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Review: Cancelled: Stamps to Die For

CANCELLED: Stamps To Die For by Janet Feduska Cole. Pegasus Books, San Jose, California, January 2013, 182 pages.
Book Review by Ray Paul
Having just finished a second reading of Cancelled: Stamps to Die For, a short mystery/suspense novel written by Janet Feduska Cole, I’m struck by the similarity in our late-blooming writing backgrounds and the dramatic differences in our writing styles. While each of us turned to writing fiction after careers in technical writing or in my case business communications, Janet is a master of turning her historical and geographical research into a fascinating learning experience.
The story itself is a classic chase told in the first person. A female writer, Elyse, reconnects with a male friend from her past, Karl, who has a collection of stamps and women. Following his supposed death, she is moved to research and write an article about a stamp collection thought to have been stolen by certain Nazi leaders toward the end of WWII. While obtaining facts for her article from various locations around the globe, Elyse attracts a following of allies and evildoers interested in the results of her research. Among the latter is her ex-friend Karl, who has miraculously risen from the dead, and his newest female companion and members of a secret society of philatelists seem intent on doing her harm.
The highlight of the author’s story was reconnecting with my youthful stamp collecting history by recalling many of the famous stamps she lists in one of the chapters of the book. In addition, the references to World War II and the postwar Nazi migration to Argentina, rekindled my interest in that fateful period of our modern world. Equally enjoyable for me was reading her descriptions of the Southwestern United States and the petrography found there in certain Utah Canyons. Because the author implies her story is fictional, I suspect some of her places and references are made up. However, because the author writes so convincingly this reader was content to believe that all of the places and events in the story were real and historically accurate. Never once was I tempted to check out the validity of her details.
With the exception of some light asides by the protagonist narrator, the writing style is rather refined and academic for this particular genre, something I personally found refreshing. Overall, the plot kept my interest throughout and the story never labors. While I did have to go back and reread some chapters to make sure I was getting “it,” I chalked that up to poor reading rather than any flaw in the storytelling.
However, I do wish that the author would have developed her characters further. Because of a lack of emotional attachment, I found it hard to feel a strong level of fear or dread during the protagonist’s journey. Moreover, the evil pursuers always seemed more like nutty bunglers than vicious criminals. In her future writing I hope the author will shed her intellectual tendencies and dig into the hearts and guts of her characters so the reader can enjoy her story on several levels other than her intricate plot.
Although the book is short, it packed a punch and I enjoyed it enough to want to read the sequel.



Review: What More Could You Wish For

What More Could You Wish For, A novel by Samantha Hoffman (St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, August 2012 First Edition, 243 pages, paperback) 

Book review by Renee James


America's pop culture and even much of its literature prefers young or youngish people for its romantic and coming of age stories, and why not? Anything is possible early in life, and that makes for great storytelling and steamy romance.

The first thing we learn in Samantha Hoffman's What More Could You Wish For is that romantic relationships and fascinating coming-of-age stories can occur at any stage of life and, in the case of narrator Libby Carson, age fifty is as filled with possibilities as twenty-something.

Libby is turning fifty as the story opens and she has the world by the tail. She is a happy single woman with a successful business that she is passionate about. She has a close relationship with her parents and sibling, and she has the kind of lover many mature women dream about—handsome, successful, unfailingly considerate, and good in bed.

The other thing Libby adores about her lover, Michael, is that he gives her space. They don't live together, they just sleep over a few times a week. After two failed marriages, it is the kind of low-maintenance relationship Libby can handle.

But Libby's laid-back, happy veneer is cracked and broken when Michael proposes to her and begins a well-intentioned but high-pressure campaign to marry her. This precipitates a period of intense confusion for our heroine as she considers what to do with the rest of her life. The smart, secure thing to do is to marry her near-perfect suitor, but she is torn by a rekindled interest in a high school lover, and by a love for her own independence.

The brilliance of What More Could You Wish For starts with the page-turning tension we feel as Libby ponders the dilemma of her life. We don't know whether it will be Michael or Patrick, the high school heartthrob, or none of the above, and Libby's decision-making process is deeply compelling. The book moves with the speed of a suspense novel propelled by a woman confronting the fears and wishes that surface as she contemplates her fiftieth birthday. It captures perfectly the sort of profound decisions that people face when age and experience push them to the other side of middle age and the end of life is closer than the beginning. The decision Libby faces isn't just one man or the other, it's also about taking chances. Should she take a chance on marriage at age fifty? Should she choose the safety and security of a successful and gracious man, or should she pursue another adventure in a life that is just getting interesting?

What More Could You Wish For is a riveting book, and it is also a sweet and lovely experience. Libby is a textured, complex character who is witty, tough, vulnerable, and soft. We enjoy her humor and candor, we admire her courage, and we want her to be happy. We’d love to meet her for coffee to get updates. Most of all, we learn about ourselves as we follow her through this chapter of her life. We weigh the same dilemmas, fight through the same fog of uncertainty, and we come to realize that life doesn't stop at age fifty or sixty or seventy or eighty, that it starts anew every day.

Samantha Hoffman is a Chicago-based runner, author and blogger who writes with an easy, flowing style that moves as smoothly as the plot itself. What More Could You Wish For is her first novel and like many debut works, its path to publication was tortured and circuitous. Let us be glad that it completed the journey. This is a great read for adults of either gender and any age.

Renee James is an award-winning novelist and magazine writer.


