Monday, July 14, 2014

Review of Isolation by Denise R. Stephenson

Isolation by Denise R. Stephenson is featured as part of a Premier Virtual Authors Book Tours blog tour and is also a part of a Rafflecopter giveaway on the Contests and Giveaways page of this blog.  The novel is set in future apocalyptic America and while it can be categorized as science fiction, the epidemic that it predicts has its roots in all too real events.

The novel opens with a series of vignettes of random strangers who are infected with various bacterial infections, whether from food, contact with insects, or swimming in contaminated waters.  The horrifying headlines of mad cow disease, MRSA, E.Coli and other outbreaks that have scared populations worldwide in recent years, reaches pandemic proportions, killing millions and forcing extreme measures from government to contain the spread of infection.  Martial law, food shortages, looting of stores, and civil unrest break out amid increasing periods of forced quarantines in which all citizens are forced indoors. Touching one's own face becomes illegal as scientists and government officials try to dampen one of the fastest ways that the infections are spread.   Ultimately, the most extreme measures that can possibly be imagined are implemented:  all touch between humans is forbidden and a permanent Outdoor Ban is implemented, meaning that all citizens are forced inside forever, coming out only to go to ABC's-anti-bacterial centers, if they become infected.  The novel's focus narrows as it alternates between third-person accounts of Maggie, a mother who has bound her infant son's hands, and now raised him in a society where he knows no skin-to-skin touch, Gary, a nurse who lost his fiance to the infections and is now a Sterilizer living and working in an ABC, and Trevor, a disturbed young man with OCD traits who works his way up to Chief Enforcer in the new government.  Their stories are interspersed with a first-person narrative from an unnamed former scientist and professor, now living alone in complete isolation since his wife succumbed to the epidemic, and whose philosophical musings provide a voice of morality and reflection about the extreme government actions, as well as the events that led up to the epidemic.

Denise R. Stephenson lives in Oceanside, California, and has lived in all of the isolated locations of the novel at one time or another.  She has published academically, and also as a member of Attention Deficit Drama, where she has written and produced short plays and monologues.  Isolation is her first novel.  To learn more about her, check out the author Q & A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

Like many good science fiction novels, Isolation poses serious questions and implications for the path that we are headed on in real life.  The spotlight shines brightly on AgriBiz and its use of GMO's in crops and antibiotics in hormones, as major causes for the rises in tainted food supplies and bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotic treatment.  The role of government in limiting the civil liberties of its citizens under the guise of safety is also examined, echoing today's debates about government curtailing freedom in order to protect citizens from terror threats.  One chance encounter and inadvertent touch turn Maggie and Gary's lives upside down as they begin to question what is happening around them and discover deeply buried yearnings for genuine human contact.  Ms. Stephenson achieves the notable goal of making us question modern practices in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and government, without being overly preachy.  The musings of the anonymous professor provide poignant reminders of all we stand to lose as a society if we continue on our current path.  When he reflects on the use of criminals and the poor as Cleaners-the frightening position of cleaning up contaminated corpses, he reflects that even "back in the day" (pre-epidemic), no one would have questioned the practice.  "Some people never did have the rights the rest of us held so dear.  Some have always been expendable".  Readers will be easily moved to tears when he recounts the story of willing giving his cat Ghost a lethal injection because of fear of being contaminated by the animals touch and licks of affection.  Isolation is a disturbing, chillingly realistic portrayal of our potential future that should give us pause in the midst of our daily lives to reflect on what could happen if current trends are left unchecked.  As the professor said, "while we peered up into the heavens, the rug was pulled out from under us, the rug of oats and wheat and sweet grasses, the carpeting of green we lived on".

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review of P.S. Never Give Up Hope by Renata Hannans

P.S. Never Give up Hope by Renata Hannans has the distinction of being the first non-fiction book reviewed on this site.  The compelling and sobering first-person narratives of juvenile offenders in Florida's prison system make this book truly worthy of this honor.

