Here are the reviews of the book we selected from this round of submissions:
The Midnight Special: A Novel About Leadbelly
Edmond G. Addeo and Richard M. Garvin
AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com), $28.49 (356p) ISBN 978-1-4389-7579-5
Impressively, this compelling biographical novel makes the life of the early 20th-century folk and blues musician known as Leadbelly interesting—even to readers who are not fans of his music—without sugarcoating the singer's unsavory character and life. Addeo and Garvin take the reader from the birth of Huddie William Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1888 to his death in New York City in 1949. At an early age, Leadbelly develops a taste for, and proficiency in, making music, all the while witnessing the racism of the American South. Sexually precocious, a 15-year-old Leadbelly impregnates a girlfriend, the first of many lapses, most of which were much more severe. Although his temper leads him to numerous criminal convictions for violent offenses, he maintains that his crimes were the fault of his victims. The arc of Leadbelly's life, which includes his two releases from prison under unusual circumstances, is indeed stranger than fiction, and the authors' workmanlike prose keeps things flowing smoothly.
Karen Lynn Allen
Cabbages and Kings Press (www.cabbage-king.com), $13.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9671784-1-7
In this lively historical novel, set in Beaufort, S.C., at the apex of the town's antebellum period, prodigal son Jaspar Wainwright returns to his family plantation after 12 years abroad to educate his kin about the evils of slavery. When he left Beaufort for Harvard University and world travel, Jaspar was known as a hellion, savage drinker, and frequent duelist. Returning now—with an education and in the company of emancipated slave Spit Jim—to visit his cousin, Henry, at the lovely Villa D'Este, Jaspar is stunned that Henry's niece, Cara Randall, is no longer the child he remembers, but a poised, intelligent, self-taught young woman keen to expand her mind and horizons. Having rejected numerous local suitors, Cara has no intention of marrying, and Jaspar—widowed after a disastrous marriage—vows never to make the same mistake again. But both will be proven wrong, if the matchmaking Henry has his way. Cara is a singular, independent female in a culture of aristocratic entitlement, and she and Jaspar aim to change the town's brutal system of slavery and bigotry in their own, converging ways. Charged with subtle period detail and boasting fully developed characters, Allen's work is sharp, smart, and well focused.
Finding the Way Home
WestBow Press (www.westbowpress.com), $19.95 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-4497-0350-9
In this predictable debut novel, Byrd offers up chirpy versions of grief and transformation. Reeling from the death of her husband, Suzanne—with young daughter Blair in tow—leaves home for a three-month stay at Wisteria Cottage in Cornwall, England. Upon arriving in Cornwall, mother and daughter—rather unsurprisingly—encounter a handsome headmaster named Peter. During an early meeting with Suzanne, Peter is smitten: "a slow smile crept across [his] face and crept towards his eyes." And soon enough, Suzanne and Blair have nearly simultaneous breakthrough moments about death and loss. Following the usual ups and downs and twists and turns, both Peter and Suzanne realize they left their homes "in search of something true." But it's not until a boating accident leaves Peter close to death that Suzanne feels "something unlike anything before." Most readers will be able to guess the end—and the middle—of this unoriginal novel. But readers looking for a sweet treat to savor on a summer afternoon will find this lightweight tale perfectly paired with some English sponge cake.
AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com), $24.99 (216p) ISBN 978-1-4389-7099-8
Pellman's unadorned, unsentimental novel about domestic terrorism follows Kelly Hastings, a 52-year-old police detective in Averton, Ohio, at the center of a plot by extremists to use his small, isolated town as ground zero for armed anarchy against the United States government. After the local power station and several homes in Averton are bombed, Hastings learns who is behind the destruction: a sinister separatist organization called the Fourth World, which is determined to reshape the American way of life. Pellman deftly captures the mood of Averton's frightened public, describes the pressures of a small town in the media spotlight, and illustrates how police and federal agents can end up chasing their own tails at a time of national crisis. At the book's center is a radiant, well-developed relationship between Kelly and Molly, a divorcée who understands the troubled cop, locked inside himself and searching for answers. With all its tenderness and brutality, Pellman's novel speaks volumes about the climate of fear, violence, and manipulation in today's polarized world.
Four Years of Hungering
Vantage Press (www.vantagepress.com), $8.95 trade paper (76p) ISBN 978-0-533-16305-2
Set during the 1940s, Stephenson's sparse novella documents how a young man named Dal navigates his new life as a student at Baxter College in the South. Attending Baxter on a scholarship gained via the recommendation of a local preacher, Dal—the last of nine children born to farming parents—soon finds himself in the company of various young men and women, as well as a succession of roommates, most of whom remain peripheral throughout the book. Stephenson's highly anecdotal approach, which features little reflection or character development, does manage to create an abundance of nostalgic warmth, with Dal alternating between campus, work, family visits, dates, and a brief hospitalization for chronic appendicitis. However, during Dal's four years at Baxter, potentially salient moments, including the production of a minstrel show in the segregated South, the end of WWII, and his own marriage, are all but glossed over. At the novella's end, Dal emerges as a good-natured witness to his own life, rather than a memorable figure going through profound changes. In this mild account of incidental encounters, Dal declares, "So much satisfaction had been gained in my four years of hungering for knowledge..." However, the book and its characters lack the complexity requisite for such a statement.
