Book Reviews: All the Good Things by Clare Fisher

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Beth has done a bad, bad thing. And while she ruminates about the tragedy she brought on herself while paying the ultimate price, she goes on a journey of healing and redemption.

In Clare Fisher’s novel All the Good Things, Beth is seeing a counselor while serving a prison term. Convinced she is completely worthless, Beth’s counselor, with both compassion and wisdom, tells her to write a list of all the good things that have to her.

This is pretty difficult for Beth. In her young life, Beth has dealt with tragedy, abandonment, and heartbreak. Among these include being deserted by her mother, mental health issues, abusive relationships, one crappy job after another, and a series of dreadful foster homes.

But as she looks back on her life, Beth remembers the things. She’s very creative, she has a network of supportive friends, she’s felt the embrace of true love, and her sweet baby girl who she loves with great intensity.

Beth writes this list in a journal form that comes across like a series of letters to her daughter. And as he writes these letters she comes to terms with the lowest moments in her life, the moments that gave her life purpose, and one horrible mistake that altered her life. Now she’s asking herself is she can be forgiven and can she be redeemed?

All the Good Things kept me riveted, page after page. Beth’s story both broke my heat and uplifted my spirits.

Fisher’s debut novel is written with a great deal of clarity that fulfills all the senses. Beth is written as a fully-dimensional character, as are the tertiary characters.

Obviously I’m not going to reveal why Beth is being punished and in prison. But you just might gasp out loud when she admits her crime…like I did.

Book Review: The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kedzior

When not being ignored by the two coasts, flyover country is being celebrated as where the “real Americans” live, usually by conservative pundits. And to these pundits, real Americans are defined as white and for the most part living in the suburbs or rural areas who define themselves as conservative Christians.

But not so fast, living in flyover country, I know we are a much more diverse bunch and so does Sarah Kedzior, which she sums up in her collection of essays The View from Flyover Country-Dispatches from the Forgotten America.

A reporter for Al Jazeera America and residing in St. Louis, Missouri, Kedzior’s essays focus on such thorny topics as race, income inequality, the friction among generations, education, foreign policy, the media, women’s issues and so much more.

Kedzior starts off The View from Flyover Country with an introduction rolling out what her collection of essays is all about, giving the reader a clear idea on what to expect among its six parts.

In Part One, Flyover Country, Kedzior defines flyover country and topics such as how expensive cities are killing creatives and hipster economics.

Part Two, Post-Employments, explains issues of survival, how workers are paying a steep price, zilch opportunities and how sometimes these issues make people do extreme things like lighting themselves on fire.

Race and religion define Part Three, where Kedzior writes about the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s murder, Black Lives Matter, and what happened in Ferguson in the wake of Mike Brown being gunned down by police.

In Part Four Kedzior examines the broken promise of a higher education, and how school debt has crippled countless smart, hard-working and talented graduates. She also decries the deplorable pay of adjunct professors who work tirelessly to educate our students.

Part Five is a careful examination of our media and how gaining access seems to be only available to the well-connected elite (don’t I know it!) and the problem of fringe media in the Internet age.

Foreign policy makes up Part Six when it comes to gender, Edward Snowden, the situation in Iraq and basic human rights.

Finally, Kedzior sums things up with a standout essay on the importance of complaining. If people didn’t complain, women wouldn’t have the right to vote, black people would still be at the back of the bus, and gay people wouldn’t be able to marry those they love.

While reading The View Flyover Country, I marked several pages with post-it notes and wrote down some key quotes and passages in my well-worn notebook. Kedzior writes in a down-to-earth way with smarts and clarity. She truly cares about these issues and implores us to also care about them.

The View from Flyover Country is a treasure of a book and is ideal for both the college classroom and book discussion groups everywhere.

Book Review: Caina by Joe Albanese

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If you’re looking for a quick, entertaining read as the days of summer dissolve into fall you can’t go wrong with the novel Caina written by Jersey native Joe Albanese.

Lee and Grant Tolan are identical twins, but apparently in looks only. Whereas, Grant is hugely successful with a thriving career and a finely-tuned Jaguar as his car, Lee is a ne’er do well and over-shadowed by Grant. Lee is mixed up with various gangs and less than savory behavior.

Up to his eyeballs in debt, Lee decides to swallow his pride and crawl back to Grant hoping to reconnect after years of estrangement.

However, Grant dies under mysterious circumstances. And Lee, after making a life of bad decisions, decides to assume Grant’s identity and finally live a life of respectability and success (not to mention, also drive a Jag).

But people aren’t always what they seem and this is true of Lee’s late brother. Posing as Grant, Lee finds himself caught up in a world of mob activity, dealing with the DEA and other malfeasance.

To survive all this Lee enlists the help of his friends and they all get caught up in death with the Irish and Italian mafia, drug dealers from Mexico and quite a few other activities that test their mettle. Lee also begins to realize Grant wasn’t what he seems. And if Grant wasn’t what he seemed, may Lee can isn’t what he seems and can redeem himself. Well, if he doesn’t end up “sleeping with the fishes.”