Ms. Hannans first heard the story of "Lil Eddie" from a newspaper article and from students she served as a case manager working in a Jacksonville public high school.  She began writing, and later visiting the teenager, whose real name is Jonathan E. Hartley.  As a 15 year-old, Lil Eddie and a co-defendant were convicted of the armed robbery and second-degree murder of 57 year-old pizza delivery driver Sarah Hotham.  He is currently serving a life sentence in prison and his story opens the book.  Nine other current and former youthful offenders tell their stories in the pages of the book, including an anonymous subject who gives advice to teenagers from Death Row.

Renata Hannans is a native of Jacksonville, Florida, where she lives with her husband and daughter.  She continues her work as a case manager working with students, as well as various other projects advocating on behalf of juveniles in Florida.  To learn more about her, check out the Q & A with her on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

P.S. Never Give Up Hope is at turns inspiring, chilling, and tear-jerking.  The stories of young people gone astray was so engrossing that I finished the entire book in one evening.  The individuals profiled share their stories in as honest, real terms as possible.  While they do explain the circumstances that led up to their convictions and incarcerations (with the exception of the anonymous Death Row inmate), they don't make excuses for their actions.  Instead, they seek redemption and attempt to advise teenagers to avoid the fateful path that led them to their current situations.  Adult readers cannot help but wonder if the lives of these young people have not been thrown away by a system which is increasingly being called out by critics as overly harsh towards juveniles.  A recent  Supreme Court ruling which states that life imprisonment for juveniles for crimes not involving murder is cruel and unusual punishment, provides the slimmest of hopes to some of the convicted as their lawyers scramble to see if the law can be applied retroactively to their clients.  P.S. Never Give Up Hope should rightfully have a place in this much-needed debate that must take place if we as a society are to move forward in finding more progressive, realistic solutions to the problem of juvenile crime.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review of Across Great Divides by Monique Roy

Roy, M. (2013).  Across Great Divides.

Across Great Divides by Monique Roy is a featured novel in a Closed the Cover blog tour and is also a part of a Rafflecopter giveaway (see bottom of this post). This novel spans three continents during the World War II era, starting in Berlin, Germany as notorious dictator Adolf Hitler begins his rise to power, and was inspired by the author's grandparents, Jews who fled his regime.

Eva and Inge are beautiful, identical twins living idyllic lives as teenagers in Berlin.  They are the daughters of Oskar, a master jeweler and Helene, the elegant matriarch who holds her family together with a quiet, dignified strength.  Eva's best friend Trudy is an integral part of their lives, even eating with the family during the Shabbat-the weekly Sabbath meal, even though she is not Jewish.  Things quickly take a turn for the worst, however, when Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany and begins his reign of terror against the Jews.  Trudy is forbidden by her family to associate with the twins and eventually becomes a part of the Nazi Youth program.  The twins' younger brother Max, becomes actively involved with a Jewish underground resistance group, against their parents' wishes.  Max urges his family to flee the country but Oskar, like many Jews of the time, resists.  However, after the terrifying events of Kristallnacht in which Jewish shops and synagogues are vandalized and destroyed, Oskar finally realizes that his family is not safe in Germany anymore.  Forced to sell his business, he manages to hide some precious diamonds but is unable to keep a beautiful, very expensive emerald necklace from being confiscated by the Nazis.  Ironically, Max's underground connections are able to secure the necessary visas for the family to flee to Antwerp, Belgium.  During their flight, they are joined by a young refugee named Isaac, who quickly falls in love with and marries Inge. While in Antwerp, Eva also falls in love, with a young man named Carmen. The war quickly spreads to Belgium and they are forced to flee again, this time to Rio de Janeiro, and finally to South Africa.  Carmen and Oskar establish themselves in the growing diamond industry in the country, Max enrolls in university, and the twins live as homemakers.  However, the ugly stain of discrimination once again rears its head, this time in the form of apartheid, which affects Eva's maid and brings back horrible memories of their experiences as Jews in Nazi Germany.   Throughout their travels and experiences, the emerald necklace continues to play a part in their lives through the people that they meet, keeping them connected "across great divides".

