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What Freedom Smells Like: A Memoir

Amy Lewis. Anomaly, $13.95 trade paper (262p) ISBN 978-0-615-93441-9

Lewis’s attempt to tell her life story is shallow, alarming, and only passingly spiritual. She sweeps through her teen years in New Orleans, her institutionalization for borderline personality disorder, and her undergraduate life as a pretty white redhead waitressing in 1990s Berkeley, before focusing on her tumultuous relationship with black maybe-assassin Truth, whose presence in her life opened her eyes to issues of race in America. A torrid romance and marriage became a financially successful partnership in the budding field of Internet pornography, but Truth began to abuse Amy, driven by jealousy, work stress, and a need for control. Lewis’s textbook apologetic approach to Truth’s behavior is disturbing, especially in light of the next phase of her story. Although she feels freed by Truth’s untimely death, her primary comfort comes in the form of afterlife communication with him in which she sees him as her protector, nearly deifying her abuser. The final piece of the memoir, detailing her search to find herself as an actress in L.A., feels merely vain and self indulgent. Lewis may feel she’s achieved mystical awareness, but she seems not to have achieved self-awareness, and without that, this memoir has little to teach. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Unexpected Grace: A Discovery of Healing Through Surrender

June Hyjek. Meridian Media, $16.95 ISBN 978-0-9896427-0-5

Hyjek’s memoir is an intimate but bland look at her struggles with scoliosis, “a walking medical nightmare, and a deformed one.” Her story, often told through emails and responses from friends, is reminiscent of a holiday letter received from an old aunt who includes way too much information about very personal struggles with health. “Help! My center is crooked!” Hyjek wrote early on as she struggled to accept her situation. Without knowing the author or her encouraging friends, it’s hard to get connected to or invested in her journey through a series of surgeries and eventual psychological “acceptance.” The most interesting question posed in the book comes from the author’s son, who asks his mother whether the person she was 15 years ago would recognize the woman she is today. That theme might have been a more useful foundation for Hyjek’s year-long transition from feeling defeated to “feeling peaceful.” While her closing advice is reassuring—ask for help, she suggests, because “we are all ready and willing to help”—it’s not enough to save this lackluster book. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Mother of All Meltdowns: Real Stories of Moms’ Finest (Worst, Completely Awful Moments)

Edited by Crysal Ponti. MommiFried Press, $9.99 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-0-9899553-1-7

A collection of parenting humor pieces drawn from real-life experience brings together 30 authors from the prolific mommy blogosphere on the topic of the adult tantrum. As shown here, this kind of spontaneous emotional explosion can occur at home, in the car, in the grocery store, or anytime when life becomes too much. Most of the crises come from everyday troubles, like broken glass, smeared poop, and shattered Lego models, though a few notable pieces, including Michelle Nahom’s essay about having a critically ill child and Kristi Rieger Campbell’s touching self-exploration about having a child on the autism spectrum, tackle more serious concerns. Nearly all these bloggers are well-versed in the art of self-deprecation, and any one of the stories should draw sympathetic chuckles from women trying to forgive themselves for lapses in their cool in the face of daily frustrations. The anthology does, however, suffer from a narrowly middle-class, suburban perspective that makes it feel repetitive while missing an opportunity to celebrate the universality of parenting across geographic, ethnic, and social class lines. Though these expressions of maternal frustration are slight, they may provide a moment of understanding just when it’s most needed. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Anne Frank: Silent Witnesses, Reminders of a Jewish Girl’s Life

Ronald Wilfred Jansen. RWJ-Publishing, $18 trade paper (298p) ISBN 978-94-90482-08-4

Jansen, motivated to write about Anne Frank because “time is running out for people who knew Anne to tell the story,” delivers a well-researched and at times jarring record of the places where she lived before her untimely death in 1944 at age 15. Statistics, such as that 102,000 of the 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands did not survive the war, are interspersed with descriptions of mundane events from Frank’s life, to sobering effect. Jansen employs long passages from Frank’s diary to connect the reader to his own accounts of the places Frank describes, including the house in Amsterdam where her family hid during the early years of the war and the streets where she saw the Nazis rounding up Jews. This work is best suited as a scholarly companion to Anne’s own diary. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Running for the House

Howard Kleinhendler. CreateSpace, $12.95 trade paper (318p) ISBN 978-1-5002-8258-5

Even a seasoned genre writer would have a tough time pulling off the far-out premise of Kleinhendler’s tedious thriller: a covert cabal handpicks a nobody to be elected to Congress so he can gain its members’ access to a biological super weapon. The conspirators, known as the Committee, have learned of a technology that can identify every person’s unique “electrobiological signature.” With “targeted bursts of energy waves emitted from satellites or drones,” one can kill a man and make it look like a natural death. The Committee selects New York City trial lawyer Michael Gordon as their stealth pawn and sets out to manipulate him into office. At one point, the number of Gordon’s Facebook friends increases overnight from 32 to a still modest 200, though his new ones include “Rahm Emanuel, John [sic] Corzine, and Bill Gates.” Such errors as referring to caffeine as a “strong sedative” don’t help the over-the-top story line. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Riptide

