Book Reviews

Wednesday
Jul032013

Book Review: Any Road Will Take You There

Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons. David W. Berner. Little Big Man Press, May 27, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 300 pages.

Reviewed by L.E. Schwaller

David Berner knows Jack Kerouac. He knows On the Road and the Beats and music. What he doesn’t know – and what permeates his latest book, Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons – is how to be the world’s greatest father or son. And the best part, Berner knows that none of us really do. He understands we’re all making it up as we go along, trying our best just to  be there and not screw things up. There is no manual, Berner reminds us, on how to be fathers or sons.

Any Road Will Take You There is a thoughtful, fast-reading memoir centered on a cross-country road trip a father embarks on with his two teenaged boys after re-reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Using the modern literary classic as a roadmap, the recently divorced Berner rents an RV and heads west from Chicago with his two sons. When they reach Denver, an important town for the Beats and Kerouac in particular, Berner’s friend Brad (a fellow middle-aged divorcee whose own clarity of consciousness and direction is lacking as much if not more than Berner’s) joins them for the second leg to California then back again. Throughout the journey, Berner reminisces on his relationship with his recently deceased father and the life of his teenaged sons, all while contemplating the writings of Kerouac and the importance of what the road has to teach us about ourselves. 

At times the narrative of Any Road Will Take You There  may seem to detour away from the story and into the meandering, interconnected memories and recollections of the narrator. This is, however, the point of Berner’s work. Any Road Will Take You There is a memoir that strives, as Berner writes, “to balance the world he’s building with the one he left behind.” His narrative flows the way one's memory might, drawing lines between our past, present, and future journeys.

The book succeeds most when the reader is provided with snapshots, moments of genuine and heartfelt recognition. How Kerouac has affected and continues to influence Berner and his life is less impactful than how his relationship with his father has shaped the father he strives to be—for the sake of himself and, most importantly, his sons, Casey and Graham.

Casey and Graham, along with Berner’s father, Norm, are the central figures of the book. This seemingly outlandish journey is brought to life through Berner’s care and love for his two sons and his fond recollections of his father. Interwoven into Berner’s memoir are stories of his boys’ adolescence and his own reminiscence of his father, all of which achieves a continuity between the generations of men and the parallels of their lives and personalities. We feel, as the reader, Berner’s quiet pain at the loss of his father and the hope and love he has for his teenaged sons.

Any Road Will Take You There is a book for fathers and sons. It’s a book for middle-aged men, for wives looking to better understand their husbands, and mothers to get to know their sons. Berner’s latest book (his follow-up to the 2011 Royal Dragonfly Grand Prize Winner, Accidental Lessons) engages and teaches you something about yourself or possibly the man closest to you. His threading of memories and stories about his father, his sons, his failings and successes, and how the journey is the most telling and important piece of our lives may just inspire you to take a trip of your own. At the very least, you’ll set out to read Kerouac, be it for the first time or all over again.

Monday
Jul012013

Book Review: In A Corner, Darkly: Short Stories to Horrify, Shock and Disturb (Volume 1)

In A Corner, Darkly: Short Stories to Horrify, Shock and Disturb (Volume 1). Sue Rovens. Published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing, October 11, 2012, Trade Paperback, 162 pages.

Reviewed by Meghan Owen.

“Sue Rovens brings original chills in In A Corner, Darkly.”

Sue Rovens achieves what she set out to do, giving familiar grisly tales an original bent in her short story collection, In a Corner, Darkly. The devil on the farm, mysterious ailments, kids trespassing in a graveyard, a very, very angry ex-girlfriend, and so on—all of these tropes and more are revisited in Rovens’s work and given a dark twist that makes you finish what you started.

In a Corner, Darkly has long been a goal of Rovens, who has loved the genre of horror since childhood. She decided to self-publish her debut story collection after her mother’s death, when, as she describes it, she realized that if she wanted to live her dream as an author of dark tales, she should seize the present.

Though the fifteen chilly stories bear the marks of a new writer, the content is delightfully original. Not one of the pages is predictable. One particular story, “An Affair to Remember,” may have an ending you can guess, but the conclusion is not what makes the tale frightening. Its most horrifying aspect is the deeply uncomfortable way Rovens describes the obsessive perversion of a deluded necrophiliac, not the reveal of the corpse.

Another example of a particularly unique approach to horror is Rovens’s story “Games People Play.” Instead of running in the supernatural or gruesome themes of the rest of the collection, “Games People Play” focuses on sexual harassment in the school environment. Mr. Hiller, a fifth grade teacher, likes to touch his female students, and the protagonist of the story, Kelly Wilson, wants to stand up to him. The terror in this tale lies solely in Kelly’s hopelessness to end abuse when no one will believe her; even the few who do believe her don’t think it’s necessarily a problem. If you want a story to keep you up at night, “Games People Play” is the one for you.

If there is anything that keeps Rovens’s words from leaping off the page, it is a certain lack of finesse in her phrasing and some overly strong reveals. There are moments where she would have done better to linger and make a longer story in order to do her plot justice. There are also some anomalies that serve more to confuse than to scare, like the King of Pests, “Mr. Whiskers.”

Yet despite some kinks in the plot and whatever lack of poetry, In a Corner, Darkly is a fabulously original collection of tales that will hold the reader’s interest to the last blood splatter. Stories like “Skin,” “Prison,” and “Pray, Beardstown, Pray” (the delightfully freaky opener of the book) will give you a simultaneous sensation of disquiet and thrill. Looking to be disturbed in new ways? Get a copy of In a Corner, Darkly by Sue Rovens and invest in a night-light. 

