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Small Press Bookwatch: March 2016
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575
The Mystery/Suspense Shelf
The Keeper of the Crows
Kyle Alxeander Romines
Sunbury Press
50 West Main Street, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055
www.sunburypress.com
9781620066461, $16.95, PB, 284pp, www.amazon.com
tkotc_fcSynopsis: No evil can remain buried forever, as disgraced journalist Thomas Brooks discovers when a wave of death grips the rural Kentucky town of Gray Hollow in terror. Following a very public humiliation, Thomas is looking for a story to get him back on the map – and free of the small town newspaper where he serves out his exile. The apparent murder of a stranger seems to be just what the opportunistic reporter needs, until he discovers the death is merely the start of something bigger. Also investigating the murder is Sheriff Jezebel Woods, who doesn’t approve of Thomas’ sensationalist intentions. Mounting deaths force the pair to set aside their differences to confront a force that threatens to destroy the entire town.
At the center of the mystery is the disappearance of a boy named Salem Alistair, who designed a series of grotesque scarecrows for his parents’ farm – scarecrows that are turning up at each subsequent crime scene. Thomas begins to doubt his uneasy alliance with the sheriff when he realizes Jezebel has her own secret history with Salem Alistair. Thomas and Jezebel are completely unprepared to face the supernatural force at odds with Gray Hollow. As the killings continue, and the town slowly begins to yield its dark secrets, the truth will pit Thomas and Jezebel on a collision course with true evil.
Critique: A compelling and entertaining read from cover to cover, “The Keeper of the Crows” is a deftly crafted novel that reveals author Kyle Romines as a master of the genre. Very highly recommended for community library Mystery/Suspense collections, it should be noted for the personal reading lists of mystery buffs that “The Keeper of the Crows” is also available in a Kindle edition ($2.99).
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From The Polish Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2016. Copyright 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted with permission.

rh_fcMarie Sontag, Rising Hope Book I: Warsaw Rising Trilogy (Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press, 2015), 220 pp. ISBN 97816220065563.

Polish and Polish American themes in English- language fiction for young readers are rare indeed. A few titles for children were published during the 1980s by Anne Pellowski, and in the early 2000s Karen Cushman came out with her novel Rodzina about a Polish preteen traveling west on an orphan train. Titles for adolescents have been just as rare. Two notable novels for young adults include Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s A Coalminer’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska (2000), a historical narrative set in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, and Maja Wojciechowska’s brilliant fictionalized memoir of World War II, Till the Break of Day (1972). With the publication of Rising Hope, Marie Sontag joins this small group of writers focused on young readers. Sontag, just like Wojciechowska, chooses World War II as the background of her novel, but unlike Wojciechowska, she does so without the advantage of personal experience. Sontag’s interest in Polish history might have been generated by her family background. In the novel’s dedication, she identifies her paternal grandfather’s name as Reikowski.

Rising Hope is the first volume in Sontag’s ambitious plan for a trilogy of historical novels for young adults, novels set in Poland during the most turbulent times of recent Polish history. Her initial volume covers the five years of German occupation beginning with September 1939 and ending with the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and the methodical destruction of the city by the Germans after the fall of the uprising. Sontag plans the second volume to document the years of Soviet domination of Poland between 1944 and 1989, and the final volume will carry her characters to the present time. It is probably fair to say that Marie Sontag, who describes herself as an educator, attempts to accomplish several didactic goals in her fiction. Thus, Rising Hope informs her young readers about the tragic realities of life in Warsaw during the German occupation and extols the bravery of Polish resistance fighters, especially the very young, presenting their deep patriotism and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of Poland. At the same time, Sontag finds effective techniques to introduce her readers to Polish music and literature and the more distant past. So every now and then, her young characters may casually discuss the accomplishments of Frederic Chopin, or they may study for their clandestine lessons devoted to Polish poets such as Słowacki or Krasiński or to great freedom fighters such as Kościuszko and Kiliński. Sontag reinforces such miniature in- text lectures with a glossary, which identifies all historical figures and provides brief biographies and images.

