1871: Rivers on Fire

by Paul Buchheit

book review by Carolyn Davis

“He was more than likely assisting homeless people up north, as I was doing here. But he would certainly get word to me. Somehow.”

The main crises presented in this multi-dimensional work are the Great Chicago Fire and the significantly more destructive burn, the Peshtigo fire. The story, which is given credence as a historical novel not only for its dramatic and factual rendering of past events but also the inclusion of actual people such as a mentor, “Dr. Bain,” centers on a couple named Liz and Robert.

Well in advance of many women of her own or any modern time in Western culture, Liz, like her partner, is studying neuroscience. The couple’s journey begins in England, and science, fate, or perhaps love takes them to Chicago for further study and other revelations. Throughout their changes and personal discoveries, the couple sustains a belief in themselves that propels them to success. However, their greatest challenges await them when Liz is facing the fire in Chicago and does not know the fate of Robert, who is in Peshtigo.

The author manifests his ability to skillfully weave many aspects of life and perspective into the book. There are keen observations about class and ethnic prejudices and exclusions. One example is the scarcity of food the Irish passengers have access to during the trans-Atlantic crossing. General socioeconomic and environmental conditions are part of the saga as well. Love, hope, work, and the forces of nature are entwined throughout, as is the ability to experience destruction at the most visceral level. Ultimately, societies recover from catastrophes, learn and change somewhat, and, ultimately, adapt in order to survive. The author deftly shows that thought, love, and care are a part of that adaptation.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

And Throw Away the Skins

by Scott Archer Jones
Fomite

book review by Joe Kilgore

“All things on earth, both good and bad, last only a little while.”

Good books have advantages over good friends. Like friends, they can provide diversion, comfort, and the sharing of a plethora of emotions; but unlike friends, you don’t need to take their feelings, needs, or desires into account. You can gobble them up in massive chunks or simply nibble at them now and then, returning only when you decide to do so. Good books never feel slighted, nor do they ever take offense. Yes, good books have their advantages, and Scott Archer Jones writes good books. This is one of them.

Character-driven, though certainly not lacking in plot construction and story appeal, this novel maps the terrain of the human heart both intimately and intricately as it explores a woman’s struggles with her past, present, and future. Bec, short for Rebecca, is forty-two. Her life seems to be unraveling around her. Her and her husband’s finances are virtually nil. She knows it because she’s responsible for overseeing what little is left. He’s unaware of their predicament because he’s serving as a chaplain overseas. She sells everything that’s left to sell and relocates from Dallas to New Mexico. There she takes up residence in a ramshackle cabin that’s been in her family for years. It is in this tiny house where she will come to terms with the enormous winds buffeting her life—gales that threaten not only her marriage but her core, her very essence, as well.

In Bec, Jones has created an exceptionally realistic character conflicted by the human foibles that plague us all. She is strong and self-reliant, a study apparently in rugged individualism. Yet in one way or another, it seems she is continually seeking companionship. A proud survivor of cancer, she is a disillusioned victim of her husband’s inability to deal with how the dreaded disease has treated her. Unfailingly practical in what it takes for her to eke out her existence, she frequently makes decisions that threaten her ability to do so. As Bec’s trials play out in the present, there are also recurrent flashbacks to her childhood and upbringing. We learn of her unremittingly overbearing father who continually relied on intimidation and corporal punishment in the rearing of his daughter. We’re also made aware of the love and affection of her mother, plus a secret, shared but unresolved, due to death’s untimely arrival.

The supporting characters throughout Bec’s story ring with authenticity. From the ex-teacher who’s become the town lush to the hash slinger with a heart of gold to a gaggle of wacky women and a squad of broken soldiers, the author depicts them all as real folk with their own crosses to bear and, therefore, worthy of compassion. Jones is a writer whose words often make emotions explode in silence, such as when he describes a marriage slowly crumbling. He writes, “They lay apart, a full twelve inches of separation. The space between them cut a thousand yards deep, a ditch of human suffering.” His insights also bite with the sting of truth, as when he’s describing Bec and her husband (in uniform) strolling through a crowded airport. “From the curb, through the door and to the counter, William received nods, friendly expressions, small waves. Everyone could be thankful for his service, as long as they didn’t have to serve. Or send their children.”