I'm Not Muhammad: An Ordinary Rendition
Red Wheelbarrow Books (www.redwheelbarrowbooks.com), $14.95 trade paper (253p) ISBN 978-0-9759515-2-1
This strong, well-developed first novel charts the plight of an Arab-American conflicted about his identity well before the government harassment of the post-9/11 world. Born in Montreal, Yusuf Alsawari moves to New York and marries Ruth, a Christian woman who converts to Islam. But then Ruth announces that she has "accepted Christ as my personal savior." Three years later, the terrorist attacks of September 11 push the already-angry Yusuf to change his name to Muhammad, shave his head, get a new passport and bank account, and move to Seattle. His movements are tracked covertly by the U.S. government, and he is snatched from the streets and shipped to a jail cell in Cairo, where he is tortured into revealing his true identity. While Trask does a skillful job capturing Yusuf's change of identity, the character's motivations are not always clear and at times obscure the plot. Nonetheless, Trask does a workmanlike job of portraying the harrowing descent into hell of a man falsely accused.
What the Trumpet Player Revealed
Vantage Press (www.vantagepress.com), $14.95 trade paper (205p) ISBN 978-0-533-16400-4
In Renard's dull historical thriller, a chance late-night encounter leads Canadian-American trumpet player Jonathan Malavoix to witness a savage murder in 1942 Paris. On his way home from another night of trying to scrape together some money performing at outdoor cafes, Malavoix is intrigued by an attractive blonde woman and decides to follow her. When that pursuit leads him into an apartment building, he's horrified to witness his quarry repeatedly stab a sleeping woman. Malavoix faints and, as soon as he regains consciousness, flees the crime scene. With Paris under German occupation, he immediately rejects the idea of reporting the killing. Soon, Malavoix hits it off with another woman he meets at a bar. More violence follows, but the path to the truth behind the crime is labored, while the book's resolution is improbable.
Garden Gate Farm (www.gardengatefarm.com), $12 trade paper (151p) ISBN 978-0-578-06973-9
When her grandmother dies, Amanda receives a curious inheritance: a dilapidated farmhouse and a bookstore called the Yellow Bird. In a nearby town, Jeremiah "Cody" Stone is recovering from a war wound and pursuing a career as a musician. In their dreams, Amanda and Cody occasionally catch glimpses of each other—although they've never met. Both of them begin to view the other as an angel or guiding spirit. When a flood hits the town, this spiritual connection helps them survive. And when they finally meet in person, Amanda and Cody know that it is true love. Johnson's novel is difficult to follow. The stories of Cody and Amanda are woven together, but prove to be meandering and confusing. It's difficult to keep track of where the characters are, if they've actually met and if they have mutual acquaintances. This creates a sense of mounting frustration for readers, who won't be engaged enough in the characters to care about what happens to them.
Jacked Arts (www.jackedarts.com), $14.95 trade paper (434p) ISBN 978-0-9797435-9-7
In a postapocalyptic world, the reclusive inventor Capt. Magigate experiments at his lab hidden away on Isla de Tiempo Muerto, where he holds captive Samantha Biggs, aka the Prophet, a woman who once controlled the planet's commerce. Magigate's Glide technology has revolutionized transportation in "a world no longer confined by the yoke of gravity." As Glide devices become commonplace, surface roads become obsolete. Seeking adventure, two teens explore Magigate's mansion; the young Michael glides in on his Glide board, followed by talented expressionistic painter Madeleine. The Prophet escapes, taking Madeleine hostage, and the action accelerates. Gourgey writes with a fine flair, injecting believable characters into highly imaginative situations punctuated with humor and intrigue. His clever extrapolations of such current technology as avatars, the Kindle, the "monopolistic Amazon," CNN, military drones, Google, blogs, online games, and text messages are an added fillip.
The Man from Somalia, Citizen of the World
Vantage Press (www.vantagepress.com), $24.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-533-16350-2
Scott's fictional account of Barack Obama's rise to power is thinly disguised and embarrassing. In the novel—allegedly written by a longtime associate of the president—Barack's name is Bret, while the author coyly refers to Michelle as Marcia "for reasons of delicacy." Key politicos are featured, including a chief of staff named "Saul" and Secretary of State "Helena Clayton." Although the plot follows real-life events, Scott admits he's happy to fill in blanks "with abundant gossip." Scott's assessments of the players are concise and biting. Marcia has an "uncommon capacity to influence things under her sway." Bret's cabinet—assembled to "look like America"—is purported to include a transvestite, although Scott notes dryly, "I never saw any sign of ‘cross dressing.'" As might be expected, Scott's evaluation of the Obama administration is negative. Scott compares Bret's response to the "war on terror" to "finding a solution to a puzzle which has no answer." And while Obama's story has yet to be determined, in Scott's world, not surprisingly, it ends in a violent maelstrom. If Scott was hoping to emulate the brilliance of William F. Buckley Jr., he fell far short. This is pure partisan fiction; line up accordingly, to either purchase or pass.