I found Caina to be fun and fast-paced, with interesting characters and dialogue. I often found myself seeing this as a movie or a TV show. It has elements that made me laugh and made me cringe, and despite Lee and company’s bad decisions, I truly wanted them to win in the end.

Caina is a good read by a very promising young writer.

Book Review: Voices From the Rust Belt – Edited by Anne Trubek

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Just what is the Rust Belt? In simple terms it stretches from Milwaukee to Buffalo with cities like Chicago, Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh inbetween, cities that were once known as vibrant communities of manufacturing that have fallen on hard times but are trying to recapture their former glory. The Rust Belt is also a place I call home.

Sometimes romanticized,sometimes looked down upon, and often ignored, the Rust Belt is a place rich in history and tales so I was only to happy to find Voices from the Rust Belt, a collection of essays by people of all kinds who deftly write about what it is like to live in the Rust Belt.

After a brief introduction, which describes what is the Rust Belt and why it matters, Voices from the Rust Belt is divided into four parts.

1. Growing Up
2. Day to Day in the Rust Belt
3. Geography of the Heartland
4. Leaving and Staying

I pretty much loved all the essays written by talented women and men of all kinds. Some stories I could relate and others opened my eyes to experiences completely foreign to me. These stories are written by journalists, immigrants, students, artists, business owners, activists and working stiffs of all kinds who call the Rust Belt home. Nearly every one of theses writers impressed me and I was thrilled to find brief bios of the writers, which gave me further insight to these people beyond their written words. I also pondered what it would be like to see a well-made documentary on the Rust Belt – Ken Burns, I’m looking in your direction.

If I have any quibbles with Voices from the Rust Belt it is there is no voice from Milwaukee. Hmm, maybe in the sequel.

Book Review: Nico’s Warriors by Mitchell Nevin

It’s a funny thing. I’m a fan of various televised crime-related shows like “Criminal Minds” and the various Law and Order series, but I’ve never been one to read a lot of crime-related books. But when local author Mitchell Nevin reached out to me to review his book Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge I just knew I had to read it considering it takes place pretty much in my backyard—the city of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs.

Nico’s Warriors is about Zak Klatter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan now back home Wisconsin. Driving home one night after a night of revelry at a local tavern, Zak picks up a duffel bag thrown from a speeding car being chased by the cops. Inside the bag Zak finds something quite interesting and decides the contents might help him in various ways.

But Zak knows he can’t do this alone so he gathers up a rag tag bunch to help him accomplish his mission, many of them his fellow veterans. They decide to rob and fight Milwaukee’s most venomous and deadly drug gangs to some incredibly results that prove to be lethal and ambiguous.

Among Zak’s comrades include Ethan who provides the brain power, Raul, who lost his beloved niece to drug addiction and Xavier, who provides the much-needed tactical expertise. Along for the ride is the idiosyncratic Dwyer.

In the meantime, Zak opens up a tavern (with plenty of help from his father), which he calls The Fallen. The Fallen is dedicated to honoring veterans, firefighters and police officers who have died in the line of duty. Not only does it provide plenty of alcoholic beverages (this is Wisconsin after all) for its patrons, it also offers basic pub food. The Fallen also acts as a quasi-meeting place for Zak and his gang to right the wrongs brought on by Milwaukee’s most nefarious and notorious drug kingpins and drug gangs.

Among Zak’s cunning crew also includes his family, his somewhat girlfriend Mandy and other assorted friends and acquaintances.

Then there are the other characters—fellow veterans and members of the Milwaukee-area law enforcement and other assorted individuals that make up both Zak and the Milwaukee community. Needless to say, Nico’s Warriors also looks into the inner workings of the city’s drug dealing culture, one that is quite chilling but quite fascinating indeed. What I found quite enlightening is how both cultures are not conveyed fully in black and white—both are painted in shadowy shades of gray—showing the good, the bad and the downright ugly in both cultures.

Nico’s Warriors is a fun read that kept me guessing, trying to put together a puzzle of people, places and things. Just when you think things will zig, they zag. Nevin clearly knows the world of crime and law and order, which is conveyed in both the actions and the dialogue of the characters.

Needless to say, I also loved how Nico’s Warriors takes place in Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs. It names lots of familiar Milwaukee neighborhoods and its city streets, including my very own Farwell Avenue on Milwaukee’s lower east side. I had a bit of a giggle over the name of a radio host Jack Plankinton and his show “Walking the Plank” for Plankinton is an actual street in downtown Milwaukee (it crosses Wisconsin Avenue if you need to know).

Nico’s Warriors ends on a very mysterious note. Zak and his gang don’t quite finish their mission. But don’t fret my readers for a sequel is coming out shortly and this book is part of a trilogy.

Nico’s Warriors does have a few faults. I noticed several spelling and grammatical errors, but nothing that can’t be fixed with the help of more proofreading and of an experienced copy editor.

For the most part Nico’s Warriors: A Veteran’s Revenge is a pretty solid effort for a first time author, and if you’re a fan of the crime genre, you’ll probably enjoy reading this book.