Saturday
Jun292013

Book Review: Purple Chicken

Purple Chicken: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Wannabe Chef. Ron Gaj. Published in Bloomington, Indiana, by iUniverse, January 17, 2013, Hardcover, Trade Paperback and e-book, 144 pages.

Reviewed by Roxe Anne Peacock.

Ron Gaj takes the reader on a journey as to what it is like to become a chef. Gaj gives a behind the scenes account  of the culinary school kitchen, overcrowded classrooms, the bureaucracy of filling out forms for grants, student loans, and unfilled promises by the tech school or college.   He takes you through the fights for space in the classroom kitchen, lack of supplies for the completion of projects, and kitchen disasters while adding a bit of humor.

Purple Chicken should appeal to foodies and culinary students alike. His book is similar to other culinary memoirs such as Beaten, Seared, and Sauced: On Becoming a Chef at the Culinary Institute of America by Jonathan Dixon, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Finn, and Under The Table: Saucy Tales from Culinary School by Katherine Darling.

Ron Gaj is the owner and president of a technology consultant firm, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering. He resides in Illinois. While approaching retirement, Mr. Gaj decided to explore his passion for food by signing up for a culinary school. He graduated at the young age of 63. Purple Chicken is his first book.

If you are a foodie or love the culinary arts, Ron Gaj’s Purple Chicken should be on your list of books to read.

Thursday
Jun272013

Book Review: Theresa in Wonderland

Theresa in Wonderland. Dominique Wilkins. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, August 21, 2012, Trade Paperback and e-book, 58 pages.

Reviewed by Sierra Kay.

Theresa in Wonderland begins with Theresa’s idyllic world being shattered by a high school bully.  One bright spot from the incident is her savior, Tina, who later becomes her best friend.  As the years pass, Theresa’s life gets back on track. She loves her husband, her best friend, and her children.  She has found her stride. But like the fictional character, Alice, an accident drops her down a rabbit hole where nothing is familiar and she has to determine if it’s even worth the effort to make her way back to the real world.

Dominique Wilkins provides a constant thread of faith that draws the reader through the highs and lows of Theresa’s journey.  Just like the journey, some aspects of the novella have rough patches.  However, Theresa is a strongly developed character who responds to changes in her life in a believable way.   She is not a boat rocker.  She doesn’t have to be.  Her life provides enough catalyst for change. The parallel nature of the story that aligns physically and emotionally damaging events simultaneously draws readers to the story through the last page. 

Thursday
Jun272013

Book Review: The Bunco Club

The Bunco ClubKaren DeWitt. Published by Frame Masters, Ltd., Matteson, IL, 2013, Trade Paperback and e-book, 412 pages.

Reviewed by Brinda Gupta

In the tradition of celebrations of female friendships like Steel Magnolias, Karen DeWitt’s The Bunco Club lets us into the world of eight good friends. Though the eight have very different domestic situations and unique struggles, they bond over a shared love of quilting and a beloved monthly Bunco game. DeWitt structures the novel by month, focusing on the woman hosting each month’s game. Through the eight months, we get to know artistic Lettie; single mom Phree; career woman Nedra; Rosa, the mother of a delinquent teenager; anal-retentive Marge; Helen, the mother of a bullied girl; hoarder Beth; and dowdy Nancy. Each section tells about one woman’s career and home life, culminating in the monthly Bunco parties that see the women’s stories weave together.

DeWitt juggles the eight lives well. The challenges faced by the characters vary enough to continually renew the reader’s interest. Some stories are more compelling than others. Lettie, specifically, serves as a narrative device to introduce the novel; after her few chapters, she really only appears to give advice to the others. Helen’s story of helping her bullied daughter may be sadly relatable for many parents, but the stakes didn’t seem high enough to make me care about her.

Some of the stories give great insight into the characters, like Beth’s heart-wrenching attempts to keep from falling apart as her father falls ill and she battles her own hoarding tendencies. I really enjoyed Phree’s story, as her “problem” is unique. I won’t give away what she finds, but her chapters revolve around trying to figure out how to handle a great windfall. Though the other women’s more typical problems—rebellious children, nonexistent love lives—are easy to sympathize with, it’s Phree’s unexpected adventure that shows the author’s creativity. Overall, though, the women’s backstories are well thought out and conveyed.

Framing the action around the group’s monthly get-togethers is an effective way to keep the characters distinct. Learning about friends’ old traditions also serves as great comfort reading, and the author ups the cozy factor by including recipes from the various menus at the back of the book. I actually would have loved it if an additional appendix had explained the rules of Bunco. Knowledge of the game isn’t necessary for enjoying the book, however.

DeWitt’s writing style is clear and accessible. My only complaint is with the abundance of similes used for description. In other parts of the book, DeWitt’s command of description is fantastic, so falling on “dead as a doornail”-type similes seems like a waste. Her straightforward use of adjectives to set up atmosphere demonstrates her skill much more effectively.

Many stories involving friendships have such a wacky cast of characters that it’s impossible to believe that the individuals would be friends in real life. That isn’t a problem at all with The Bunco Club—I believe that these women would choose to spend time together and care about each other. Adult friendships can be as frustrating as they are rewarding, and Karen DeWitt paints a warm, entertaining picture of eight women who drive each other crazy while still helping each other through life.