Jones is an author working at the top of his game. You appreciate getting to know the people he creates. You love the sound of his voice on the page. Perhaps best of all, when you reach the end of his novel, you know that your time has been profoundly well spent.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

My Book of Revelations: Stories that burst the bubble of believability

by Gerry Burke
iUniverse

book review by Kate Robinson

“Who represents the typical American psyche more than Homer Simpson?”

Fans of the twisted and quirky will embrace this compendium of tales that range from fan fiction to fractured fairy tales to alternate history, then emerge at the end with undampened enthusiasm for the brilliance that almost masquerades at times as kitsch. With an impressive collection of published novels, short stories, and essays to his credit, Australian humorist Burke has practiced his craft thoroughly before penning this award-winning volume. In addition to the fantasies, magical realism, and the downright weird noir, Burke also presents numerous parodies of popular literary and film characters as well as real-life celebrities. Even the story subtitles, much like the intertitles of silent movies, will leave readers in stitches.

This adult storybook (billed for children under thirty) is organized in four sections covering history, heroes, horror, and Hollywood. From the American West’s excesses to the svelte glamour of James Bond, Burke deals with just about every North American and British commonwealth cultural icon imaginable, musing upon themes of bloodshed, chaos, criminal escapade, and human frailty. Even the Bible isn’t immune to the author’s rib-tickling predations. But the fun doesn’t stop there. The author has also created many of his own indubitably memorable characters, some new and some introduced in previous work.

The prose is rapid-fire, and unlike some humorists and comics, Burke has an extensive, high-quality vocabulary that he’s obviously not afraid to use. He shares the knack for nuance and timing that stand-up comedians employ and a dizzying way of plowing on through laugh after laugh. If a reader doesn’t like how a newsworthy or literary event happened, then it’s quite likely that Burke has penned a funnier and far more interesting alternative in this collection.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Harnessing the Power of Grief

by Julie Potter, MSW, LCSW
MSI Press
book review by Barbara Bamberger Scott

“Exploring the many ways grief may manifest helps you to accept what you are experiencing as normal and to accept the experience of others.”

With her background in coordinating hospital-based bereavement programs, author Potter presents a depth of information for anyone in the midst of grief, anticipating grieving circumstances, or looking back on the intensity of loss and reacting to that memory. She examines the way different cultures, past and present, accept and incorporate grief. She presents four “tasks” for the grieving person to follow: accepting the reality of loss, experiencing the pain, adjusting to the world without a loved one, and embarking on a new life that will include rituals and reminders of the departed. Variables include whether the death is sudden or expected, whether the grief begins with a gradual loss (as in the case of a partner with Alzheimer’s), how the death changes our routines of life, and factors impacted by our particular psychological make-up. Potter also provides suggestions for friends of the bereaved and reminds readers that though a grieving person often feels isolated, “we are all in this together alone.”

Potter’s wide-ranging manual of grieving and growth stems from her professional knowledge and includes many personal vignettes from that realm of observation. She recognizes that though each of us must grieve in our own way, there is a commonality of the process that can allow for considered activities. She includes helpful tables that readers can utilize, such as columns comparing/contrasting “Fears I am experiencing” and “Angers I am experiencing.” With wisdom that ranges from humorist Art Buchwald and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh to author C. S. Lewis and psychologist William Worden, she portrays the reality of grief that encompasses many scenarios and personalities. With fresh, highly informative material on every page, Potter offers intelligent, sensitive guidelines meriting thoughtful study, along with pragmatic, readily accessible approaches from which anyone can benefit at any stage of the grief experience.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Mom’s Gone Missing: When a Parent’s Changing Life Upends Yours

by Susan A. Marshall
HenschelHAUS Publishing
book review by Michelle Jacobs

“Working with someone whose mental capabilities are compromised is a constant exercise in patience and acceptance.”

