My first book reviews for the new year! I hope everyone is up for a great year of reading.
January’s reviews include my 4 and 5-star reads of a memoir, literary fiction, a paranormal adventure, a poetry collection, a collection of short stories, a collection of poetry and flash fiction, and three short reads on Irish Mythology
Click on the covers for Amazon global links.
River Ghosts by Merril D. Smith
I can’t remember when I picked up this book of freeform poetry, but I finally got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. I highly recommend it.
The book contains about 70 poems. I read it over a few evenings, savoring the quiet mood and tone and depth of the feelings this collection conveys. There are poems about joyous moments of gratefulness and love, and poems straight from the imagination. But my favorites were those that struck me as reflective, exploring loss, tender memories, and some of the harder moments of finding one’s way. These are the author’s “ghosts,” and I found them relatable as well as beautifully penned. Here’s one such poem:
How do we see the unseen?
A ghostly presence felt,
this dark path between stars
The Milky Way, a pearly spiral,
and we with limited vision,
unable to see the tenebrous beauty
of bent light.
Menagerie by Joan Hall
This collection of thirteen short stories is not only entertaining with its compelling characters and variety of plots, but highly accessible with its straightforward language. Clean romance, spooky paranormal events, and limited violence make it an enjoyable collection for readers from pre-teens to their grandparents.
Characters are consistent, well-rounded, and believable, and the variety in the stories not only applies to plots but to settings and time periods. Many of the stories incorporate a paranormal or romantic element, and quite a few include both. It’s a generous collection but a quick read, and I buzzed through it in a couple of afternoons. The variety makes it hard to pick favorites, but I was especially fond of:
“Mystery Woman” and the way it ventured into the subject of past lives
“Friends,” a feel-good romance set against a murder investigation
“Lone Wolf,” a beautiful tale of a connection between a man and a wild wolf
“Hot August Night,” for its family relationships and the unfolding mystery
And “Storm Rider,” a gentle paranormal story with some good advice.
Highly recommended to readers of all ages who enjoy feel-good short stories. (Kindle Unlimited)
The Last Drive by John Howell
This book follows the adventures of Sam and James of The Eternal Road, but it stands alone perfectly well with the same level of imagination and detail. Spirits James and Sam return to the Eternal Road to search for Ryan, a recently deceased pilot, and his guide Eddie. The two men have gone off track while looking for Ryan’s eternal home. Lucifer has his fingerprints all over this book as he’s determined to have Ryan “join his team.”
Similar to the first book, the search takes Sam and James, and eventually Ryan and Eddie, to quite a few major events in time including the first Super Bowl, the California gold rush, 9/11, the sinking of the Titanic, and the horrors of Auschwitz. Some places they travel to on their own, but in most cases, Lucifer sends them there, wanting them to trade Ryan’s soul for a reprieve.
In some ways, Sam and James are on a quest, tasked with challenges they need to puzzle out as they operate in the past without changing the future. The directive not to fiddle with the future generates some heartbreaking scenes and tough moral decisions. Howell’s research into the tragedies of the past is notable, and there are some brutal scenes including sexual abuse.
Any heaviness in the book is initially countered by Lucifer. He’s sarcastic, snarky, and completely without verbal restraint, at the very least. His banter, particularly with Sam, was entertaining, though it became easier and easier to completely dislike him toward the end. The plot doesn’t follow a straight line, nor is it always logical, but it’s highly imaginative and recommended for fans of fantastical stories about the afterlife. (Kindle Unlimited)
The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly by Kwan Kew Lai
I enjoy reading memoirs of all sorts, but if there’s a book that transports me to another part of the world and a culture vastly different from my own, I’m usually entranced, as I was with this book.
Most of the book tracks Kwan Kew Lai’s childhood on Penang Island, a diverse community where racial and ethnic status determines where a family lives and who they associate with. Kwan Kew’s family is Chinese, ranked far below the Eurasian elite, but above their Tamil neighbors on the other side of a drainage ditch. There is plenty of play and mischief, as well as accounts of community, family, and school life from this observant little girl.
Her family is a large one (ten girls and two boys), and at a young age, she sees the toll their circumstances, often plagued by inadequate food and housing, takes on her mother. It’s a life where women’s choices are few and the work is endless. She decides early on that this life isn’t for her. As she ages, the book veers away from childhood into adult concerns of war, political unrest, and ultimately finding her way to college in the US.
Descriptions are captivating with just the right amount of detail to create a rich sense of place. The characters, including her parents and several key siblings, are deftly described from Kwan Kew’s point of view, and the sibling relationships had a familiar feel, full of nuance. Characters are sympathetic, as this is a human and, in many ways, a universal story about hardship, resilience, choices and the lack of them.