While constructing the novel’s plot, Sontag effectively introduces fictional characters into historical sabotage actions carried out by some of the most famous Home Army fighters: Zośka, Rudy, Moro, and several others. Sontag focuses particularly on the role Polish scouts played in the struggle against the German occupation, both during the Warsaw Uprising and during the months leading to its outbreak. Her novel pays homage to the youngest fighters, who sacrificed their lives for Polish freedom. She movingly describes the death of seven- year- old Henio Dąbrowski, who works as a newspaper boy distributing copies of an illegal Polish newspaper, Informational Bulletin. Tragically, Henio becomes an object of interest to a couple of German policemen patrolling the streets of Warsaw. One of them “pointed his gun at Henio’s back. As if in slow motion, Tadzio [Henio’s older brother and the novel’s protagonist] saw the German pull the trigger. Blam! Only one shot. Henio’s arms flew up. His fine light- brown hair lifted in the breeze as his face contorted in pain. Henio’s legs went out under him. Women across the street screamed. The two policemen laughed, and then walked away” (138).

This tragic episode is one of a whole string of events that contribute to the growth of Tadzio Dąbrowski. In this classic Bildungsroman, Sontag allows her readers to follow Tadzio’s education and maturation process. The war deprives him of all parental support. His father leaves on a mysterious mission, and his mother and a trusted housekeeper are both arrested by the Germans and, after months of interrogations in the infamous Pawiak prison, are sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. At thirteen, when the novel begins, Tadzio finds support from the leaders of his scout troop but refuses to engage in the scout actions against the occupiers. The readers witness his growth into a young patriot and a Home Army soldier.

To help her readers become familiar with both fictional and historical characters, Sontag lists them all in the glossary. This is an excellent idea, since some of the difficult Polish names may become confusing to English- speaking readers. However, one decision that the author makes in this regard is questionable. Her useful glossary offers her readers, in addition to brief biographies, photographic images of all characters: both historical figures and the fictional characters. So a question arises regarding whose pictures are used to illustrate fictional characters. If these period photographs depict some nameless victims of German terror, fictionalizing their lives and making up their names is disturbing. It victimizes them yet again. In future printings of Rising Hope, the author should consider deleting the photographs used for fictional characters and also replacing the map of Ukraine printed twice at the beginning and the end of the book with a historical map of Poland that reflects its pre- 1939 borders. A historical map of Poland would be very helpful for Sontag’s young readers.

Writing historical novels is not easy. The difficulty lies not in securing information about historical events, which are usually well documented, but in getting the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life right. Except for a couple of errors, such as having Polish peasants drive pickup trucks during the German occupation or not realizing that a couple of German Jewish boys who spoke only German and Yiddish would have linguistic difficulty in communicating with Polish children, Sontag is very successful in creating a picture of Warsaw during World War II. Rising Hope teaches its readers about living conditions in occupied Warsaw and presents the whole spectrum of societal attitudes toward the occupiers. The novel is populated not only by courageous freedom fighters but also by ruthless collaborators and informers who are willing to sell their compatriots to the enemy, knowing full well that they are sending others to their deaths just to gain financial advantages. The novel’s list of minor characters includes also Poles willing to risk their lives to save Jews, Jews who serve as soldiers in the Polish Home Army battalions, sadistic German soldiers, and some good Germans whose help saves Polish lives. Marie Sontag’s novel is an important addition to young adult literature in English.

Grazyna J. Kozaczka

Cazenovia College

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by Lawrence Knorr

CAMP HILL, PA — As the film ended, after nearly 2 1/2 hours, the credits ran and no one stood.  No one spoke.  No one reached for their phone.  As the last credit rolled, all quietly stood — a room of over 300 movie patrons who were total strangers to one another.  Quietly and politely, as if at a solemn funeral, each exited their rowMV5BMTkxNzI3ODI4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjkwMjY4MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_ and walked to the door.  Some spoke only in hushed tones as we emptied out.  To say “American Sniper” had an impact on the audience would be an understatement.  It was the most powerful reaction to a film I have ever witnessed.

