Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Book Reviews (page 2 of 3)

Book Review: Peek

Peek-frnt-cvrI’m a big fan of flash fiction or short fiction and I always marvel at how writers are able to take brief, fleeting slice of life moments and bring them to life in this literary form. These are writers who have a very keen eye for detail who capture these snapshots of life and then thrust us, the reader, into the middle of them—writers such as Stuart Dybek, Michael C. Keith, and Robert Vaughn who are masters at their craft. Paul Beckman is one such writer and his collection of short fiction, Peek, is a powerful and poignant journey into the heart of the human psyche—filled with drama, heartbreak, triumph, and failure.

As the title suggests, the stories in this collection offer a “peek” into people’s lives and the dramas thrust upon them. Some of the stories in this brilliant collection of short fiction make you shudder; others make you chuckle. Like a doctor with a scalpel, Paul Beckman peels back the veneer of life to reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are so many gems in this collection that it’s hard to choose one or two as favorites. Some of the stories that stood out and resonated strongly with me were “Kosher Soap” about a son and his domineering mother who still has a control on the son after she has died; “Who Knew?” which ties in the overall theme and title of this collection, but more poignantly, the frailties of the human condition when the voyeur becomes the subject of interest for another voyeur; “Wrinkles” which is pure brilliance in how things are not always what they seem; and finally, the continuing saga of Mirksy and Elaine, told in a series of stories which becomes a common thread in this collection, which reminded me of Hemingway’s Nick Adams’ stories.

If you are a fan of short fiction, you are in a treat with this collection. Beckman is a true master at short fiction and I eagerly await his next book.

Book Review: The Next Better Place

Next Better PlaceImagine a young boy and his estranged father on the road traveling across the United States on their way to California. Imagine also, the boy and his father having one adventure after another and along the way, the boy and his father both learn something about themselves and each other. Could anything be more romantic in a post-World War II, Kerouac world?

However, in Michael C. Keith’s brilliant and moving memoirs, The Next Better Place: Memories of my Misspent Youth, a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s, the story is much more complex and poignant.

Keith takes readers on an amazing and memorable journey as father and son leave Albany, New York on their way to California. Their journey is fraught with one misadventure after another as they travel by bus and hitchhike across America in the 1950s. Half Kerouac and half Stephen King’s “Stand by Me” this coming-of-age story is just as much a story about a father and his son having the chance to spend some quality time together as it is about the son’s valuable life lessons he learns on the road.

Along the way, the narrator and his father meet an interesting and colorful assortment of individuals who pose all sorts of problems and windfalls. I love the way Keith wove these characters into the story and how each one’s back story added to the overall story of Keith and his father. One of the more memorable moments in his book (and there were many!) was when they were picked up hitchhiking by a couple and their kids who were on their way to join a carnival. Having worked for a carnival myself, when I was the same age as Keith, I got a kick out of this part of the journey and the story. Their encounter with the family is typical of the many encounters Keith and his father have with various individuals as they criss cross the United States.

Throughout the journey, we see Keith and his father coming to terms with their fragile relationship. There are some awkward and painful moments which underpin their journey, but these moments become a defining moment in their father-son relationship. With each new adventure and in many cases, misadventure, this relationship is tested. The journey is what inextricably links Keith and his father; their survival on the road is dependent on one another if they are ever able to make it across America and eventually back home.

Each of the chapters in this poignant and moving rites of passage saga could be read as a stand-alone story. That’s where the genius of Keith is most noticeable and shines through chapter after chapter. After all, he has made a life out of writing short fiction and he knows how to control this genre/medium to its full potential and power. Readers will most assuredly savor and enjoy each chapter, perhaps even flipping back to enjoy and savor again.

This is a most impressive work from an acclaimed and award-winning author. Even if you haven’t had the chance to experience Keith’s literary achievements, The Next Better Place: Memories of my Misspent Youth is a good place to start. One thing is for certain: after you read his memoirs you are going to want to explore his other writings.

Book Review: Sync City

Sync CityI know it’s probably not fair to compare an author’s work with another literary or cinematic work, but a few pages into Peter Ryan’s sci-fi powerhouse Sync City, I’m thinking, “Wow, this reminds me so much of Blade Runner” – especially the hardboiled detective underpinnings with the characters and snappy dialogue. The fact that I love Blade Runner should give you a pretty good idea how much I enjoyed Sync City.

Ryan has penned an exciting, gripping novel about the future and time travel. I’m a big fan of time travel—who isn’t, right?—but this is unlike any of those other time travel stories. I really like his premise behind the novel in that the Earth’s timelines are all askew which allows marauding groups from the past and the future are traveling through time, and in the words of the author, “mucking up things.” It’s up to our protagonist Jack to set everything straight. After all, the future or the past—depending on where one is—is up for grabs. It is a brilliant idea which Ryan masterfully develops throughout the story.


