What's New

Book Reviews

Tuesday
Apr162019

Book Review: The Butcher

The ButcherAlan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 24, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 205 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Allan S. Kessler’s The Butcher imagines a world where the worst people have grabbed power and only a miracle can change things. The novella is speculative fiction, and while it is a novella, it is broader and more ambitious than most books this length. The Butcher is an engaging read that isn’t just an escape into another world; it’s a reflection on our own.

Mikkel, the protagonist, is a boy approaching manhood who lives in a world with only two seasons, Spring and Summer, each three months long. This world contains two groups of people: those in the Party, and the Burners—a race of people Mikkel has been taught to despise. “He had been taught in school about Burners, this sly, parasitic race who, not content with their sheep and goats, wanted control over the pigs of the world. Elementary schoolbooks depicted Burners as fat, hog-shaped creatures eating mouthfuls of pig meat while blond, emaciated children looked on with pleading eyes. The captions under the drawings were all variations of the one idea: They Feast While We Starve.” The Burners are a reviled race, and Mikkel is on the verge of manhood and well positioned within the Party based on his father’s standing. 

Kessler creates a wonderful tension from the onset because we see that Mikkel, while positioned to succeed in the Party, lacks the bloodlust of his peers. We soon discover that there’s more to Mikkel’s past than just growing up in the Party. When he encounters a member of the Burners, who identifies him as the savior of the Burner people, he begins a journey that is far more challenging than merely conforming to the expectations of the life he was born into.

Kessler does a nice job making the life Mikkel could have enjoyed—if he continued to tow the Party’s line—thoroughly unappealing. The Party is a society built around ritual slaughter, the exploitation of Burner labor, and a patriarchal caste system that leaves even the elite beholden to a ruthless few. The flesh of slaughtered pigs is divided up among the elite, and every part of the pig, down to the dung, is used to such an extent that the ruling class of the society appears downright filthy. In particular, the Butcher, their founder and de facto leader, lives a strange, isolated existence, planning the Party’s next move, which we learn throughout the course of the novella is about to take a horrible turn for the worse.

The world Kessler has created—a world with only two seasons, where killing pigs and making full use of every bit of them while trodding on the miserable Burners—is oppressive, but Kessler crafts characters and effectively reveals information about how the world ended up in this terrible state. While the book opens in a rather grim setting, as we learn things weren’t always this bad and see hope is possible, a momentum builds, making this an exhilarating read. The novella is structured so that we are dropped in the middle of a story where the protagonist is living out the resolution of a struggle that started before he was born. Kessler isn’t just dreaming up some terrible world full of dead pigs; he has a point he wants to make, and I think most readers will find that, by the last few pages, he’s made it nicely. 

A recommended book for readers who enjoy speculative fiction, particularly with world building as a key component of the plot, Kessler's The Butcher is terrifying, fascinating, and surprisingly hopeful.


Tuesday
Apr022019

Book Review: The One Date Rule

The One Date Rule. TaKaylla L. Gordon. Hyde and Seek Press, July 15, 2018 Trade Paperback and E-book, 251 pages.

Reviewed by Kelly Fumiko Weiss.

The One Date Rule follows the relationship of Draylen, a near-forty-something freelance proofreader who goes back to school, and Quinn, her forty-something Creative Writing professor. They are equally gripped by each other as soon as they meet, igniting the central conflict of the book—should they pursue each other or not? The narrative seamlessly flows between Draylen and Quinn’s point of view, following along as they fall into a rapid cycle of dating and breaking up repeatedly, each trying to conquer the baggage they bring to the relationship. 

The strength of this book comes from the tropes it does not employ. This is a book about two strong women in a relationship, but neither is mean nor trite. This is a book about a lesbian relationship, but the classic “coming out” story is not used, nor is there any hint of angst from either character about her sexual identity. This is a book about minority women on the South Side of Chicago, but issues of race are not the crux of the drama. Treating these women as women first (and not debating the merits of who they are—which is a debate we should no longer be having in 2019) felt refreshing and allowed the reader to focus on what really matters—how these women are feeling, and how their passions, both past and present, translate into their relationships today. 

Gordon does a great job creating an incredibly sexy narrative, with the passionate scenes between Draylen and Quinn serving to fulfill the best arousing intents of a romance novel and the emotional needs of the characters. None of the sex scenes are for the sake of sex alone; each scene plays into the emotional state of the characters and has its own flavor—exploration, need, passion, manipulation, and at the end, love. 