Debbi Mack. Renegade, $3.99 e-book (244p) ASIN B007JB50AS

Mack’s competently plotted third Sam McRae mystery (after Least Wanted) takes the Maryland attorney and her fellow lawyer and friend, Jamila Williams, to Ocean City, Md., for a combined vacation and professional conference. At the beach, the pair have an unpleasant encounter with a group of young people led by Billy Ray, who taunt Jamila with racial insults and accuse her of staying at Billy Ray’s “daddy’s property.” When someone later fatally stabs Billy Ray in the gut, planted evidence linking Jamila to the crime leads to her arrest. Billy Ray’s stepfather, Marshall Bower, uses his powerful influence against Jamila. Since McRae can do little to help defense lawyer Edward Mulrooney, and PI Ellis Conroy blows her off, she investigates on her own. She looks into Bower’s operations, including his poultry farm, where illegal immigrants work under dreadful conditions. Serious social issues lend this entry extra interest. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Coming to Rosemont

Barbara Hinske. CreateSpace, $10.97 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-1-4811-2527-7

In this series opener, Hinske immerses readers in a delightful small town. Forensic accountant Maggie Martin is recently widowed and has learned, to her chagrin, that her dead husband, Paul, was keeping many secrets from her. He had been embezzling from the university of which he was president for years, and he had a secret family. He was also heir to a huge estate called Rosemont, in the small Midwestern town of Westbury. He leaves Rosemont to Maggie, and when she visits, intending to sell the estate, she falls in love with the place and moves in immediately, yearning for a fresh start. She finds herself enmeshed in the Westbury intrigue of crooked city politicians who have been stealing from the pension fund and the townspeople who want answers. Maggie throws herself headfirst into helping out, forming an alliance with local prosecutors and townsfolk. In the process, she meets John, a local veterinarian, who may be falling in love with her. The joys of the tale come from the warm relationships and the story of a woman getting a second chance at life and love. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/17/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Heartbreak Hotel

Aneta Cruz. Black Opal, $11.99 trade paper (286p) ISBN 978-1-62694-060-4

Cruz (The Guardian) tries and fails to bring a literary sensibility to contemporary romance. Kara, a young woman desperate for love, is confused and self-absorbed. Freshly graduated from hospitality school in Czechoslovakia, Kara joins the ranks of the desk clerks at one of Prague’s finest hotels. Blending in with a wide cast of likewise single co-workers, she fumbles from club to bed and from relationship to obsessive crush over the next several months, rarely settling for long with any one man or friend. Her most elusive hope is a romantic kiss in the center of the Charles Bridge. Kara’s single-minded focus on sex, virginity, and relationships gives an adolescent tone to her epic quest to find Mr. Right (Now), overwhelming the pleasant prose. Her occasional charming sweetness and the interesting but underdeveloped supporting cast aren’t quite enough to overcome a one-track plot and murky ending. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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By Water and Blood

Melanie Rose. CreateSpace, $13.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-4826-9590-8

Rose (Violet Shadows) weaves a modern fantasy tale that manages to be equal parts fascinating and dull. Young Sophie Durrant abandons her present-day American life to tend bar on Unst, one of the Shetland Islands north of Britain. She’s drawn to its gruff Scottish natives, its ponies, and most of all the sea—and the seals that live in it. Sophie eventually discovers that she is the granddaughter of a Selkie, a shape-shifter who can remove her sealskin to become human. She also learns about hunters who steal Selkie skins and force them into the world of human trafficking. Rose’s core conceit is strong and sophisticated; her descriptions of the pain of slavery resonate with the weight of history, and the descriptions of Unst are incredible. Far less compelling are the subplots, such as Sophie’s friend’s quest to get her to move back home, and her inevitable romance with a Selkie man who is (naturally) tall, dark-haired, and dashing. Rose’s updated Selkie myth is far too interesting to be paired with such conventional tropes, and the result is a very uneven novel. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fun & Games

David Michael Slater. Library Tales, $17.99 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-0-615-77415-2

Jon is a normal teenager about to start college, but in Slater’s novel he finds that he can’t move forward in life until he comes to terms with his family’s past. While his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, his father vehemently avoids religion. Jon’s two older sisters are a handful: Nadia is a manipulator, with her fingers in everything the family does, and Olivia is toeing the line between virgin and professional soft-porn star. When an incident at Hebrew school sends the rabbi to Jon’s house, it precipitates a crisis of faith that causes their father to abandon them for Israel, where he is killed. As Jon departs for college, accompanied by two of his best friends, the lies and intrigues get deeper, and the more he learns about his family, the more he realizes he doesn’t know them. When he returns home for a wedding, tragedy strikes and forces the family to reach a reckoning with their lies. The characters manage to be both familiar and well-realized individuals, and beneath the banal suburban setting hide deep troubles. Slater finds a successful tone between comedy and pathos that carries readers through some of the less plausible twists, even making the violent ending work. While Jon’s best friends could be more clearly defined, Jon’s own progression is strong. Slater has painted an intimate and memorable family portrait. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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