Why this reaction?  Since there were no exchanges with the patrons, I can only imagine they were thinking similarly to me.  Eastwood’s movie had struck an inner chord of human nature — a deep sense of loss coupled with the sincere respect for Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal played by Bradley Cooper.  But, that’s not the only thing.  In fact, the overriding realization is the cost of war — whether it is the mental anguish a soldier faces, or the horrors the populace in a war zone encounters, or the early deaths of so many on both sides, or the toll on the families back home — during and after the conflict.

This was not a film that glorified war — or the SEALs — or our country’s invasion of  Iraq.  It was not NRA propaganda or a recruiting tool for sniper training.  Those that are trying to make more out of it than an honest appraisal of the human price paid in such conflicts are completely off base.

If nothing else, regardless of our beliefs and all of the disagreements we have among us as Americans, we must rally behind our veterans — especially those that served in battle zones, and especially those that carry the scars, whether physical or mental.  These men and women served our country.  Whether or not you are proud of the results or agreed with the circumstances, I urge you to please support them.

If you haven’t seen the film and are unsure about how you feel about our veterans, the $9.50 per ticket to see “American Sniper” is worth every penny.

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From Literary Classics:

clc sealLiterary Classics is pleased to announce that the book, The Undecided by Robin Donaruma, has been selected to receive the Literary Classics Seal of Approval. The CLC Seal of Approval is a designation reserved for those books which uphold the rigorous criteria set forth by the Literary Classics review committee, a team comprised of individuals with backgrounds in publishing, editing, writing, illustration and graphic design. 

In the battle between good and evil Lucas Aarons is on the front-line. Only he doesn’t know it . . . that is until his 18th birthday. Lucas, a high-school senior, has moved more times than he cares to remember. Each move is preceded by a series of foreboding dreams. But when his 18th birthday approaches, his parents finally fill him in on the inconceivable truth behind the dreams and their connection to his role in projecting light into a darkening world. — It would appear that Lucas is predetermined to be the leader of a White Army whose mission it is to save the undecided. The undecided are neither good nor evil; they are the grays, those who have yet to choose between light and darkness.

The Undecided is an exceptionally inventive work of young adult fantasy fiction. Author Robin Donaruma has created a cast of characters that run the gamut from endearing and genuinely likable to downright chilling. Her use of symbolism and spiritual parallels help forge a depth to this novel which makes it all the more praiseworthy. This book is highly recommended.

Literary Classics, an organization dedicated to furthering excellence in literature, takes great pride in its role to help promote classic literature which appeals to youth, while encouraging positive values in the impressionable minds of future generations. To learn more about Literary Classics, you may visit their website at http://www.clcawards.org or http://www.childrensliteraryclassics.com

clcawardThe book was subsequently given a 2014 award as the best in the Special Interest category Inspirational/Visionary.

About The Undecided:

“There was a lot that I still wasn’t sure of, but there were three things that I would bet my life on. One, the darkness had finally found me. Two, the war between the dark and the light had begun, and three, the leader of the Dark Army just moved in next door.”

On his 18th birthday, high school senior, Lucas Aarons, is told that he is the leader of the White Army. He thinks it’s a joke until the powers of evil begin to haunt his dreams, forcing him to wake up and fight for those he loves and all that he knows is right. The white birthmark that encircles his wrist begins to glow. It’s getting more and more difficult to fly under the social radar. School becomes a gauntlet of black, white and the coasting “greys” who have yet to choose. Music moves from a passionate hobby to a calling and a mission. A class is no longer just a class. A date is no longer just a date, and the stakes are raised to a whole new level.

tu_fcThe Undecided

Authored by Robin Donaruma

List Price: $16.95
5.5″ x 8.5″ (13.97 x 21.59 cm)
Black & White on White paper
284 pages
Sunbury Press, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1620063965
ISBN-10: 1620063964
BISAC: Fiction / Visionary & Metaphysical
For more information, please see: http://www.sunburypressstore.com/The-Undecided-9781620063965.htm
For a complete list of winners: http://www.clcawards.org/2014AwardRecipients.html

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by Barbara Matthews

gh_fcThe doorbell rang…” and in through that doorway Sharon Marchisello issues forth one bombshell after another in her contemporary murder mystery, Going Home.

