Book Reviews

Friday
Jul192013

Book Review: Dabblers: Windsong Lake Series, Vol. 1

Dabblers: Windsong Lake Series, Vol. 1. Kathryn Flatt. Write Words, Inc., Cambridge, MD, 2012. Kindle Edition sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 240 pages.

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

A crackerjack plot is crucial – it’s what keeps us reading. The plot of Kathryn Flatt’s latest mystery, Dabblers, is compelling from start to finish. Artist Stefanie Durant inherited Uncle Hank’s house on Windsong Lake, a refuge for several blissful summers during a childhood otherwise far from normal.  Stefanie was born with an unusual mind. She has outstanding creative and pattern-recognition skills but problems with basic concepts like reading and math. At puberty, a strong psychic ability called the Ken – the “knowing” – exploded into her life, bringing terrifying visions of future disasters. Stephanie learned to suppress the Ken and, for more than twenty years, kept it secret from everyone, even Paul, her beloved husband and soul mate.

From the moment Stephanie arrived to inspect her new property, she knew something was terribly wrong. Uncle Hank, whose body had apparently burst into flames after a lightning strike, left Stefanie not only his property but also the hidden key to a room crammed with recently acquired books on weather and the occult – two important clues in unlocking the mystery.

We learn right away that two of her childhood friends had adopted a pagan religion and dabble in magic, Amy Greenleaf for good and Melinda Van Zant for evil.

Who killed Uncle Hank and how and why? Was it the old friend who embraced dark magic, or was it the builder of the mysterious altar-like structure in the woods behind Hank’s property? And will releasing the Ken help solve the mystery or will it drive Stefanie to madness?

Fascinating characters are as important as plot.  More than twenty people show up in Dabblers, most, of course, in minor roles, but even these are distinctive. For instance, we peer into the minds and hearts of Lorna Nesbitt, Uncle Hank’s reclusive next-door neighbor, and Adam Greenleaf, Amy’s ex-husband, who decided that living with Amy and their daughter Hannah is a grounded, day-by-day way to love everything in the universe, ultimately more rewarding than the ascetic Buddhist discipline for which he had left his family.

Several weeks after I finished Dabblers I was still thinking about the relationship between Stefanie and Paul. They both insist they’re “the two halves of some greater whole.” After twenty years of marriage, they remain passionately in love.  However, Paul monitors Stefanie’s every syllable, which Stefanie, who says she needs protection, supposedly welcomes. For twenty years Stefanie has not told Paul about the Ken, and during most of Dabblers she lies to him by omission about her activities to unravel several Windsong Lake mysteries. The couple at first seem like a classic example of codependency to Stefanie’s old friend Amy – and to me, the reader – and yet the moment Amy sees the two together, their separate auras merge into a single, pure white radiance, something she has never seen before.  They are old souls, and their relationship is complicated.

Flatt is a very good writer. The book is easy and delightful to read, provides the requisite tension of murder mysteries, leads the main characters into a deeper understanding of themselves, and, at the same time, weaves in themes like global warming and corporate greed. As one who knows many New Age, or pagan, practices myself, I was impressed with the author’s succinct explanations of hands-on healing, gemstone therapy, and auras.

Dabblers is the first book in the new Windsong Lake Series, which is Flatt’s third series. She has published one stand-alone novel and two books in each of two other series. See her blog, kathrynflattsauthorpage.blogspot.com, to find more information about Flatt and her works.

 

Thursday
Jul182013

Book Review: The Rebel Within

The Rebel Within. Lance Erlick. Finlee Augare Books, March 24, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 270 pages.

Reviewed by Serena Wadhwa.

In this dystopian YA novel, Annabelle is a typical 16-year-old girl living a not-so-typical adolescent life. Taking place after the Second American Civil War, the books describes how Annabelle lives in a world where everything is monitored to enforce harmony, where uniformity thrives, and being different has consequences. Losing her parents at the age of three, Annabelle is later adopted by a woman whom she respectfully calls “Mom.” Mom, a state senator, fights for girls and women to have opportunities in the government-controlled world. “Mechs”—female warriors who are trained to protect the state, enforce harmony, and capture fugitive males—are also the ones who destroyed Annabelle’s family. Males are viewed as the enemy in this female-dominant world. Yet Annabelle struggles with common issues for individuals her age: doing what’s right by the society she lives in versus doing what’s right for her, as well as trying to understand the physical and emotional reactions she experiences when she sees a boy. Erlick gives the reader a view of what it is like for Annabelle to live in a world where male connections are forbidden and people disappear if they are not promoting “harmony.” Yet Annabelle yearns for some independence, some freedom, and to know who she really is.