Ryan’s got a winner here. If you’re a fan of Raymond Chandler or Philip Dick, I highly recommend you book the next trip to Sync City. You won’t regret it.

You can pre-order copies from Ryan’s Inkshares page (the book is currently in post production now) and be the first on your block in the past, present, or future to enjoy this exciting book.

Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Letters from JoseonKorea in the late nineteenth century was a turbulent time. John Mahelm Berry Sill, the American Minister to Korea from 1894-1897, couldn’t have asked for a more difficult posting. In that time there would be the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the murder of a Korean queen, and the subsequent refuge of King Gojong in the Russian legation.

In the fascinating and historically rich Letters from Joseon, 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador’s Wife, Korean historian and freelance writer Robert Neff has given us a unique window on a bygone era in this very readable and enjoyable trip back in time. Relying mainly on the personal letters and correspondences between the Sills in South Korea and their family back in the United States, this period of Korean history comes alive as the letters offer insights into life at the American legation as well as what was happening outside the walls. To be sure, as Neff writes in the book’s preface, “these letters provide a candid view of life in not only the American community in Seoul, but also in the Russian legation, where King Gojong and the crown prince sought refuge following the murder of Queen Min.”

The book is divided into three parts which coincides with the three years that Sill was posted to Korea. In Part One, the Sino-Japanese War is the historical backdrop for the letters and correspondence, which signals the beginning of Japan’s grip on the Korean peninsula; in Part Two, the letters cover a wide range of events inside and outside the legation and ends with the murder of Queen Min; and finally, in Part Three, the letters offer insights into King Gojong’s refuge in the Russian legation and the subsequent period of unrest in Korea.

Neff keeps his commentary to a minimum, though he augments the letters with numerous notes and asides to provide readers with related information to the events and people he describes. Though Sill was not looked upon too favorably for his actions, or lack thereof as minister, Neff lets the letters tell the story and is only there to amplify any historical references.

Although scholars will find this book as an indispensable source of information about the late Joseon period, other readers will enjoy this window on Korea’s past, especially Korea in the late nineteenth century on the eve of the eventual Japanese colonization of the peninsula. Neff has carved out a niche for himself when it comes to the study of this period of Korean history. His knowledge and expertise in this area is commendable. He might not be the only Korean specialist writing about this period, but he certainly has become one of the most prominent.

Book Review: Tina Barry’s Mall Flower

Mall FlowerOne of the joys of reading is discovering a new author and immediately falling in love with his or her writing. Such was the case when I heard about Tina Barry’s Mall Flower.

The stories and poetry in this collection are just as much visceral as they are bittersweet images and vignettes of school, broken homes (and lives) and lost souls trying to find meaning in a world that is not always fair and kind. And don’t get me started on the cover! If you can forgive me for saying, the cover rocks!

But it’s what is inside what counts and there’s plenty to move you. I was immediately drawn into the short fiction and poetry in this collection by Ms. Barry’s poignant use of language and imagery. Whether it’s a reference to Bill Murray and Gilda Radner as Emily Litella talking about “all the violins” in movies on Saturday Night Live (which by the way is one of my favorite SNL moments!) in the story “What’s All This” or the terribly painful “Table Talk,” where the protagonist’s mother listens in on a phone conversation about her father’s latest misdeeds—“Mother sits at the dining room table, legs thrust underneath, a filmy nylon nightgown brushing her knees, her calves dry and scratched. I’m stretched out beneath the table watching her feet rub together like another pair of fussing hands”—Barry is nothing short of brilliant with the prose and poetry in this collection. To be sure, these are stories and poems that will stay with you long after you have read them.

Book Review: A Divided House, the Story of Ike and McCarthy

 

P816nte7wOhL._SL1500_ublisher: Createspace (August 5, 2014)

Synopsis:

Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the power-grab by the Soviet Union to elevate itself to the status of the world’s foremost nuclear power, the deadly serious struggle between “Ike” and “Joe” played itself out from September of 1952 through December of 1954 amidst the machinations of larger-than-life historical characters such as Stalin, Churchill, Truman, Taft, MacArthur, Marshall, Nixon, Alger Hiss, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg, the Kennedys and Roy Cohn.

The underpinnings of the Eisenhower-McCarthy political wars were Communist infiltration of the U.S. Government, the Korean War and the bruising anti-communist movement, later called “McCarthyism”–culminating in the raucus Army-McCarthy Hearings and the U.S. Senate’s censure of McCarthy in 1954. The colorful characters and drama-filled events could alone have provided the stuff for a good novel were it not for the fact that it is all true.

One of America’s darker moments in modern history when the country’s soul was spread open on an operating table like an etherized patient occurred during the early 1950s with Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunts. From 1950 until 1954, the junior senator from Wisconsin held the country at bay as his witch hunt tested both the nation’s resolve as well as its patience.