When Susan Marshall gets the phone call from her brother telling her that her mother is missing, she is shocked to find that her mother is descending into dementia just months after her father has succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Marshall finds herself wholly unprepared to face the myriad of decisions that arise as she navigates the health, financial, and legal issues that come with caring for her mother. In addition, she must untangle the frustrations and expectations of her siblings when they lose both parents within ten months of each other. Exploring aging, dying, and caregiving issues, Marshall shares her singular experience as a daughter coming to terms with the past and all its choices, forking paths, and a future without her parents. Her account movingly connects to universal truths and familiar tribulations that offer readers comfort and support. Marshall views her writing and reflection as “a hand extended,” which is a fitting gesture that matches the words and revelatory stories in this memoir. This honest story of caring for her mother is truly an offering to those seeking another’s experience of preparing for and watching a parent slowly diminish from dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Marshall’s vital memoir doesn’t shrink from the complexities that come with aging parents. She examines past resentments from childhood and beyond, acknowledges lingering hurts, and questions the limits of sacrificing parts of her life to caregiving. This brave and honest account will truly make others feel less alone on their journey toward understanding the pain and confusion that comes with aging parents. This strange stage of life when the children must begin making decisions for their parents is deeply unsettling and fraught with stress. Marshall’s wisdom comes from hard-fought experiences living through it but, more importantly, feeling through it and reporting from the other side with truth. She is often overwhelmed by emotion and uncertainty. Still, she finds a way forward in hope, allowing her parents to continue to teach her valuable lessons as they go first into the great mysteries of life. They seem to light the way for her, and she, in turn, lights the way for anyone lost in the despair of watching a loved one disappear slowly. For many, this endeavor with aging parents comes with feelings of isolation. However, Marshall desires to encourage and lead the way by inspiring dignity and fairness as children guide their parents at the end of life.

Many books from doctors, therapists, and other experts offer advice and plans for families caring for parents with dementia or Alzheimer’s. These how-to books can help families manage the logistics and treatment options, but they are often clinical and distant as they dispense with the stark details, the cold reality. Marshall’s memoir fills in all the gaps, the empty spaces in the how-to books that can only be occupied by someone living in the reversal of all the roles bestowed by nature and the normal order of things. Marshall captures the staggering burden of decision-making, the bone-weary ache of sadness, and the unexpected fester of resentment. The result is “information and encouragement to anyone who is now or will one day be confronting the declining health and ultimate passing of a parent or beloved family member.”

A 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Your Father has Something to Tell You

by Dave Riese
Flying Heron Publishing

book review by Mari Carlson

“Only now do I find the empty space inside me where he had always lived.”

Mark returns to Massachusetts from Chicago-land on short notice and during a stressful work period to visit sick parents. He and his sister worry they’ve started drinking again, a habit they promised their kids years ago that they had quit for good. After the visit, when Mark is passed over for a promotion, he finds new work around Boston. As his parents deteriorate over the next few years, Mark laments the dwindling time he has with them and revisits haunting childhood memories.

The opening scene sets the novel’s stressful tone. Boston bustle, hectic schedules, and chaotic healthcare atmospheres create a harried background in which subsequent chapters delve into moments showing the aging process. Watching his mom experience a series of falls, Mark returns to moments of insecurity from childhood in which he kept secrets. He tells stories about regrets stealing and cheating as a kid. He recalls his embarrassment of trying to buy cigarettes for his mom. His dad’s harsh treatment of him causes him to doubt his love. The frequent back and forth between time periods illustrates the fraught connections between past and present.

Alongside the string of heavy memories, dedicated familial bonds are forged through candid dialogue. Some conversations about race between relatives show cultural shifts. Dramatic confessions by Mark’s dad and the unveiling of his mom’s family scandal fill out Mark’s impressions of his parents and resolve some mysteries in his life. Details describing care facilities, hospitals, and homes keep the story realistic and down to earth. The articulation of feelings is sincere and balanced. Depictions of growing up in the 1960s evoke the color and emotion of the time. These and present-day scenes come together in an even-paced (if anticlimactic) plot. Easy-to-relate-to characters elucidate universal conundrums for a compassionate and cathartic read.

Viral War: A Fairytale of Perfect Women

by Josephine deBois
AuthorHouse
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“And now, perfect women; yes, but we always managed to make women perfect.”

