Alive and Kicking

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Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest (Pacific Poetry Project; Ooligan Press, $18.95, 277 pages)

“This is something new in our shared lives, how she turns so gentle.” I Am Pregnant with My Mother’s Death by Penelope Scambly Schott

Nine editors selected 151 poems for inclusion in this anthology. The poets, each represented by one or more poems, live in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. What they have in common is a sense of un-commonality, representing the free spiritedness of the Pacific Northwest. This free spiritedness is reflected in “an array of poems that challenge… preconceptions, including those of what a poem might be.”

The reader is encouraged to “think your own thoughts,” about the worthiness of each composition. I was pleased that this buffet serving of art allows the reader to sample different styles and tastes in order to discover what resonates with one’s own life experiences. I identified with the more traditionally-styled poems, but others will no doubt be drawn to the ones with youthful edginess and rebellion.

It was a joy to discover poets whose work I want to read more of, including Alex Winstaley, Christoper Levenson, Lilija Valis, Catherine Owen, Kagan Goh, Susan Rich, Kathleen Holme, Jesse Morse, and Penelope Scambly Schott. The rainy weather that these three locales share apparently fosters rather than dampens creativity. Let’s hope that Alive at the Center is but the first release of many comprehensive – insightful yet challenging – collections of poetry from the Pacific Northwest.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

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You Are My Sunshine

My Sunshine Away (nook book)

My Sunshine Away: A Novel by M.O. Walsh (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95, 320 pages)

“Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” Bob Seger (“Against the Wind”)

M.O. Walsh’s first novel, My Sunshine Away, tells two stories. One is the tale of young love, or lust, or – more likely than not – both, as is often the case for a 14-year-old boy. It is also a tale of stolen youth and lost innocence that, once taken, can never be returned or restored.

Initially, the narrator paints a dream-like, idyllic version of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the reader which seems natural since most people romanticize their childhood memories in a manner that provides comfort during life’s later, inevitable, challenges. However, it does not take long for the reader to discover that many of the characters are quite unhappy, and when a horrific crime shatters the neighborhood’s facade of make believe, nobody is left unaffected and things only get worse.

Lindy Simpson is both the object of the narrator’s desire and the victim of the crime which occurs fairly early on in the novel. The rest of the novel combines resolving the mystery with chronicles of teenage misbehavior. Unfortunately, there are times when interest is lost as the characters become too unlikable to root for. And closure comes slowly. One stops caring about who the perpetrator is and begins to wonder where exactly the author is leading them.

Walsh brings the story to a close with another monstrous act followed by a reuniting of the main characters later in life. The narrator’s later reflections on his feelings are also provided. In this manner, the author manages to recapture the majority of the novel’s initial promise.

Overall, the writing in My Sunshine Away is strong and Walsh’s debut novel is worthy of a reader’s time.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an Illinois-based educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Broken Arrow

Die A Stranger (nook book)

Die a Stranger: An Alex McKnight Novel by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 288 pages)

Steve Hamilton’s Die a Stranger is his 11th novel and 10th in the Alex McKnight series. He has won two Edgars, a Shamus and an Alex Award for his crime fiction, and an award from The Private Eye Writers of America. He can write. He constructs effective plots without being overbearing and his characters are worth caring about.

McKnight, a former cop and sometime private investigator, is once again drawn into the evil that pervades and invades the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He has a shady past, but his moral center carries these novels as he throws away the book and generally saves everyone from others or themselves, while trying to reconcile his conscience with his actions. In short, with McKnight, the ends justify the means.

This is the second Hamilton-authored novel that I have reviewed (the first was Misery Bay), and I will admit that I mostly like his work. Objectively, this is how I depict Die a Stranger.

Drug smugglers exploit the Canadian border, and, by coincidence, innocent and not-so-innocent bystanders in Paradise, Michigan, become players with life and death on the line. Vinnie LeBlanc, a sober individual with a former drunkard for a father struggles with the blurred lines between life on the reservation and a life free from his onerous past. One night after a funeral, he goes off the wagon and shows up missing. Since McKnight was LeBlanc’s caretaker during that evening of modest revelry, he must attempt to find the man when he goes missing the next morning.

McKnight loses control, situations evolve, and when LeBlanc’s father reappears, McKnight pairs up with him in the quest to find the missing person. Multiple narrow and improbable escapes take the reader to the end. For me the bottom line is this: The beginning of the novel is strong and draws the reader in. A last minute plot twist (not uncommon for this genre) adds something to the ending after things have stalled out. I initially thought I would like this book – and I wanted to, but I do not think the “chase” is effective. The partnering of McKnight with LeBlanc’s father comes off as overly contrived and simply does not work.