Much has been written about McCarthy and McCarthyism, but now a new book, A House Divided, the Story of Ike and McCarthy, the author, Donald Farinacci, examines the the impact that McCarthyism had on President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term, including the McCarthy’s attacks on General George Marshall, Edward Murrow’s famous See it Now broadcast, and the McCarthy-Army hearings—which ultimately spelled the end for McCarthy.

The story of Ike and McCarthy is an interesting one when looks at in the context of these events and how damaging they could have been for the President. Farinacci offers fresh insights into McCarthy’s grip on America and how Eisenhower was forced to deal with the senator from Wisconsin. It might be hard for readers today to imagine the difficulties Ike found himself in when he ran for president and had to deal with McCarthy, especially when Ike found himself on the defensive defending his friend Marshall who had been Ike’s boss during World War II. Eisenhower “loathed the ‘ism’ attached to McCarthy’s name,” writes Farinacci. “Truth be told, he didn’t care much for Joe McCarthy either, considering him a demagogue and a fraud; and to Ike, ‘McCarthyism’ as anthema.”

Farinacci is brilliant throughout the book, but none more than when he holds up McCarthyism of the 1950s to “hot-button” issues of today. “How far was it permissible for a society to go in attempting to protect itself from its enemies?” Farinacci asks. “McCarthyism and its hand-maiden, militant anti-communism, resonated with a large majority of Americans on a fundamental gut-level.” There is something to be said to the way that America reacted to McCarthyism then and the way that it reacts to the issues of today. “Today’s polarization in America over issues like gun control, gay marriage, immigration and abortion,” writes Farinacci, “have a clear parallel in the divide over McCarthy and his methods in the early nineteen fifties.

A House Divided, The Story of Ike and McCarthy, is a most brilliant and fascinating study of two men at the height of the Cold War. More importantly, the book reminds us of how one man could turn the nation upside down as he took off on his witch hunt. Or as Edward Murrow eloquently put it, “He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it; and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’” Farinacci has given us much to ponder in this seminal and important work.

 

Book Review: The Break: Tales from a Revolution–Nova Scotia

The Break

Brief Candle Press, October 2014

158 pages

Synopsis: 

Susannah Mills is trying to put the pieces of her shattered life back together after she and her father flee their erstwhile neighbors in rebellious Massachusetts.When the American War of Independence visits the safe haven they have found in Nova Scotia, she must rely on her inner strength and help from new friends to keep her skin in one piece.

Lars D.H. Hedbor’s impressive and sweeping saga of the American Revolution continues with his latest literary offering, The Break: Tales from a Revolution – Nova Scotia. Unlike his other books in this saga which are set in one of the original thirteen colonies, this one takes place outside the colonies in Nova Scotia. Moreover this story, which is told from the Loyalist’s point of view, offers a unique historical spin and at the same time, a story which comes across as genuine, sincere and quite believable.

At the center of the story are two sisters, Susannah and Emma who endure all sorts of hardships. It is through their correspondence with each other that we see how the Loyalists felt about the war and their loyalty to England. It’s a very effective way to bring this period of American history alive and Hedbor is in top form again whether it’s capturing the nuances of the language or describing how butter is made during Revolutionary America.

I’ve been very impressed with this historical saga that Hedbor has been penning. He’s got a knack for bringing this period of history alive not to mention telling a good story. His writing reminds me of James Fenimore Cooper; in fact, I feel that Hedbor is also preserving this piece of American history the same way that Cooper did in Last of the Mohicans and other works.

I liked this story a lot. I am sure you will, too.

 

Buy your copy here.

 

 

Book Review: An American MP in Korea

81Ax6VNc8uL._SL1500_An American MP in Korea

416 pages

Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

Synopsis: When Richard Cezar is drafted into the army in the fall of 1965, trained as a military policeman and shipped off to South Korea, he believes that fate has spared him the horrors of a burgeoning war in Vietnam. But instead, he’s thrust into a different kind of war—one that would shake his core beliefs and cripple his ability to deal with the tragic and deadly consequences.

If you were an American male in 1965 and received your draft notice, there was no doubt where you were headed. However, not everyone was sent to Vietnam after completing one’s military training. One might be lucky to draw an assignment to Europe or South Korea.

Of course, for those fortunate to find themselves in South Korea, the assignment could be just as dangerous as Vietnam.

In An American MP in Korea, the author Richard Cezar, who served in Korea during the 1960s, delivers an evocative and riveting story about a young Army MP who finds himself stationed in Korea during this same period. Part coming of age story and part thriller, the novel takes the reader on a drama filled ride from military bases in Seoul to the seedy underbelly of Seoul’s camptown establishments. There are shootouts, high spend chases, event a visit by General Westmoreland. Through it all there’s the constant threat from North Korea as the Stalinist country conducts limited warfare along the DMZ.

