views from the characters as well, observations about life and religious beliefs that demonstrate how their ends-justify-the-means rationalization operates.

The only flaw related to editing: i.e., some dialog passages did not employ quotation marks while others did. While it didn’t generate any particular confusion about what was going on, the proofreader part of my brain took notice.

The Coffin Haulers is an affecting and memorable read. Mr. Cebrzynski grew up in Chicago’s Little Village, and The Coffin Haulers resonates with a deep connection to its heritage. Setting the story in the 1970s was also a nice touch since I remember the era well and fondly. Only after reading the book did I realize it is his second novel, and I am now eager to read the first Joey “Boloney” Boloccini novel, The Champagne Ladies.

I thoroughly recommend The Coffin Haulers to any reader, regardless of their favorite genre. I found it a terrific mystery surrounding characters that will stay with me for a long time.


Book Review: Buried Truth

Buried Truth. Gunter Kaesdorf. Cambridge Books, Cambridge, MD, October 2013, Trade Paperback, Kindle, 301 pages.

Reviewed by Sharon Lynn.

Gunter Kaesdorf’s Buried Truth is a generally well-plotted first novel filled with red herrings and copious suspects. Set in a fictional posh North Shore Chicago suburb, it takes the reader on a first-person journey with young attorney Brooke Wheeler.

As Brooke wrestles with memories bubbling to the surface after the death of a former close friend, she finds herself reluctantly digging into a prom night death from her sophomore year in high school. The key link to both deaths is her former lover, Jeremy, but there are also ties to her brother, Tim and a small circle of his high school friends.

When Brooke finds herself and then her brother as murder suspects, she turns to her boss and mentor, Drake, for assistance. Drake, however, exhibits an on-and-off attitude about helping her. For example, after agreeing to take her on as his own client, she is unable to reach him at a crucial moment in her investigation. Later, she learns he’s been “out of the office” at the golf course. On another occasion, he accompanies her to Jeremy’s house, but instead of going inside with her, as he promised, Drake mysteriously disappears into the bushes, leaving Brooke to confront Jeremy alone.

Kaesdorf’s own background as a lawyer ensures legal elements of the story ring true, and he clearly knows the neighborhoods in which he sets the tale. It’s easy to visualize the mansions only a short distance from Lake Michigan and the upscale shopping districts in which some scenes take place.

The story he writes is closer to soft-boiled than to cozy and could be considered a chick-lit mystery. The first-person perspective and lighter tone contribute to its chummy “between friends” feel. Consider this scene: fairly early in the story, after Brooke has missed a few days of work looking into her friend’s death, she tells us, “Drake didn’t mind my taking a day or two off as long as the work got done, but my absence certainly didn’t dissuade him from adding to my pile. Who else was going to do the work, the janitor? … I dove into my work pile, pouring out every ounce of energy I still had. I used my sharp analytical skills to buzz-saw my way through so much of it, that by noon I felt I’d earned a reward: an all expenses paid trip to the nearby Starbucks.”

Brooke’s slightly flippant attitude seems at odds with her role as sometimes-suspect, sometimes-investigator, but doesn’t quite place her in the same category as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Kaesdorf’s generally well-off cast of characters doesn’t provide the kind of comic relief that Evanovich’s New Jersey working class population does.

Despite inconsistent support from her mentor, harassment from a local homicide detective, eerie warnings from Jeremy’s housekeeper, and secrets neither her brother nor his friends reveal willingly, Brooke finally discovers the “buried truth.” Readers may be surprised by what she finds because, by the end of the novel, Kaesdorf will have led them down more than a few false trails.


Book Review: MFA in a Box

MFA in a Box: A Why to Write Book. John Rember. Dream of Things Press, Chicago, IL, January 1, 2011, Trade paperback, 272 pages. Paperback available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; e-book available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and most e-book sites.

Reviewed by Kent McDaniel.

As the title promises, the book’s author John Rember offers cogent reasons to write, though many of them are stated more implicitly than explicitly. On the other hand, Rember is too exuberant to focus the book on just one issue; besides reasons why to write, there are many tips on how. Every chapter concludes, in fact, with a numbered (and often tongue-in-cheek) list of writing tips. And there’s still more going on in the book: social commentary, autobiography, philosophy, and literary criticism. In fact, MFA in a Box gives roughly as much attention to each of those subjects as to writing. This is not your father’s—or older brother’s—writer’s manual.