Die a Stranger (back cover)

I thought this novel had a great deal of potential but it kind of got off track – or left the reservation. Still, this book is recommended for general readers and for fans of private investigator/private detective novels.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator in the Midwest and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Here is a review of Misery Bay: An Alex McKnight Novel by Steve Hamilton:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/misery/

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Beer Review: Omission India Pale Ale (IPA)

Omission-portfolio-3-brands

Generally, a taboo topic in the craft beer world is this notion of gluten-free beer. I mean, how could a beer brewed with barley and wheat substitutes honestly compete with counterparts using the real things?

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Well, Omission Beer doesn’t sacrifice their ingredients while crafting their beers. Omission is a brewery priding itself on creating beers with “traditional ingredients that everyone of legal drinking age can enjoy.” Recently I had the pleasure of trying Omission Beer’s IPA. I was told upfront that it was a gluten-free beer, and never having had one before I didn’t know what to expect.

Omission IPA crop

I poured this beer into a pint glass and was very pleased with what I saw. The IPA poured a deep golden color with a beautiful hazy-white, two finger-head with lacing to spare down the inside of the glass. Maybe I’m being picky, but my only complaint with the appearance is that I find a more copper color more appealing than gold. [Picky! Ed.] IPA receives a 4.75/5 on looks alone.

The nose on Omission’s IPA was wonderful, to say the least. IPA fills your nose with notes of fresh citrus and crisp pines; obviously influenced by its Pacific Northwest roots. This is just everything you could ask for – an IPA on the nose. The only thing lacking, for my preference, is a more juicy presence. Even though there is a pleasant citrus quality to the aroma, it does lack that juiciness I am fond of, and because of that its aroma gets a 4.25/5.

The lack of presence this beer brought to the mouth is what really hurts it. It is so thin that the moment you take a sip it is gone. Nothing lingers or coats the roof of your mouth like you’d expect and sometimes want from an IPA. I don’t know if this is the result of it being a gluten-free beer, but it just lacks some presence. I would have loved to get a longer taste out of this one, but it abandons the palate pretty fast. It’s not like this IPA delivers an unpleasant mouthfeel; rather, it does not give any mouth feel leading to its very neutral grade of 2.5/5.

The final piece of the puzzle is the beer’s taste. Omission IPA tastes exactly how it smells: fresh, bright, piney, and citrusy. But, just like the mouthfeel, that great taste dissipates immediately. Again, this does not mean that it is unpleasant, I just would have liked more out of it! Regardless of its short-lived life, it was very tasty and I believe it earns a respectable 4/5.

I didn’t quite know what to expect out of my first gluten-free beer. I’ve usually heard mostly negative reviews, so I was shocked and pleasantly surprised by how great this beer is. The only downfall to this beer is that it dies out pretty fast, but that is easily forgiven by its classic Pacific Northwest IPA taste. With a crisp pine and robust citrus nose and taste, IPA from Omission Beer easily receives a 3.88/5!

Well recommended.

Ryan Moyer

Ryan Moyer is a graduate of Indiana University, who works and pays taxes.

Omission IPA is brewed by Widmer Brothers Brewing Company and contains 6.7% alcohol by volume. Widmer Brothers is based in Portland, Oregon.

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School Days

Where You Go (Nook Book)

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Process Mania by Frank Bruni (Grand Central Publishing, $25.00, 218 pages)

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal. A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth… or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come. Winner or loser: This is when the judgment is made. This is the great, brutal culling. What madness. And what nonsense.”

Frank Bruni has the good sense to argue that adult life may begin with one’s acceptance into a college, but it does not end there. Students are responsible for what they make out of their education, whether at an elite or less well known university. As he states, “Great educations aren’t passive experiences; they’re active ones.” He builds up his case by noting that several prominent and successful leaders in our society attended smaller, less “prestigious” colleges. Condoleeza Rice, for example, attended the University of Denver as an undergraduate. Steve Jobs, of course, dropped out of college, as did Bill Gates. Did Rice and Jobs and Gates turn out to be losers? Failures? Not exactly.

Bob Morse, who heads the college rankings program at U.S. News & World Report, did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Cincinnati before getting his MBA from Michigan State. As Morse has concluded, “It’s not where you went to school. It’s how hard you work.”

Bruni emphasizes that some students will feel more comfortable at a small college offering a “more intimate academic environment,” even if schools like Kenyon, Denison, St. Lawrence or – a school I’m adding to his list – the University of the Pacific (UOP) are “less venerated than Princeton, Brown and Cornell.” For some, smaller colleges are “ideal environments: especially approachable, uniquely nurturing.” (UOP hangs banners reminding its students that it offers “Professors who know your name.”)