What I found most interesting about the author’s story about Korea in the mid 1960s were the references to what is sometimes known as the second Korean War. During this period, Park Chung-hee had sent two divisions of ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers—the Tiger and White Horse Divisions to fight in Vietnam as part of the deal for the economic aid package the United States had given to South Korea. In retaliation, Kim Il-sung and North Korean fought a limited war along the DMZ as a means to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. My only regret is that the author didn’t talk about this more. I suppose that is rather selfish because I have lived in Korea since 1990 and have written extensively about North-South relations including the 1994 nuclear crisis and 1996 submarine incursion. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to whet one’s appetite about this period and how dangerous it was to serve in Korea.

I also found the author’s descriptions of Seoul during this time interesting and insightful. I’ve seen the country change a lot in the twenty-four plus years, but back in 1965, the country still hadn’t been able to rise from the ashes of war. Although Korea has become one of the world’s leading economic powerhouses, back in 1965, Korea was still seen as an under-developed country. To be sure, the GNP was less than a 100.00 in the early 1960s. This back story to the main story alone is worth buying this book.

There might be some readers who will fault the author for his depiction of Korean women, but one must give the author a certain degree of poetic license in that he is merely documenting what he observed as an MP stationed in Korea. He’s neither condescending nor is he demeaning. If anything, we see the author articulating one of the darker, and sometimes disturbing underpinnings to America’s presence in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. You can read it for what it’s worth, but I see the author calling attention to the reality of the US military presence in Korea for better or worse.

Through it all, Cezar weaves an interesting and engaging story which keeps you hooked until the very end. There are not too many books about Americans serving in Korea during this period which makes this book a real gem to read.

Well-done, Mr. Cezar.

Amazon link

Book Review: The Silla Project

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The Silla Project

PlotForge, Ltd. (August 12, 2012)

SYNPOSIS:

Kim Jong Il, the tyrannical leader of North Korea, hopes nuclear weapons will reunite the divided nation under his iron fist. But turning plutonium into weapons is more than the tiny country hoped for. In a desperate ploy to achieve his aim before economic crisis destroys the dynasty built by his father, he orders his chief operative Pak Yong-nam, to abduct “Someone who can help.”

Mitch Weatherby is a Los Alamos nuclear scientist at the top of his game… until the Feds raid his house, kill his wife, and accuse him of building a dirty bomb to sell to the highest bidder. Mitch knows he is innocent of these crimes but is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. So, when mysterious commandos abduct him it feels more like a rescue.

Secreted away to a mountain stronghold deep in North Korea, Mitch is faced with a choice. Help the country that saved him, or remain loyal to the nation that destroyed his life.

For someone who has been a North Korea observer the past 25 years—both as a writer and the instructor of a course on Northeast Asian Politics/History at an international business school in Daejeon, South Korea—I was keenly interested in The Silla Project. Although it is fiction and the product of the author’s imagination, the book does have its share of “Eureka” moments when the author deftly describes the North’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb. The author has clearly done his research—both on nuclear engineering as well as North Korea’s desire to join the world’s nuclear club—and in the process creates a chilling and riveting Cold War thriller. There are plenty of twists along the way which keeps you on the edge of your seat as you hurry to get through one chapter after another to find out if the protagonist is going to sell out his country for love.

For the most part, the story works. It is quite plausible that North Korea could kidnap a nuclear scientist; after all, the North captured Japanese actors and actresses and had them brought to North Korea to star in movies. However, after the fast-paced and well crafted first half of the book I was let down as I got closer and closer to the end. Although there’s plenty of action and a lot of twists and turns which kept me on the edge, I expected much more as I got closer to the end of the book.

Nonetheless, I would recommend this book for readers who enjoy a thought-provoking Cold War thriller. At the very least, the book, though fiction, offers a glimpse into this Stalinist country and Cold War holdout.

Available at Amazon

Folks who like Ice Cream Headache

icecreamCover2This a from a five-star review by Randy Mixter, acclaimed author of Morning Star and Letters from Long Binh: Memoirs of a Military Policeman in Vietnam:

“I have just ridden a time machine thanks to author Jeffrey Miller and his book Ice Cream Headache. This book grabbed me on page one and took me back to the time of my youth where adventures sparkled like jewels and I thought I might stay young forever.

A book can only take you away if you become vested in the story and the people inhabiting it. The author makes it easy to do both with the ease of his storytelling. As with the best stories, Jeffrey Miller does the hard work and the reader simply comes along for the ride. And what a great ride it is.

I sometimes think of my childhood in the 1960’s as a dream I once had. This novel took me back to that dream and made it real again. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what it was like to grow up in that long ago decade. Ice Cream Headache is like many of my youthful adventures. It sparkles like a jewel.”

 

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