In New York City, Samuel, an ordinary traffic cop, manages to thwart an attempted kidnapping. This sets him on an investigation like no other. He befriends Sohee Suh, the acclaimed Korean singer who was almost kidnapped. Sohee’s DNA carries a secret that Samuel works to uncover, exposing a complex plot involving sex trafficking, government coverups, and biological warfare.

Taking place in the aftermath of a war that has left women dangerous and vulnerable, this sci-fi crime thriller explores what happens when one country’s leader proposes an idea that would keep the peace in his country but involve unethical procedures. The author’s tale examines a handful of issues that are at the forefront of humanity’s relationship with technology, as well as with itself. Kun Yun-Junk, the leader of Korea and antagonist in this book, aims to manipulate the will of the people so that “everybody will do as we want them to do.” Yun-Junk’s vision stems from the desire to make women, specifically women who have been sex trafficked, more complacent and more willing to please. It then evolves into an idea of controlling people and creating perfect citizens to be “the foundation of the future of humanity.” On top of that, Kun Yun-Junk’s vision has a built-in fail-safe of a biological weapon in the form of a virus that can be activated in designated people.

The idea of building a perfect person (or the ideal woman) is common in science fiction but usually relates to building a humanoid robot. The author takes that concept a step further by having the “perfect women” be human, manufactured since birth. It’s an ethical issue that throws up a lot of red flags and is made even more sinister by the fact that there’s a whole governmental organization funding and hoping to profit from this project.

Written in script format like TV episodes, the story starts with Jo Chin-Sun, a young woman in a brothel who plays the kayagum. Chin-Sun is the catalyst for the perfect woman experiment by the Korean government, as it is her escape from trafficking and the discovery of her post-mortem that leads to Kun Yun-Junk’s idea. This setup of the story comprises about one-fifth of the book and is a bit slow in that it takes a while to see where the story is going. But once this is established, the book transforms into an interesting, unconventional crime procedural.

The most compelling character is Sohee, who is aware of the strange occurrences happening in her home country, but who is also fighting to establish herself as more than just a singer. Sohee doesn’t want to be famous. She wants to use her singing ability for a greater cause. While similar to the antagonist’s vision, the outcome of Sohee’s actions is far different and more positive.

Additionally, the author does a great job of keeping music central to the story, in everything from the presence of the kayagum instrument to Sohee’s performances. There are many instances in the novel where characters say that the kayagum, when its strings are plucked, tells a story. As that instrument and its melody are passed around, the story is spread throughout the world. The author manages to make the music a counterpoint against the evil happening in the narrative, acting as a healing balm and thus adding to the fairytale.

In the Aftermath: 9/11 Through a Volunteer’s Eyes

by Beth SK Morris
Poetica Publishing
book review by Nicole Yurcaba

“Subway destroyed, they fled east
on foot, heads covered with ash,
some wearing masks, some still
bleeding from the debris”

This cathartic, eye-opening account of the tragedy that 9/11 bestowed upon the United States transports readers to Ground Zero, where ash and debris fall, where loved ones disappear, and where for years to come, the day’s physical, emotional, and psychological scarrings refuse to disappear, let alone fade. In this haunting collection, the poem “By the Numbers, 6000” reduces humanity to “body parts recovered, sorted / into segments small enough / to fit in a test tube.” Readers find themselves face-to-face with a wife who “buries her face in her workbook, lowers her eyes” as she confesses the potential loss of her husband and the consequences his disappearance bestows upon her and her daughter’s future in the poem “The Lesson.” Meanwhile, toxic xenophobia permeates American society and shocks readers to their cores as they experience it for themselves in the poem “The Physics of Ripples.”

This collection’s power lies in its exploration of the often unmentioned—the lives and experiences of countless volunteers who risked life and limb to transform Ground Zero from a place of debris and rubble to one of pristine streets and reconstruction. As recollections and memories combine, their release onto the page and full disclosure to readers who may or may not remember that infamous day act as a great reckoning. The author’s experimentations with form and spacing create the sensations of reliving and then releasing the experiences depicted in the book, actively engaging the readers in the narrator’s catharsis. In “At the Doctor’s Office” and poems like it, readers learn of the health crises volunteers and emergency workers face. Nostalgic and poignant, honorary and honest, with a voice raw and uniquely its own, this collection captures the immediate and distant aftermath of a tragedy still prominent in American minds.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Devil’s Bookkeepers: Book 3: The Noose Closes

by Mark H Newhouse
NCG Key
book review by Mihir Shah

“‘There is an emptiness inside all of us. Even you, my most logical friend, must someday find something that fills that void inside you.'”