No telling who might post my thoughts. Soc-net police are on the lookout for any backlash against the Federal Union.” In Erlick’s America, privacy is a thing of the past, but for Annabelle, it’s something she wants to fight for: the right to be independent, to think for herself, and to pursue her own dreams.

Annabelle also vigilantly tries to find her biological mother, despite the consequences of getting caught: “ ...rows of metal desks have virtual computers, where I’ve tried to access information on Dorothy Montgomery, my birth mother. It’s not that Mom hasn’t been good to me; she has. I don’t like the Federal Union forbidding me from finding by birth mother. The desks can’t access out-of-state records without going through a department filter. That would ID my search and land me in another prison far away.

Erlick does a good job of bringing the characters to life, vividly bringing to the reader the ways in which Annabelle overcomes obstacles and distractions in following her passion and discovering her mission. Annabelle is a believable adolescent fighting for what she believes in: “I speed to school. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, yet it feels right. All I have to do is get Janine to go home with Mom and tell them I have to return Brooks’ car. What could go wrong?“

Dara is another lively adolescent who uses her size and power to get her way. When she and Annabelle end up fighting a Mech battle against each other, readers will find themselves unable to put the last chapters down, as Erlick weaves a few surprising twists into the story.

Red and blue uniforms circle around. With every ounce of strength I hit and kick. Anger, not just at Dara, but Surroc, the Union, Voss, Hernandez. Everyone tells me what to do, who to be, how to behave. The union took my parents, grabbed that boy, hunts Morgan. Dara hurt Janine.

If you like action, suspense, and vivid characters, look no further. In fact, after finishing the book, I asked if there was a sequel to the story.

Friday
Jul122013

Book Review: Recalled to Life

Recalled to Life. Dan Burns. Published by Eckhartz Press, Chicago, June 3, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 254 pages.

Reviewed by Dipika Mukherjee.

Recalled To Life is a Chicago story about family ties and the redeeming power of love. Dan Burns takes us into the world of Peter O’Hara, a talented architect whose career is on the upswing. His stable family life with wife Melanie and son Jake is suddenly interrupted when a crisis involving Peter’s father, Jack O’Hara, turns their lives upside down. Jack moves in with Peter and although he forms a very strong bond with grandson Jake, his declining mental health tests the limits of this family.

Burns deftly outlines the challenges in caring for an elderly parent. He deals sensitively with the trials of aging, particularly in dealing with failing physical strength and the frustrations of memory loss. Peter’s quandary, as he juggles managing his father and keeping his own family happy, is emotionally charged.

Jack O’Hara is instrumental in compelling Peter to make a choice about his career and this choice is made in a way that ends the book on a high note. The opening pages are slow however, and the pacing can be frustrating, but once Jack moves in with Peter the story picks up quickly.

Although Burns describes the growing bond between Jake, Peter and Jack with skill, there are some raw edges: there is a suggestion of a transgression on Jack’s part (adultery? neglect?) which is hinted at but never fully revealed; Peter’s client, Gattling, seems exceptionally interested in Jack O’Hara’s health and it appears that this may lead to an interesting development but nothing materializes; it’s implied that Peter is attracted to an office colleague but this thread fizzles out.

Burns writes with great empathy for all the characters. The scene of the O’Hara family eating hot dogs during a baseball game is both memorable and touching. Melanie is a wonderfully drawn character who is initially sympathetic to her father-in-law’s situation, but unwilling to be a martyr when his behavior jeopardizes the family. The situations that Peter confronts at his office—heavy doses of nepotism and incompetence—are handled with gravity and humor at the same time.

Overall this is a touching Chicago story about intergenerational bonds, and the love that keeps a family together despite the challenges of life. 

Monday
Jul082013

Book Review: Dateline: Atlantis

DATELINE: ATLANTIS. Lynn Voedisch. Fiction Std., April 16, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 278 pages.

Reviewed by Opal Freeman

Dateline: Atlantis is a well-written novel with a continuous flow of excitement and surprises throughout. Voedisch has graciously combined her experience as a newspaper reporter and author to create an awesome adventure with a purpose. Voedisch specializes in contemporary fantasy, and her specialty is clearly demonstrated in her new book–she is able to interact with the reader as they use their imagination, moving from page to page. I really enjoyed reading the book and appreciated the cover design, sea-blue waters and buried treasures that set the stage.