Michelle DePalma arrives at her mother’s home to find that the door is uncharacteristically wide open. Upon entering, she finds a young woman dead on the floor with her mother hovering nearby—seemingly unaware of what has taken place in the foyer of her home.

As Marchisello weaves her intricate tale, the doorway introduces:

  • Unknown family: “I’m Isabella Rogers, and this is my daughter, Giovanna. I’m your daughter-in-law.”
  • A policeman: “Michelle, I’m afraid the evidence is pointing to your mother.”
  • A man with a raised baseball bat: “Where’s that crazy old broad that killed my Brittany?”
  • A potential suspect who appears in: “The same vehicle I had passed on my way up the street the day I arrived, the day Brittany had died!”

Going Home draws attention to specific issues of Alzheimer’s disease as well as caregiving problems in general:

  • wandering;
  • long-distance caregiving;
  • finding reliable caregiving agencies and personnel;
  • financial exploitation;
  • sibling relationships / shared responsibility; and
  • the difficulties of facing death and dying

wtdam_fcAlthough Going Home addresses important caregiving issues, it does so in a manner that will intrigue a wide-variety of readers. I recommend it highly.

Barbara Matthews is the co-author of What to Do About Mama?: A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members

Going Home

 Authored by Sharon Marchisello
List Price: $16.95
5.5″ x 8.5″ (13.97 x 21.59 cm)
Black & White on White paper
284 pages
Sunbury Press, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1620064382
ISBN-10: 1620064383
BISAC: Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General
For more information, please see: http://www.sunburypressstore.com/Going-Home-9781620064382.htm

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by S. H. Marchisello

wtdam_fcI wish a book like What to Do about Mama? had been available in 2000 when my mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, or even a decade later, when we faced the same issues with my mother-in-law. Because America’s population is aging and more and more baby boomers—“the sandwich generation”—are being thrust into caregiving roles, this book is very timely and reassures you that you are not alone. Seeking help is not a weakness; it may be necessary to retain your sanity.

In What to Do about Mama? we hear about the very different experiences of the co-authors, as well as testimonials from numerous other caregivers:

  • Barbara Matthews cared for her mother-in-law in her home for four years. She felt like the warm relationship she’d had with her in-laws deteriorated during the process, due to criticism, second-guessing, and an unwillingness to share the burden to the level expected.
  • Barbara Trainin Blank cared for her mother at a distance for about two years. Because her mother had Alzheimer’s, she had to hire full-time aides and manage the caregiving from afar.
  • The majority of the testimonials from interviewees dealt with the care of a parent, although some of the people provided care for spouses, children, and other relatives.
  • The testimonials covered experiences with home care, long distance care, nursing home and hospice care, as well as assisted living arrangements.

Some of the people had good experiences; for others, caregiving became a nightmare. Some had siblings and other relatives who were supportive; others bore the burden alone. Some families grew closer; others were driven apart. For some, the care period was only for a few months, for others, the arrangement lasted years. But the almost universal consensus was that caregiving is hard and unpredictable. Even those who had previous experience in the medical field and elder care were hit with surprises.

What to Do about Mama? is divided into 10 chapters that discuss different aspects of caregiving. Snippets of the stories, which appear elsewhere in the book in their entirety, are interspersed where appropriate to drive home a point. Each story illustrates an important caregiving theme.

gh_fcIn my mystery novel, Going Home, I only show a small slice of the caregiving experience as the drama unfolds. What to Do about Mama? hits you with the hard reality.

Highly recommended for anyone who might someday assume a caregiving role. Read it before you need it, and then keep it around for reference!

Sharon Marchisello is the author of Going Home, a murder mystery about an elderly woman who allegedly kills her caretaker.