In this final volume of Newhouse’s trilogy on the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, the Jewish community’s harrowing existence continues to be tested at astronomical levels, systematically breaking down their humanity until emptiness remains. That said, the author’s attempt to honor his upbringing and parents that were one of fewer than 5,000 survivors at Lodz by shedding light on the atrocities and persecution there is wildly successful. The phrase, “the truth shall set you free,” is tailor-made for this work of historical fiction that is authentic and fearless in simply writing what is.

As the Nazi noose closes, the Lodz Ghetto residents are reduced to living in three primary states of being: hunger, mourning, and working. Focusing on the main character from the previous books, Benny Ostrowski, Newhouse wastes no time delving into the gaping void left by the deportation of Ostrowski’s infant daughter, Regina, and wife, Miriam. Those that were spared deportation were in equally dire straits. While this third book is just as character-driven as the previous two, the heightened focus on existential themes is captured seamlessly by the empty work chairs of vanished coworkers Dr. Oskar Rosenfeld and Julian Cukier as Ostrowski grabs onto Rosenfeld’s pipe bowl he lifted from Oskar’s apartment.

Now with Jozef as his roommate, Benny’s denial toward the entire situation—the loss of his wife, child, friends—is on full display in this one moment. Almost mechanically, he and everyone remaining thrust themselves into their work because that is all that remains between them and insanity. Making matters worse, the Nazis are hell-bent on stripping away any semblance of the Jewish identity, even canceling Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The irony, of course, is not lost on readers that Yom Kippur commemorates sincere repentance and forgiveness, though there is zero intent to redeem and repent from the Nazi side.

Whether it is the outright burning down of hospitals or the gradual deportation of everyone but the most able-bodied workers, the industrial value of Lodz is a double-edged sword, leaving residents “in an envelope made of barbed wire, trigger happy, Nazi sentries.” Many questions can be posed, but the one central to this text would be how one can find purpose amid such darkness. Ostrowski’s commitment to his wife and child is admirable, and it is his reason for survival. If Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl still graced the earth, there is little doubt that Newhouse’s work would resonate with them as it embodies their same fierce spirit of survival and purpose with an uncompromising eye toward the unfolding of events. In the same vein, the introduction of Pola, the only woman in Benny’s office, leads the author to explore the need for companionship. For the longest time, Benny sees Miriam’s face in every woman. But is it betrayal to crave intimacy when one is in the eye of a seemingly never-ending storm, and uncertainty is all-encompassing?

Sometimes, hope alone is a weapon strong enough to withstand darkness. However, throughout the novel, there are unshakable graphics that will leave audiences understanding the full scope of the evil and despair in Lodz. Specifically, the desensitization to death is downright shocking. For example, twenty gallows from a public execution remain for all to see as a sign from the Nazis. Conversely, the relief that sweeps over Benny upon learning that millions of toys made from paper and trash have been delivered is heartbreaking as he holds onto the faintest hope that his baby girl might still be alive.

Nevertheless, the one moment from the many the author portrays that is especially spine-chilling and will forever be etched into memories is a truck full of residents being deported out of Lodz—likely on their way to their deaths—singing the Hatikvah in jubilation and hope. Whether Mordechai Chaim (M.C.) Rumkowski, Chairman of the Judenrat and anointed Eldest of the Jews, is the devil or the shield prolonging the inevitable fate of the Jewish residents of Lodz is up for debate, but what is undeniable is Newhouse’s ability to take one of the darkest moments of suffering in human history and portray it with a grace and clarity that returns the dignity of these myriad souls sacrificed by the doings of man.