Review: The Green Line

The Green Line by E.C. Diskin (Wells St. Press, June 2013, 315 pages, ISBN 978-0-9888906-0-2)

Pre-publication review 
Review by Renee James
If you like taut, fast-moving plots and riveting characters who evolve in the course of the story, E.C. Diskin's The Green Line will be a wonderful change of pace from the steady stream of formulaic mysteries that tend to dominate the mystery/suspense genre today.
The story opens with Abby Donovan, a stressed, career-obsessed attorney with a large firm in the Chicago Loop, blundering into a west side ghetto late at night where she runs in terror from gangbangers, dodges menacing thugs and dope dealers, and finds a dead body. It is a creepy, nightmarish night in which nothing is what it seems to be and after which, Abby's life will never be the same.
Diskin draws her characters with great deftness, especially the lead character. A Chicago-based attorney herself, Diskin paints Abby's world with remarkable depth, from the inner workings of a large law firm to the inner thoughts of a goal-focused young attorney. As the plot moves along, we learn about Abby's human qualities and identify with her more and more, all of which makes our concern for her intensify.

The Green Line gives us a main character we haven't met before, a nuanced plot, and an insightful and interesting look at the practice of law in today's America.

The unease that begins with the book's opening makes every character and every chapter more intense. We're never sure who the good guys and the bad guys are, or how things will turn out for Abby. As a result, the book is a fast, fascinating read and it gives the reader a number of secondary bonuses along the way to its thrilling conclusion. One is the look inside the Chicago court system, another is an in-depth look at how law-abiding citizens can be (and are) the victims of a well-intentioned law created to fight drug traffickers. Still another is a visual tour of contrasting Chicago metro-area neighborhoods, from the dark depths of late-light Cicero to the gilded finery of the elite north shore suburbs.
I loved reading this book and I recommend it to others with great enthusiasm. It is brilliantly written and edited. It rates at the highest end of the interesting and entertaining scale. It gives us a main character we haven't met before, a nuanced plot, and an insightful and interesting look at the practice of law in today's America.
Coming in June. Win a free advance copy through Goodreads Giveaway!




Review: The Golden Coin

Down at the Golden Coin by Kim Strickland (Eckhartz Press, 2012) 

Review by Serena Wadhwa

Kim Strickland’s Down at the Golden Coin is billed as an inspirational story, the kind of book to which I, as a clinical therapist, am naturally drawn.

The story revolves around former airline pilot Annie Mullard, who feels as if her life is spinning out of control. Forty-something, married with three kids, Annie thinks her life has sunk to a new low when her washing machine breaks down and she finds herself in a run-down Chicago Laundromat, The Golden Coin. It is there that she meets a most unlikely Messiah, a blue-haired woman, half her age, who claims to have all the answers.

Strickland’s second novel, following her 2007 debut Wish Club , sparks with descriptive and eloquent exchanges between these two very different women whose paths have crossed in this most unlikely place. 

Annie telling this Messiah how her life has crashed: “All I want, all I ever wanted, is a little happiness. A little security. I worked so hard to get somewhere in this life and now I’m watching everything, all of it, slip right out from under me and there’s not one thing I can do about it.” I pause, wave my hand around the inside of the Golden Coin again. “This was not supposed to be my life!” 

Isn’t that what we all want – a little happiness?  Most self-help books claim to have all the answers to achieve some sense of happiness. They provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to reach that goal. But this is a rare book in that it provides a glimpse into the process of how we can change our lives. 

The Messiah reminds Annie, “ You haven’t even spent a nickel and you’re already starting to worry you don’t have enough.” 

And this is an eye-opening observation for Annie. “Holy shit, I think. She’s right. I stop my pacing and  stare at her. I just had all this money fall into my lap and I made myself start thinking it’s not enough, when a few minutes ago it was all the money in the world. The amount of money hadn’t changed, only what I’d felt about it had.” 

Strickland beautifully weaves a story that shows the ability we have to change our lives and ultimately find that elusive happiness. 

Strickland beautifully weaves a story that shows the ability we have to change our lives and ultimately find that elusive happiness. She brings together powerful words and concepts of self-responsibility, passion, faith in oneself and universal experiences to demonstrate how we can write our own happy ending.


Review: We Hope You Like This Song

We Hope You Like This Song: An Overly Honest Story About Friendship, Death, and Mix Tapes by Bree Housley (Seal Press, 2012)

Review by Randy Richardson

Bree Housley’s We Hope You Like This Song is the true story of her friendship with Shelly and what she did to bring her friend’s spirit back after she died from complications during pregnancy, at the age of 25. This is a book that could easily have been a real downer. But don’t fret, Housley never lets that happen. She tells the story with humor, charm and brutal honesty, and at the end you feel as if you’ve made a new friend.  Along the way, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be inspired to donate to The Preeclampsia Foundation.  This is a touching story that will make you think about your own friends and loved ones, and why you shouldn’t wait to tell them what they mean to you.  For me, Bree Housley’s We Hope You Like This Song hit all the right notes.

As a side note, I met Bree for the first (and so far only) time when we were both on the bill to do readings as part of a local author night at an indie bookstore in Chicago. It struck me when she read an excerpt from We Hope You Like This Song that our books were destined to find one another, and not just because Bree and Cheeseland (the title of my book) seem like a perfect pairing. While my book is fiction (albeit reality-based) and hers is non-fiction, they both are about friendships and death, and how we cope with loss. In both of our books, music plays an integral role. Bree writes, “Music speaks to us in ways people can’t, takes us back to places we can no longer go, and brings out emotions we can’t control. When you open your ears, you open your soul.” At the bookstore, she handed out mix tapes that go along with her book. Much like Bree’s book, music constantly plays in the background of my book.  The two main characters always seem to be battling for control of the 8-track player. On my blog, I provide a playlist of songs, which I titled Cheese Curds.  I wrote, “When you're a teen-ager, music means more to you than at any other time in your life…The songs that I listened to then have stuck with me for the thirty-plus years that have followed. They take you back to a time and a place when life was so much simpler and so much more complex.” Two books, one serendipitous reading.