Amy Quigley, a seasoned news reporter, is challenged with a normal work assignment for the Los Angeles Star newspaper: a possible underwater Atlantis. The assignment becomes far from the norm and involves an unexpected investigation, compounded with issues surrounding family, history, love, murder, mystery, and self-discovery. Amy’s quest for personal and professional closure, as it relates to completing the assignment, exhibits determination and a strong will despite adversity.

The framework of the story provides enough depth and history for each character, so the reader clearly understands their purpose. The ability to keep the reader’s interest is beautifully crafted by alternating the good, the bad, and the ugly, all working towards or against the reporter as she uncovers an underwater lost world. A collaboration of family, friends, and colleagues help initiate the unraveling of documented history and the connection to a missing link in the life of the reporter.

What an awesome ride of adventure. Voedisch is able to project a variety of places and times, a blend of people with different ages, genders, educational levels and interests, and miraculously connect the dots for a greater good. The real adventure lies in reading through the transformation of Amy and the rest of the characters, all with their own reasons for either hiding the truth or uncovering the truth about the underwater activities that initiated the newspaper assignment.

Voedisch’s writing on each page kept my undivided attention. I was captivated by each character and clearly visualized traits of greed, power, business acumen, persistence, resilience, and motivation. The presentation of words, pictures, scenes, and expressions gave me the opportunity to feel a connection with the characters, various climates, suspense and humor, as I read the book from cover to cover.

Voedisch’s style is such that you are drawn to the characters, because she brings them to life. Reading the book was a fun experience, and I found myself rooting for the unexpected but favorable ending. My imagination was elevated and the anticipation of things to happen made it a challenge to put the book down. I highly recommend Dateline: Atlantis for other readers.

Friday
Jul052013

Book Review: Company Orders

Company Orders. David J. Walker. Allium Press of Chicago, September 1, 2012, Trade Paperback and e-book, 324 pages.

Reviewed By Sharon P. Lynn.

Despite having a priest as the main character and being set in Chicago, David J. Walker’s Company Orders is no Father Dowling-type mystery. Walker’s Father Paul Clark isn’t a kindly old pastor with a feisty housekeeper and a spunky young nun as a sidekick. (There is a feisty old pastor who plays a significant role in Father Paul’s life, but he is not the type to shoo away trouble with a dishcloth.)

When we meet Father Paul, he is an up-and-coming young priest who has been noticed by the hierarchy in the Chicago Archdiocese. Father Paul, however, has a secret problem that he must try to resolve without involving the archdiocese – at least not any more than he has already involved it.

This is the central tension of the novel, which is as much thriller as it is mystery. And the threads of the story seem to be widely separated when it begins outside a filthy, frightening, south-of-the border prison. A fearful young man is rescued by a vicious duo, apparently mercenaries. From there, the action moves to Chicago, where Father Paul is finishing early morning Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. As he changes after Mass, we learn Father Paul is troubled by some secret, but the nature of the problem remains elusive as we meet other characters.

There’s the mysterious Ann – is she CIA or something else? – who has some kind of hold on Father Paul and an uncanny way of finding him when he least expects it. And there’s Father Larry, perhaps Father Paul’s only friend, who is attacked in an isolated back alley just as the priests are getting out of a car after a handball game. Is it really a random mugging or is it a warning that Father Paul might be next?

Walker, a former priest, captures interactions between priests that most people don’t see, such as the relationship between Father Paul and his housemate, the elderly Father Jake Kincannon, and Father Jake’s dog, Max. It’s clear in a few words that they look after each other in small ways. Walker also shows us the nature of Father Paul’s relationship with the cardinal who leads the archdiocese, a relationship that is tense, terse and business-like, outward cordiality notwithstanding.

Walker vividly paints the temptations and fears crushing a priest who finds himself in the midst of murder and international intrigue, who feels his connections to his God fraying and stretching, and who learns just what he will sacrifice to protect someone for whom he feels responsible.

The title, Company Orders, is itself a hint of the conflicts that will face Father Paul. Will he take more seriously the “company orders” of a secretive government agency or the “holy orders” of his priesthood? Walker’s novel is well worth the time to find out, and a compelling argument for taking a look at some of his previous work if you haven’t already read his Wild Onion series or Mal Foley series.