Winner of the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Historical Fiction Categoryda Vinci Eye Finalist, and Montaigne Medal Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Credit the Crocodile: A Tale of Political Intrigue and International Adventure Involving Wildlife

by Godfrey Harris
The Americas Group
book review by Mihir Shah

“I want them to know what it’s like to live constantly on guard for enemies, constantly on the lookout for your next meal.”

Paul Martin and Tyler Williams are determined to give purpose to their gap year. At just eighteen years of age, the newly minted high school graduates immediately gravitate to Animal Welfare Enterprises’ mission. What ensues is a trip to the South African countryside town of Happy Hollow with the intent of awakening the community to animal mistreatment on the Stewart farm and “to free the crocodiles” from any barriers that keep them from their natural habitat. It doesn’t take long for this seemingly innocent freedom of expression by the boys to snowball into endless sequences of chaos and repercussions by a community and authorities determined to make an example of the duo.

Harris shifts the point of view routinely from the boys and their encounter with the people of Happy Hollow to Credit the Crocodile’s journey and observations on the entire fiasco. To add further intrigue, Credit is incredibly observant and thinks critically about everything that happens around him, even if it is just musing on how parrots communicate on where to set their nests for mating season. The author effectively uses Credit’s character in the novel to shed light upon the atrocities against other wildlife, primarily the ruthless slaughter of elephants in Kenya for their ivory and rhinos being killed in South Africa for their horns. There are numerous examples, but the more one thinks, the more one is forced to wonder whether humans aren’t truly the “mindless beasts” in this entire cycle of predator and prey.

With the debate raging and teetering on outrage, Mrs. Nabala simply, yet vehemently, insists that wild animals cannot be respected if restrained within enclosures like zoos, as is largely the case in the United States. Ironically, the boys are so engrossed in their own perspective and words that they fail to see the resentment building up with every speech they make. While the mayhem only builds up for Paul and Tyler, the author provides a refreshing backstory of how Credit’s desire to learn the meaning of individual sounds through rhythm and tone from the Stewart’s son, Stephen, helped him evolve into an Obi Wan-esque character, the seemingly omniscient wiseman of the entire reptilian clan. When their paths inevitably intersect, Paul and Tyler are direct recipients of Credit’s generosity and knowledge of the English language. Their lives unquestionably depend on their understanding and trust in him.

When Andy Mitchell, police chief of Happy Hollow, becomes privy to this gathering, he, along with Tom, the owner of Stewart Farm, immediately sets out to make an example of the boys. In unraveling the gravity of Paul and Tyler’s predicament, the author seamlessly integrates several critical ideas that should not be overlooked. Chiefly, his characters are emphatically against the idea of outsiders coming to fix what isn’t broken in the name of humanitarianism that dates back to colonial rule. Whereas Andy and Tom are steadfast in bringing the boys down, Stephen and Credit want to help the boys out of their predicament while simultaneously ingraining in their minds that preconceived notions prevent them from seeing just how beneficial the farm is to the crocodiles’ existence and, on a grander scale, the existence and employment of a large portion of the Happy Hollow community.

The plot reaches a breakneck pace when Paul and Tyler are sentenced to two weeks of living in the bush. With the help of other crocodiles like Cynthia and Cecil, Credit is determined to make a breakthrough with the boys, both in helping them survive the two weeks from all the wild animals as well as showing them the difficulty life would present to the crocodiles if they were forced to live that “on-edge-all-the-time” lifestyle in their version of the wild. In particular, the comparison between the bush of Happy Hollow and the San Diego Wild Animal Park paints a stark contrast between the two and helps Credit make his point with far greater intensity.

As the boys’ interact with Credit, their journey to a greater understanding of freedom and captivity begins. Though the political angle is referenced consistently throughout the novel, Harris uses Credit to send a far greater message to the boys, the animal welfare organization, and society as a whole: understand what a nation’s realities are (in this case, South Africa and Happy Hollow) and communicate with those that they think may be oppressed so they can get a complete, assumption-free snapshot of the entire situation. Despite Paul and Tyler coming across as naive and almost robotic in their regurgitation of AWE manuals, Harris does a commendable job of showing their character arc and propelling them further into their purpose with the help of Credit. With fluid prose and thoughtful content, the novel engages and challenges the glamorization of “doing good,” making for a meaningful read.