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In this calm, forthright book, Bruni tries to reduce the “madness” of the college admission process, noting that there are several inherent flaws and biases that applicants have little or no control over. For example, a particular college may need a couple of trombone players for the band. If you are the first or second trombone-playing applicant, you may get a large packet offering you admission and a scholarship. If you’re the third trombonist applicant, you’ll likely receive a thin envelope containing a rejection notice. If life, as John F. Kennedy stated, is not fair, than neither is the process of determining who gets into our colleges and universities.

Students who suffer the consequences of unfair admissions policies will learn that it will not be their last experience with life’s unfairness. What counts is their positive response to adversity and their perseverance in making the best of whatever circumstance they have to settle for.

Bruni’s book would be an excellent purchase for high school students who feel threatened by the highly competitive process of seeking admission to a so-called “elite” university. Reading his book may help such students to calm down, and feel encouraged to investigate various colleges, not just the “status” schools that their classmates may lust after. (Any school can offer a fine, valuable education to students ready to demand a lot from themselves and their environment.) This book is also a near indispensable guide for the parents of current high school students.

Where You Go… reminds the reader, young or old, high school student or adult parent, that “there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything (in life) hinges.” Some, in fact, will find that a valuable lesson can be learned via being rejected by one’s top choice universities. One young woman, a graduate of the famed and “charmed” Phillips Exeter Academy, was rejected by all five of the colleges she applied to. She states that, “There’s a beauty to that kind of rejection, because it allows you to find the strength within.” That young woman started up a new federally-supported public elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. A loser? Hardly.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as editor on this piece.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-where-you-go-is-not-wholl-youll-be-an-antidote-to-the-college-admissions-mania-by-frank-bruni/

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The End of the Innocence

Swing (nook book)

Swing: A Novel by Philip Beard (Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, $14.95, 324 pages)

John Kosta befriends Henry Graham, even though it is more the other way around. Then, Henry’s sister, Ruthie, takes a liking to John as well. Next, Henry shows up at an awkward moment on New Year’s Eve, following the death of the Pittsburg Pirate’s great right fielder Roberto Clemente and, before you know it, you have the foundation for a novel. But, like all great novels that use baseball as a backdrop, Philip Beard’s third novel Swing is actually not about baseball.

John has no legs, and Henry is a 10-year-old boy trying to deal with his father’s need to move from one woman to the next through his love of baseball and the Pirates. Not coincidentally, both Henry’s father and John share in Henry’s passion. John serves to fill a void for Henry, establishing a relationship that takes the reader all the way to the final pages of the story.

Father-son, male-female, brother-sister, husband-wife, friend-friend, co-worker to co-worker – no relationship is without complication. This novel is as much about lost innocence and regret as it is about anything. And it is about continuing to find a way to move forward and live one’s life amid the inevitable disappointments and challenges that pop up.

Swing is reminiscent of a John Irving novel, with the obligatory oddball character(s), themes of missing fathers, and the characters’ obsessions with sex. In fact, while some Irving novels run too long, and while this reviewer prefers the condensed version in most cases, Beard could have provided us with more.

The novel shifts back and forth in time between Henry’s adult and childhood years. If somehow the author could have avoided this technique, it probably would have been an even stronger and more impactful story. That being said, it is well worth one’s time to read Swing. It is one of the better stories this reader-reviewer has encountered in a while.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, and the author of a book about baseball, love and Bob Dylan, Life and Life Only.

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Angels of Mercy

The Nurses (Nook Book)

The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama, and Miracles with The Heroes of the Hospital by Alexandra Robbins (Workman Publishing, $24.95, 360 pages)

My mother worked in a hospital and I often wondered what went on during one of her nursing shifts. Alexandra Robbins (Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities) has answered that question in The Nurses, in which she covers every aspect of the workers she calls “the heroes of the hospital.” Nurses are, of course, the staff members that patients interact with the most.

This nonfiction account is based on actual events in three urban hospitals – possibly three based in Los Angeles – during one year. The reader learns about nursing cliques, the positive and negative relationships between doctors and nurses, the attachment that can form between patients and their caregivers, and the unique status of the male nurse. Problem patients – those who sabotage their own care via demanding attitudes and criticisms of hospital staff members, are examined in detail. It turns out that there are many ways in which the hospital workers can get a dose of revenge! (Fair warning to all.)

Robbins delivers the message that whatever hardships members of the nursing profession encounter – and there are many (including being burdened with tasks that physicians feel are beneath them and compassion fatigue) – nurses tend to feel quite satisfied with their line of work.

To her credit, Robbins helpfully identifies a list of issues that need to be fixed in the profession, and also supplies her ideas as to how this can be done. This eye-opening book should appeal to future and current nurses, their family members, and anyone who may potentially be in need of hospital care at some point in their lives.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Nurses will be released on April 21, 2015.

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