What's New

Book Reviews

Sunday
Mar032019

Book Review: 1638 East Palace

1638 East Palace. Kathleen McElligott. Adelaide Books, November 2019. Trade Paperback and E-book.

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

1638 East Palace includes a character list before the story begins. It reminds me of the formatting for a theatrical script, and I wondered if I’d need it. But several pages in, I found myself flipping back to that character list time and again—to familiarize myself with the relationships—as names were introduced. The list ends up being a helpful roadmap for a good portion of the book, until all the characters have been interwoven.

The novel begins with news of a tragic accident, although the shock waves are not fully experienced until later when the author creates an emotional connection to the characters involved. This literary choice lends a surreal, numb feeling to the first pages of the story, and it takes a little while to become grounded again and settle into the world of the book. Although effective, it’s uncomfortable and a bit confusing, similar to the feeling you get at the sudden loss of a loved one, hearing about a shocking occurrence, or receiving news of a heartbreaking event.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is no single protagonist. Instead, the author uses an ensemble structure that creates a circular, constantly swirling atmosphere of people and places. Rather than following a linear plot line, the reader experiences an immersive sensation of the passage of time and the evolving circumstances that define the lives of a group of characters that is mostly made up of women. The novel is broken into three parts—or acts—which transition at major turns of events or life shifts.

The absence of both traditional chapters and an unbroken storyline provides a closer, more introspective view into the minds and hearts of the characters in a way that is usually left up to a reader’s imagination. In 1638 East Palace, the reader is granted full insider access to the thoughts, fears, and desires of the main characters. It’s impossible not to continually shift loyalties as more and more information—past and present—comes to light. It’s almost as though each person is privately interviewed in short, intense shifts, telling the tale from their own point of view until something occurs to move the focus to one of the other characters.

The story is centered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but events take the reader briefly to other locales including Chicago, Boulder, and Listowel, Ireland. These travels work to develop or alter relationships, shore up life-changing decisions, and introduce us to some peripheral characters who act as catalysts. The importance of each location is the place-specific history, baggage, and conflict they bestow upon the central characters. In short, the locations themselves are not a focus, but the weight they hold over the characters is brought to light.

The assorted relationships throughout the story represent a broad slice of contemporary society, encompassing many modern social issues including separation, loneliness, single parenting, same-sex love, widowhood, and the challenges that come with disability, age, and infirmity. The author explores some of life’s trickiest terrain. None of the characters are perfect, and while some are more likeable than others, there are no true villains. The flaws and quirks of the characters define and sharpen the relationships, and the story engages the reader like a slowly unfurling southwestern soap opera wherein you root for everyone to be happy—or at least content.

Based on McElligott’s mostly straightforward and relatively unembellished writing style, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of detail used to describe everyday objects and activities. Food, décor, fashion, and human behavior are intricately drawn, and several times I was briefly distracted from a life-altering revelation or reaction by one of the characters. It occurred to me that, as in life, one sometimes notices minor aspects while enduring major difficulty—like the intense colors in a floral bouquet while in the midst of romantic turmoil, or the acrid scent of your supervisor’s cologne while being reprimanded. These momentary shifts in perspective, combined with sensory-triggering detail, serve as a metaphor for a basic human truth: life can be achingly beautiful even in the direst of moments.

This story does not shy away from hard choices, ugly situations, or uncomfortable truths. Instead, it embraces the natural messiness of true human connection—longing, sacrifice, inevitable adjustments, promises kept and broken, and ultimately, the excruciating loss when the connection is severed. In the end, 1638 East Palace is a tale of modern women intertwined at various stages of life by circumstances that sculpt and define each of them for a time—or forever.

 

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.