What is lacking in this book is a strong antagonist. Draylen’s ex, Dava, serves in this role, but not enough. Draylen’s desire to be published and her reticence to let other people see her work is relatable but isn’t too much of a struggle. Sure, she works very hard on her writing, but aside from writing being hard work, there are no real roadblocks for her. Quinn has the “one date rule” that the book is titled after, but easily gives that up as soon as she meets Draylen and never really goes back to it. 

But those are small points compared to the overall triumph of the book, which is to showcase a lesson we all must learn—that we are often our own roadblocks to the things we want in life. Once Draylen and Quinn get out of their own ways, they can love each other openly and freely, and by the end, that outcome feels duly earned. You are rooting for them the whole way, as are most of their friends and family, and Gordon does a good job making the reader invest in their story and feel real happiness for them when they finally let their guards down and dive in. 

 

Tuesday
Apr022019

Book Review: A Reason to Be Here

A Reason to Be Here: Tales from the Writers Convention. Jay Rehak (Editor). Chicago: Windy City Publishers, June 15, 2019, Trade Paperback, 200 pages.

Reviewed by Dan Burns.

A Reason to Be Here is a collaborative novel, conceived and edited by Jay Rehak and shaped by the determined writing efforts and crafted stories from twenty-five members of the Off Campus Writers Workshop (OCCW), the oldest continuously running writing workshop in the country.

For years, the stories-as-a-novel writing approach has intrigued me. After reading the books Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, I realized that an author could successfully tie together individual stories into a cohesive, believable, over-arching storyline, but not without significant effort and challenges. I figured trying a similar feat with twenty-five authors would be impossible. Fortunately, with Rehak at the helm and based on his prior experience helping authors create original class-sourced, crowdsourced novels, I learned the OCCW was in good hands.

The first chapter, written by Rehak, establishes the storyline. One-hundred-year-old renowned author, Alice Bainbridge, attends the Midwest Writers Conference to receive a lifetime achievement award. After receiving her award, Alice speaks to the audience: “I’d much prefer to be remembered not as a Master Storyteller, but as a Master Story Listener . . . Because listening to good stories is pretty much what’s keeping me alive. So please, tell me a story.” Exhausted and weary, Alice agrees to stay afterward to listen to anyone who wishes to share a story, opening the door for the subsequent chapter-stories that build and develop the storyline to a satisfying conclusion.

A different author, who provided a unique and interesting approach to storytelling, wrote each of the following twenty-five stories. In many of the stories, the author created a character who shares with Alice a personal story. In others, the author created a character who shares a story about someone else in a more fictional and less-biographical manner, an approach I found more enlightening and engaging. Some chapters were better than others—which I expected—reflecting the different experience levels of the authors. Each chapter had the necessary beginnings and endings, the “glue,” to stitch the storyline together and propel the reader forward, which was no small feat. The authors effectively worked together to build a cohesive tale.

As a reader, I enjoyed the diverse writing approaches and styles. Although I wondered at times how Alice—at her age—could listen to one more story, the stories fueled her and provided a reason to live. The original storyline proved successful in establishing a solid foundational structure for the authors to build upon. With a weaker storyline, the novel’s foundation likely would have crumbled.

A Reason to Be Here is a beneficial resource and learning tool for writers, highlighting—and proving—the statement that there is more than one way to tell a story. Writers interested in different approaches to the short story, the novel, points of view and perspective, plotting, and writing style can find ideas, techniques, and inspiration for future writing projects.

I applaud all the OCCW writers who contributed stories for A Reason to Be Here. The book is a testament to their individual writing efforts and willingness to toil in harmony with others to support and develop the craft of writing.

 

Sunday
Mar312019

Book Review: Willingly

WillinglyMarc FrazierAdelaide Books, January 27, 2019, Trade Paperback, 112 pages.

Reviewed by David Steven Rappoport.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote that “to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful.” Willingly, Marc Frazier’s new collection of poems, is both true and beautiful.

In Frazier’s words,Willingly explores “the ramifications of one man’s search for identity within and without the bonds of a relationship,” and “the story of one LGBTQ+ individual.” Within his story, Frazier writes in many styles and focuses on many themes. 

Some poems address the power of nature and our relationship to it, as in “Awakening”:

            parable of the

            honeycomb:

                                                accretion of labor,

                                                queen at the height

            of her powers,

            pulse of the

                                                hive audible, warm

                                                aura of affirmation . . .