Monique Roy has a degree in Journalism from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and is the author of a children's book called Once Upon a Time in Venice.  Born in Cape Town, South Africa, she was inspired to write Across Great Divides by her grandparents, European Jews who fled the Nazi regime. To find out more about Ms. Roy, read the author Q & A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

Across Great Divides handles an often-told narrative in a unique way.  While the story does begin in Berlin and includes experiences of discrimination that the family faces as Jews, the bulk of the plot is centered around their flight to different continents and their interactions with one another. Ms. Roy does a great job of quietly drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and the South African system of apartheid by showing the human impact of those who suffered under these regimes, as well as showing the irony of Oskar and Helene's acceptance of the apartheid system despite the discrimination that they themselves faced.  Across Great Divides a briskly paced,  brightly detailed story of love, family, survival against overwhelming odds, and the struggle to maintain hope even in the most dire of circumstances.

Click here to enter the Rafflecopter giveaway for a copy of the novel:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review of He Belongs to Me by Theresa Rizzo

Rizzo, T. (2013).  He Belongs to Me.

He Belongs to Me chronicles the story of Catherine Boyd as she fights deceit at the hands of her own family in order to regain custody of her son Drew and deal with the painful secrets that have driven a wedge between her and her parents.

Catherine and her brother Andrew (her son's namesake) grew up in a wealthy, privileged family with everything that they could possibly want or need-except for their father's approval.  Stern, heavy-handed Eric Whittemore demanded perfection in everything from grades to sports.  Catherine struggled to win her father's love while Andrew rebelled.  Catherine's relationship with her mother Sarah lacked the usual mother-daughterly affection as Catherine sensed that her mother did not really care for her.  Andrew's tragic death as a teenager became yet another wave that caused the family to drift further apart and the circumstances surrounding his death were one more painful family secret.  Against her parents wishes, she married Thomas Boyd and when the young couple struggled to make ends meet, they moved in with her family.  Catherine gives birth to Drew and his twin Bobby, but when the twins are still infants, Bobby stops breathing and dies in what is apparently a tragic accident.  Thomas soon becomes the suspect in his death, aided by the accusations of none other than Sarah Whittemore.  After a brutal trial and an eventual acquittal, Thomas and Catherine separate.  She goes to college at Stanford and signs over what she thinks is temporary custody of Drew to her parents.  When she graduates and attempts to get him back, she is met with the cruel realization that her parents duped her into signing over permanent custody of her son. After consulting with an attorney, she realizes that reconciling with Thomas is the only chance that she has of winning a custody battle against her parents, since as the father, he never signed away his parental rights.  Thomas and Catherine must deal with the years of pain, anger, and guilt that lie between them, and Thomas must face his insecurity at being around children since Bobby's death.  Only then can they unite and fight against the formidable Whittemores, causing long-hidden secrets to come to light in the process.

Theresa Rizzo is a wife, mother, and registered nurse living in Colorado.  He Belongs to Me is her debut novel and her second novel, Just Destiny, is due out in March.  He Belongs to Me was a finalist in the 2013 USA  Best Book Awards-General Fiction Category. To learn more about her, check out the Q & A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

He Belongs to Me is easily deserving of the awards and positive reviews that it has received since its release. Flowing prose, realistic dialogue, and dramatic confrontations between characters lend to the book's appeal.  The courtroom scenes are painfully well-written and illustrate the trauma that is endured by countless parents who find themselves fighting for custody of their children.  The relationship between Catherine and Thomas evolves slowly and beautifully from one of tense estrangement to one of rekindled love and romance.  The author's unique choice of plot is also appealing.  Many stories involving custody battles center around a father fighting for his child(ren) as conventional wisdom says that family courts favor mothers. However recent years have seen increasing numbers of women losing custody of their children and this phenomenon is one that is only sparingly explored in contemporary fiction.  Theresa Rizzo lends a compelling voice to this issue and handles the contentious subjects of family law and family secrets with talent and grace.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year-Blog Hop and Book Giveaway

Happy New Year from Book Talk with Alana!  As we enter a new year filled with many more opportunities to read and discuss wonderful books, I'm happy to once again be a part of a Closed the Cover New Year-New Authors-New Books Blog Hop.

I don't normally make resolutions, but my goals for my blog this year are to publish at least two reviews per month, to participate in at least five blog hops and/or book tours, and to continue to support independent authors.

What are your literary goals for this year?  To read more books?  To try out a new genre or author?  Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey or Countdown City, the second book in The Last Policeman  trilogy by Ben H. Winters.

Happy Reading!