What's New

Book Reviews

Wednesday
Aug212013

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.

Tuesday
Aug132013

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.

Tuesday
Aug132013

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. 

Tuesday
Aug132013

Book Review: The Coach House

The Coach House. Florence Osmund. Published by CreateSpace, N.Charleston, S.C., 2012, Trade Paperback, 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ray Paul.

The Coach House is a tense story with two plots set in post World War II America.  Marie Costa, a young college graduate, is quickly moving up the management ladder at Marshall Fields in Chicago when she meets and falls in love with Richard Marchetti, a handsome, beguiling medical supply salesman with a secret business life involving the underworld. Of course, at the time they are married, Marie is clueless. All she knows is Richard is devoted to her and continually professes his love for her. However, after they marry, a variety of incidents and chance encounters with some dangerous gangsters eventually drive her into hiding.

From that point forward, Marie attempts to escape from her husband and build a new life.  Her odyssey starts by breaking into what she assumed was a vacant home. From there she travels to a number of distant cities to find safety beyond Richard’s reach. After eventually settling in a coach house on an estate in a suburb of Kansas City, she reestablishes her life, finds a sidekick, Karen, and hopes to be free of Richard and his threats. But this was not to be, because she is never beyond his reach, and she experiences a number of terrifying incidents when Richard tracks her down. This is plot number one.

Plot number two involves Marie’s search for the father she has never known. While her deceased mother had always told Marie her lover was a “good man,” she left very few clues as to who he was. Sure, someone set up a bank account to fund Marie’s college education, and there was a group picture with her mother and several men. Other than that, his identity was kept from her.  By the end of the book Marie solves the puzzle. She not only learns her mother was truthful in calling him a “good man,” but she finds out all the reasons her mother kept his identity a secret. 

Personally, I found much to like in The Coach House. The third-person narrative was gripping and believable. All the characters were unique, rich and well-rounded. The dialog itself was crisp and telling, and did a wonderful job of building suspense and moving the story along.  Furthermore, the author’s rich descriptions of Chicago’s sights, and all of the other places in which Florence Osmund places her characters, added depth to the intense story line. While the point of view was decidedly female, I wouldn’t describe this story as a chick book. The characters, both male and female, were utterly believable and the story line so unique. I really enjoyed the time I spent reading it, particularly the satisfying ending regarding the search for her father. That being said, the only aspect of the book that didn’t wholly satisfy me was the resolution to plot number one. But the ending made sense, and that will probably be enough for most readers.    

The Coach House is an enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone who reads to be entertained.         

Tuesday
Aug132013

Book Review: My Life: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

 

My Life: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. James Pierce, Translator. Robert Dohrenwend, Editor/Translator. Published by Rilling Enterprises, Loves Park, Illinois, 2012, hardcover, 220 pages.

Reviewed by Greg Borzo.

This translation of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoirs will be of interest to scholars of colonialism, Prussian military history and World War I but few other readers.

Despite a foreword that hails von Lettow-Vorbeck as “one of the few true heroes of the 20th Century” and an introduction that describes him as “in many ways representative of the best in his society and time,” the general remains an obscure albeit successful figure whose greatest accomplishments occurred in the World War I sideshow of German East Africa (today Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda).

Although von Lettow-Vorbeck’s account contains much history, it also includes boasting, self-justification, sniping at the French and British, and claims such as “I am certain that we could have won” the Great War.

Born in Prussia, von Lettow-Vorbeck went on to become a masterful military leader who was undefeated during four years in German East Africa despite being greatly outnumbered by Allied forces. Although he embodied the honorable, even chivalrous, Prussian military tradition, his claim to fame was leading a guerilla force: destroying forts; tearing up railway tracks; and seizing enough arms, ammunition and provisions from the enemy to continue fighting them. This was a proud, disciplined, highly decorated member of the old school fighting bush warfare, which he had claimed to despise. 

Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s memoir deserved to be translated, and James Pierce did so some time ago although the work was never published. Robert Dohrenwend, the editor/translator of this tome, is to be commended for polishing up the translation and getting it published. A linguist and military historian, Dohrenwend wrote A Multilingual Glossary of Firearms Terms 1550 to 1850 and has translated a number of works dealing with German military history.

That said, it would have been helpful to the reader of this book if Dohrenwend had provide more background and context; footnotes throughout; more and better maps; a glossary; and an index.

The memoir, itself, must be read with a grain of salt. Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s daughter, who acted as editor and did an unknown amount of what she described as “sifting”, wrote the foreword to the original edition.

Still, a high school history teacher of mine (even though he was a football coach) ingrained in me the need to read original source material. This book provides that opportunity regarding a tenacious fighter, brilliant tactician, and charismatic military leader, who was also a concerned citizen, resourceful survivor and thoughtful observer during a very long life spanning a fascinating period of history, 1870-1964. Reading it will make you want to seek out a biography of this remarkable, elite Prussian warrior.