It took me longer than it should’ve to understand that this book is written as creative non-fiction, rather than standard nonfiction. Rember spends little time on the nuts and bolts of writing, and suggests looking elsewhere for the fundamentals of writing technique. He’s interested in how to use writing technique to best effect, once you have it. And he has no aversion to wordplay, tale spinning, whimsy, or digressions. For example, he moves from a discussion of Gilgamesh into a meditation on Marilyn Monroe and other glamorous women and on contemporary discomfort with femininity, particularly female sexuality, before returning to Gilgamesh.

It worked for me.

Also interesting is Rember’s retelling of “The Little Match Girl” as Raymond Carver could’ve written it, which he then relates to the topic of The Writer As An Outsider.  Later, Rember analyzes The Book of Job and “Hansel and Gretel” and, in a convincing fashion, relates both to the life and craft of a writer. And did I mention that Rember is funny?  He is. Very. Reading this, I laughed out loud—quite a bit. His humor is dry, mordant, and merciless.

All that is excellent, but I won’t claim that this is the easiest reading you may encounter. The prose is packed with concepts, allusions, opinions, and side-trips, all of which demand focus. My first time through MFA in a Box, I read a chapter a day; the second time through went faster for me but still kept me on my toes. The book definitely merited a second reading, and soon enough I’ll go through it a third time.

For anyone who feels he or she has read enough about writing for a lifetime, this book would be worth trying. It ventures deeper than most and illuminates why and how one might want to write and the relationship between those two questions. All the social commentary, autobiography, asides, and anecdotes could be seen as distractions, I guess, but for me they were a good matrix for Rember’s discourse on writing—and icing on the cake.

The book was a treat.


Book Review: Havana Lost

Havana Lost. Libby Fischer Hellmann. The Red Herrings Press, August 16, 2013, Trade Paperback, Kindle, and Audible versions, 300 pages.

Reviewed by Randy Richardson.

On my office wall hangs a vintage travel poster depicting a passenger aboard a Pan Am flight enjoying the view of Havana, Cuba, through a window. That poster captures so well my own feelings about an island country that is so close–only 90 miles from Key West, Florida–and yet, due to our country’s restrictions on travel there, so far away. It feels as though I have experienced this forbidden land only through the windows that others who have been there have shared.

In her tenth novel, Havana Lost, Libby Fischer Hellmann opens up her own window to a country that seems frozen in time. This novel may seem like somewhat of a departure for Hellmann, who built her resume as a novelist in the mystery/thriller genre, including two series, “The Ellie Foreman Mysteries” and “The Georgia Davis PI Thrillers.” Recent readers of her work, however, have seen that she is an author who is not so easy to label. Havana Lost is actually the third novel in her “revolutionary” thriller series, following “Set the Night on Fire” and “A Bitter Veil,” where she explores how strife and revolution affect the human spirit.

Cut in the vein of Mario Puzo’s epic novel, The Godfather, Havana Lost is an ambitious effort, spanning three generations of a Cuban crime family and its struggle to control the underworld of Havana against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution. The window that Hellman opens gives glimpse into an ancient world of honor and vendetta, Cuban family tradition, and friendship and loyalty, where betrayal is punished with merciless vengeance. Even after the family flees to Chicago, we see how their Cuban ties continue to haunt and touch everything connected to it.

Hellmann’s story races with such urgency, sometimes you wish that she slowed the pace a little–especially when one of her richly drawn characters is lost too fast. This minor critique in no way diminishes the power of the author’s storytelling, which is boosted by her evocative description of the Cuban landscape and its history.

Until the doors of Cuba are freely open to us here in the states, we have to settle for the windows into its world that others are able to share with us. The window that Hellmann opens is one that I didn’t want to close and one that I will not soon forget. Take this adventure with her. It is one worth getting lost in. If and when our country eases travel restrictions to this island country in the Caribbean, Hellmann’s story is one that I will pack in my luggage so that I can view it against my own window.