Much of the collection speaks of aspects of love—being in it, being out of it, looking for it, or in “Then,” just sex:

Weren’t we young together?

Didn’t we grope in beer-soaked rooms,

patios, parking lots . . .

Didn’t we want it 

more than anything?

Some of the poems are playful. For example,Sergio” begins with a reminder of the joy of romantic revenge:

I’m seeing a man who is wealthy and traveled

and everything

You are not . . .

Perhaps Frazier’s most compelling poems are the most personal ones. In this mode, Frazier reminds us of the confessional poets, particularly Anne Sexton. 

Many of these poems—such as “Synopsis,” a succinct life history that recalls Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”—are intense.

            mother threatens to kill me

                        during the seventh month of my life

            great uncle John and my dad

                        haul her screaming and clawing

            into the car for the trip to Mercyville . . .

Many are quieter, such as the subtle and moving title poem, “Willingly,” a reflection on Frazier’s Illinois childhood:

The swish of corn stalks lulls as night

Crawlers slither in a wet dawn.

We pilfer sugar cubes for the mare sniffling over the fence,

 

Still, drawn in by her heavy, chestnut eyes – her elegance.

We capture what earth yields: beetles,

Ants, garter snakes, our futures . . .

Overall, Frazier might be described as a writer whose approach is as unornamented as a Midwestern corn field. Though his language is straightforward, it is always visceral.

In Willingly, Frazier manages to create a diverse collection that is as restrained as it is potent.

 

Wednesday
Mar202019

Book Review: Standing in Doorways

Standing in DoorwaysWes Payton. Adelaide Books, December 6, 2018, Trade Paperback, 266 pages.

Reviewed by Ed Sarna.

Standing in Doorways is the second book by Wes Payton that I’ve reviewed, and like Lead Tears, the first one, I loved it. It showcases Mr. Payton’s clever use of wordplay and his sneaky sense of humor.

The novel is structured in two parts. Part One chronicles the lives of a group of college students afflicted with various mental disorders. They attend a prestigious Midwestern university and are ensconced in Study House, their dormitory. We come to know these students through the eyes of Vivien Leigh (not thatVivien Leigh). Vivien describes her pathology when she says, “I can’t read expressions or understand body language. I’m barely human.” When asked if that means she’s a literal, she answers, “I was for a long time until I finally figured out that people rarely mean what they say. Now I don’t really believe anything I’m told, which can be an advantage in college, but from what my counselor tells me is somewhat discouraged in the real world.” 

These individuals are carefully observed, as stated in the opening sentence, “…Study House, which wasn’t named for what was required of its residents, but rather what was done to them.” They are sometimes referred to by their infliction: Schiz, a schizophrenic, Prodigy (also referred to as Digy), a genius who is editing the dictionary and has been the subject of a lifelong experiment that studies the limits of human intelligence and mental endurance, Poopy, who keeps a journal of his bowel movements, and Psycho, who may or may not be a psychopath. There is also Patty who has a constantly changing personality, but unlike a schizophrenic, “…she doesn’t have multiple personalities trapped inside of her, instead her personality continually reinvents itself, as if her mind is perpetually flipping through the channels of an internal television and she imitates whatever show is on at the moment.” There is also Vivien Leigh’s roommate, Vivian Lee, who in describing himself says, “My condition enables me to read people too accurately for comfort.”

Part One takes place in the 1990s while Part Two takes place twenty years later. In Part Two, the lives of some students intersect. Vivien Leigh is now a writer, having once written a novella called Study House, about her college years. Referring to the novella, Vivien says, “…the narrative wasn’t so much based on events that really happened but rather my impression of being a college student in the nineties.” This explanation may or may not be true. As Book Two unfolds and the characters from Book One cross paths, we are left wondering what’s real and what’s fiction. Are the things we are told truthful to the actual characters' lives or the novella’s characters’ lives? Lest you think this book merely poses philosophical questions, it also involves a murder, a possible suicide, and a mysterious pregnancy. Or maybe it doesn’t.

Wes Payton's writing is complex, crisp, and cunning. The skillful way he weaves the narrative and the novella together kept me hooked throughout the book. His railing against dumbing down language for the masses, and his warning of what happens when idiots are put in charge, (“…and because they also happened to be overpaid, they would hire incompetent subordinates who would not jeopardize their jobs by questioning their dubious credentials or their ability to make decisions…”) are beyond appropriate. I highly recommend Standing in Doorways by Wes Payton.