There is some repetition of information, and on occasion, I lost track of Kwan Kew’s age as the story seemed to move forward and backward in time, but on the whole, this was a fascinating and uplifting account of a determined child and young woman. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy memoirs, especially ones that explore different cultures in other parts of the world.
The Waiting House by Lisette Brodey
The Waiting House is an unusual book of literary fiction with one of the best uses of an omnipresent POV I’ve read in years. Conrad Daniel Beauregard Shintz is the story’s host, the grandmaster, someone who has lived in the Waiting House for decades. He has a distinct voice and personality, and unlike most characters in genre fiction, he possesses the omnipresent ability to view the private lives, thoughts, and feelings of the building’s other residents.
The novel is a series of glimpses into the histories and daily lives of the house’s inhabitants narrated by Conrad. The chapters are almost like character studies that little by little begin to intersect as the overall story unfolds. Conrad’s tone is formal and appropriate for the era and setting, but he’s also emotionally engaged and has a witty sense of humor. The residents of the Waiting House are all brilliantly unique.
The pace is quite leisurely, and like a lot of literary fiction, action is secondary to the character development and a slow reveal of the plot. In keeping with the genre, the prose is beautiful with rich language, vivid and detailed descriptions, and wonderful imagery.
This is an excellent read for fans of literary fiction who love beautiful language and fabulously distinct characters, and are comfortable with a moderate pace. (Kindle Unlimited)
Asunder, Baby by Steven Baird
Steven Baird is one of my favorite authors of fiction and poetry, and this generous collection of fifty flash fiction stories and poems was crafted with the same beautiful language, fresh imagery, and gut-wrenching emotion as his full-length novels. His characters are distinctive with rich voices and complex lives informed by poverty, loss, disillusionment, and love. Each one gripped me and didn’t let go.
There are too many excellent pieces to list the ones that moved me, but four of my favorites were: The Gopherwood Box, Rhapsody, Your Father’s Delta 88, and a short poem titled Brewer’s Mills 1971. A highly recommended collection for readers who enjoy beautifully crafted and deeply felt writing.
Brewer’s Mills 1971
There we were
burying a goddamn horse
all the clouds smashing
against a depthless sky
we waited in strained attentiveness
for the sound of a moon
to howl back at us
we knew this was
the distance we were
Irish Myths in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday
This is the first book in a set of three pocket reads about Irish myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales. I polished this one off in an afternoon as a research project, wanting to learn more about the stories and characters I encounter in books and movies. I wasn’t disappointed.
Irish Myths starts with some background. It describes the differences between myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales as well as some of the major gods and heroes, and how they changed over time under the influence of English Christianity, which was determined to wipe them out. Thank goodness the effort mostly failed.
After that introduction, the book goes on to tell stories about 20 of the most powerful weapons of Irish mythology. It also shares tales about the god of love, and how music was a skill that all the gods possessed. The second half of the book is a competition, moderated and decided by the author, to decide who is the greatest hero of Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn or Fionn mac Cumhaill. The competition takes twelve rounds (chapters) and pits one ancient tale against another.
The style of the book is conversational, and Kneverday has a wonderful sense of humor that he injects into his discussions. The most challenging part of the book is the names, which have myriad spellings and to Americans (like me) are almost unpronounceable. The author does a good job of sorting it all out, but still…
Highly recommended to readers who love Irish myths and legends. I’m off to read the next book in the series, Samhain, a short book about the origins of Halloween. (Kindle Unlimited)
Samhain in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday
After finishing Kneverday’s book Irish Myths, I went straight into this one, book two of his pocket series. I’m well versed on the fun to be had by modern kids (and some adults) on Halloween, but didn’t know the origins of jack o’ lanterns, dressing up in costumes, or trick-or-treating. I think kids would love learning the roots of this holiday as much as I did.
The history of these traditions (and many more) reach way back to the ancient Celts. They’re delightfully shared in this two-hour read that also elaborates on the Irish gods of death and tells tales of Stingy Jack (Jack of the Lantern) and numerous headless horsemen. The rich meaning behind Samhain (and how to properly pronounce this most important of celebrations) is detailed in the book with a lot of humor and respect. A highly enjoyable read. (Kindle Unlimited)
Irish Monsters in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday
This is the third book in Kneverday’s Irish pocket books, and one that I was most looking forward to reading. I suspected that there would be a great many Irish monsters, but the author chose to go deep on about eight varieties rather than broad on many more. As he did with the two previous books in the series, he approached his storytelling with a great deal of conversational humor that made this book another enjoyable read.
The book dives into Irish dragons, werewolves, vampires, banshees, headless horsemen, giants, the púca (a mischievous creature), and Balor of the Evil Eye. For each type of monster, there’s some history, a dose of speculation, and descriptive tales from Irish lore. Another highly enjoyable, pocket read for fans of Irish and Celtic legends. (Kindle Unlimited)