What to Do about Mama?: A Guide to Caring for Aging Family Members

 Authored by Barbara G. Matthews, Authored by Barbara Trainin Blank
List Price: $19.95
6″ x 9″ (15.24 x 22.86 cm)
Black & White on White paper
230 pages
Sunbury Press, Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1620063156
ISBN-10: 1620063158
BISAC: Family & Relationships / Eldercare
For more information, please see: http://www.sunburypressstore.com/What-to-Do-about-Mama-9781620063156.htm

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The Pursuit of Justice in a Violent Age

August 25, 2014 by Gregg Zimmerman

sote_pubImperial Rome, starting with the first emperor Augustus, spanned about 500 years, and was ruled by approximately 65 emperors (depending how you count usurpers, upstarts, and self-proclaimed tyrants). So the average tenure of a Roman emperor was a little less than 8 years, and few of them died of natural causes. The Sign of the Eagle is set in the early reign of Vespasian, who took the throne during the chaotic year of four emperors (69 A.D.). This was an era of barbarian invasions, sinister political plots, and military unrest when any given general stationed in the provinces could declare himself emperor and advance with his army upon Rome on any particular day. This is the backdrop of The Sign of the Eagle, a fast-paced and extremely enjoyable historical novel. Protagonist Macha, the daughter of a Celtic king, is married to Roman tribune Titus. She is told by an envoy that her husband has been arrested for treason, and is part of a conspiracy to overthrow Vespasian. Macha does not take this news sitting down, plunging into a suspenseful mission to discover the truth and exonerate her husband. The bodies of people who know too much are falling all around her, but this does not deter the dedicated and courageous Macha from her single minded pursuit ,that will free her husband and save the emperor. I am particularly impressed by the verisimilitude that the author achieves. It is clear that he has done his research and is very familiar not only with historical facts and places, but with the beliefs, habits and everyday life of citizens of every strata of Roman society. This was a very enjoyable and informative novel, and I look forward to upcoming works of historical fiction by Jess Steven Hughes.

An historical novel of betrayal and suspense in ancient Rome that will leave you breathless

August 31, 2014 by “lokhos”

Spend some time in Ancient Rome, solving mystery upon mystery as a British Celtic woman raised a Roman tries to clear the name of Titus, the Roman tribune who is her husband. Got that? The Sign of the Eagle is a crime thriller, a police procedural, and a correct historical with all the vocabulary and scholarship necessary, rolled into one delicious package. Threats and plots reach all the way up from the garden villa of our heroine, Macha, to the court of the Roman Emperor Vespasian.

Macha’s husband Titus is a professional cavalry soldier. When Titus is accused of treason, Macha’s adventure goes into high gear, with everything she loves at stake.

Rather than ruin the story for you, I’ll not dwell on the plot beyond saying it has turns and twists enough for any modern reader. This book also has the feel of its period: every detail is correct, from swords and cavalry tack to combs and pins for our Celtic heroine’s red hair.
Don’t mistake me: this novel is neither bodice ripper nor dissertation, but a full blown novel of ancient Rome that at times reminded me of Ecco’s “Name of the Rose.” Want to let that sink in? Yes, this is a real historical novel, not a romance in ancient clothing nor a gamer’s how-to book. Good novels are rare, good historical novels even rarer.

Buy this book and read it. Buy a couple to give your more literate friends for Christmas. I bought the trade paper and its production values are excellent; the print is easy to read, the prose crisp and as sharp and clear as you’d expect from an author such as Jess Hughes, who has been a police detective and Marine Corps veteran. Hughes knows war and intrigue and human failings firsthand. What Hughes has learned in life informs this novel with his expertise in treachery, in war, and in crime, lending this story great substance without ever being wordy or awkward. Men will be as diverted as women by this novel, part action-adventure, part suspenseful thriller, and part a ticket to another place and time.

The Sign of the Eagle is satisfyingly complete in itself, yet also forms the first half of Hughes’ duology set in the 1st century AD. The next book by Jess Steven Hughes, one hopes, is coming soon.

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