Bryan David Hiltner
Vantage Press (www.vantagepress.com), $22.95 (184p) ISBN 978-0-533-15726-6
Loosely based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, Hiltner's first novel is an admirable attempt to illuminate the racism that plagued the American South, divided its citizens, and subverted justice. Told from the perspective of FBI agent Daniel Pierce, this procedural pairs a white agent with an African-American one, Franklin Jones, in an effort to illuminate both sides of the racially charged story. However, Hiltner's one-dimensional characters make it clear from the beginning for whom readers should be rooting. As soon as the agents arrive in the town where the murder took place, they're greeted by caricature after caricature: a perpetually smirking, cigar-chomping good-old-boy sheriff, a cantankerous old lady, and a racist hillbilly with a temper. Even more puzzling is that while attempting to make a statement about racism, Hiltner fails to present the agents as equals. Pierce is clearly calling the shots and frequently tells Jones what to do via condescending commands. Additionally, Hiltner's insistence on attributing every line of dialogue quickly grates. Hopefully, the book's sequel—at the novel's conclusion, Pierce is sent to Dallas to assist the presidential motorcade—will see Hiltner offering up a more carefully crafted historical whodunit.
Sheila Joy Packa
Wildwood River Press, $15 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-0-9843777-2-5
In this third collection, Packa—the current poet laureate of Duluth, Minn.—infuses the northern woods with reverence and acknowledges its particular terrors in poems that bristle with color and texture, beauty and menace. Spanning three sections—"bear," "cloud," and "wing"—these poems pair themes of womanhood with observations of an avid naturalist, allowing homespun images and accretions of family memories to play against natural mysteries. The spiritual is seldom overt, however, revealing itself through attentiveness rather than direct appeals. Like Mary Oliver's earlier work, these song-like missives explore regional haunts with full confidence that microcosms can indeed reflect universal ideas. Recurrent figures include Persephone, the speaker's mother, and grandmother; frequent approaches include spare, columnar forms, as well as the first person, all of which evoke the conventional rather than the innovative. Though Packa navigates within a circumscribed range, her poems require no further pyrotechnics. These quiet, assured poems remind readers to pause during moments when they are "not lost but passing through/ boundaries" and consider life as an exploration of the unknown, with all its perpetual astonishments.
Gifts from Shane: A True Story of Love and Loss
ASJA Press (www.iuniverse.com), $19.95 trade paper (298p) ISBN 978-0-595-40515-2
Bartlett has written a heartwrenching but sometimes plodding, memoir about the loss of her son to a terminal blood disorder. Shane was a teenager who suffered from mild mental retardation. He had a sweet, guileless disposition that endeared him to everyone he met. During his senior year of high school, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a rare and often fatal condition that prevents the body from producing enough new blood cells. Waiting in the hospital for the bone marrow transplant that could save Shane's life, Bartlett gave him a journal to record his thoughts and feelings. Once his family realized that Shane would not get a donor match in time, they began to come to terms with losing him. He took a trip to New York courtesy of the Starlight Children's Foundation and, after coming home, died. Bartlett—who returned to her freelance writing career—has crafted a careful account of Shane's battle with the disease. Although his trip to New York is bittersweet and his untimely death tragic, the book lacks a compelling narrative arc. Instead, it only offers readers a window into Shane's slow decline and a few brief moments of hope. This alone cannot sustain the book, although readers will truly feel for Shane and his family.
Blacklisted from the PTA
Jupiter Press (www.wymacpublishing.com), $15 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-936214-43-3
There are precious few laughs, or even grins, in this collection of more than 60 short comic essays from the managing editor of parentingsquad.com. The subjects covered in the book's seven sections (e.g., "Birth, Babies, and Beyond," "Suburban Bliss," "Me Time") are familiar and handled more deftly in anthologies such as Beth Feldman's See Mom Run: Side-Splitting Essays from the World's Most Harried Moms. Davidson's insights and asides are mostly clichéd and banal: "I'd love to see these A-listers before their morning triple tall latte. Show me the beautiful people frantically chasing down a toddler, trying to get neon poop out of the carpet, and dripping in spit up. Then I'll be impressed." Her accounts of her children's curiosity about human anatomy, her disgust at fancy birthday parties, and her sarcastic letter to her mother, "Thanks for the Whore Barbie," are predictable. And there are too many superior accounts of misadventures in the kitchen to make "Top 10 Things That Could Go Wrong While Baking—A Cautionary Tale" at all worthwhile.