Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Books (page 2 of 13)

Book Review: An Unknown Shore

An Unknown ShoreOne of the joys of discovering a new author is coming to the table without any expectations of the author’s previous work (if any). It’s all about what’s in front of you now and the literary journey the author will take you on. At the same time, it’s also, “Okay, buddy, I took a chance and bought your book. Now show me what you got and make it worth my while.”

That’s exactly what happened when I bought and started reading Jim Yeazel’s An Unknown Shore. However, it didn’t exactly happen the way I just described. I heard about Yeazel’s book in an interview with him in my hometown newspaper, the News Trib. Turns out that we both are from the same area. That’s all I needed to convince me to buy his book and see what he had to say. You, nothing better than supporting one of the folks back home.

Not a bad decision. I liked this book a lot. It’s a psychological thriller with plenty of twists and turns to keep you riveted from start to finish. It starts with a badly mutilated body found in a forest in a small Minnesotan town that soon has the community turned upside down as local authorities try to find those responsible. Things become more complicated and chilling when more bodies are discovered.

Although the book bogs down a little here and there, especially with some of the back story and the past relationships with some of the characters, Yeazel has got himself a good story here. It handles the genre well and never shows his cards, which keeps you reading to see what’s going to happen next.

Book Review: Dear Petrov

2016-04-10-1460297788-3105516-dearPetrovcoverEarly in Susan Tepper’s brilliant collection of short fiction, Dear Petrov, her unnamed narrator asks, “Dear Petrov. Can you not take in, just out of range, a lady of wistful yearning. Who, by her own submission, adores you out of reach.” And so begins a mesmerizing and poignant spiritual journey into the heart and soul of a woman whose world has been turned upside down by the man she’s enamored with. We’re not sure if she’s waiting for her lover to come home from war or perhaps if he’s ever coming back. However, that’s not important. Although we the reader are not sure who he is that doesn’t make any difference because Petrov represents all the want in this world; he becomes the embodiment of one’s hopes, fears, desires, loneliness, loves, successes, and failures.

The language is rich and evocative. Open up the book and choose any story and you will be moved by Tepper’s use of language and emotions evoked by the imagery. “I have grown my fingers into claws, in order to shimmy up trees and watch for you,” she writes in “Shimmy” which exudes narrator’s deep-rooted longing for Petrov. “All day I watch for you. I hang by my nails dug into tree bark. The forest is summer tangle, while I’m this cawing bird.” This is brilliant writing. We, as the reader, get caught up in the gamut of emotions and imagery from one story to the next.

These are stories to savor and reflect upon over and over again. I haven’t been moved by a collection of stories like these in a very long time. There’s a reason for that. In the end, Dear Petrov speaks for us all.

Book Review: Dust

DustIt’s been a long time that a book of poetry moved me as much as Brady Peterson’s Dust did. A lot had to do with the topics, which reminds me of many of the things I like to write about, and the reasons why I write. Reading Dust reminded me of the important role we writers have to document and comment about life around us in an attempt to better understand the world we inhabit. Every single moment we capture through the looking glass tells us something about ourselves and invariably, the world around us.

And what makes Dust unique is that the author is simply commenting about life in its lowest common denominator. In language that is accessible and visceral, Peterson reveals much about the world around us.

Take for example, “We Once Played” which will resonate strongly for anyone who grew up in the sixties:

“We once played baseball unsupervised/climbed trees, squatted in culverts between rains—played war/using sticks as guns, jumped out of swings.”

But then, the poem does a 360 and might remind one of the Jim Carroll song, “People Who Died:”

“A college friend of my oldest daughter fell from a cliff one afternoon—free climbing/A college friend of mine was killed in Nam when his jeep rolled over on a bomb/Another slammed head-on into a truck while driving home to see if his high school friend was pregnant.”

It is so gut-wrenching when you get to the part. It’s both a reminder of innocence lost and life’s tragic moments that we all must experience.

And as much as I love Ginsberg and “Howl”, I had to chuckle when I read, “Moloch”:

“Vonnegut, who despised City Lights and the beat writers, claimed everyone knew the best minds majored in engineering, not English.”

Ouch.

I also liked his “everyman” approach and commentary. That’s what makes this collection so approachable for readers who might not read a lot of poetry.

On the other hand, for the literary connoisseurs among us, I really enjoyed his references to many of my favorite literary works, especially T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” (one of my favorite 20th Century poems hands down; in fact, the book’s title echoes another one of Eliot’s works, “The Burial of the Dead”) as well as William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” John Fowles’s The Collector, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five.

This is a fine collection of poetry and another gem from Big Table Publishing.

Book Review: Blood Soaked Dresses

BloodSoakedDressesFront300xBlood Soaked Dresses

Gloria Mindock

Paperback: 72 pages
Publisher: Lulu.com (October 11, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1430310340
ISBN-13: 978-1430310341
13.50

If there were one thing that a poet must do when approaching their craft, it would most certainly be never avoiding topics which are too horrific or frightful. To be sure, it is a poet’s responsibility to do just that so we can benefit from one’s analysis and commentary. Whether it’s war, famine, genocide, civil rights, or death, the poets are the ones who shine through the darkness to help us better understand our world and give us all hope.

In Blood Soaked Dresses, Gloria Mindock journeys back in time to the late 1970s and the civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). She exposes both the atrocities and the horror of this conflict, especially the way that women were affected by it. In hauntingly evocative verse that is brutal and honest, Mindock makes this civil war personal for the readers. These are not just nameless individuals who were killed (one figure places the death toll at over 75,000) or maimed by the conflict; instead, as only a poet can do, she resurrects them and the events of this terrible conflict so we won’t forget. Ultimately, she gives a voice to these tormented souls.

In “El Salvador Bird Watches” she writes about a person waiting to be executed:

“My heart beats so fast into this shallow air.
How can I be heard?
Orange rinds are shoved into my mouth
suffocating me with fragrance. Sadness engulfs me
to know my skin will be stripped and added to the heap.”

Aside from the juxtaposition of the sweet fragrance of orange rinds being stuffed into the person’s mouth to silence the screams, what’s most haunting about this poem is the fact that parakeets flock over the capitol city of San Salvador every day at five in the morning and in the evening and they bear witness to the atrocities happening below.

“The sky is blue, and it’s just another day.”

In that one line, Mindock is brilliant as she compares both the parakeet’s flight and the atrocities below as being a daily occurrence.

And in “Death March” Mindock wonders if the world will remember what happened here and if so, to make sure that those who perished here will never be forgotten:

“Who will be at my funeral?
Who out of this dying world?
A few friends, family, a pair of eyes that loved me
but never told me—

Let us sleep admired.”

These poems are a grim reminder of the evil that exists in our world. These could be poems about other places where hell was in session: Cambodia, Sudan, Rwandan, Syria, and Bosnia. It’s always the poets and the saints who get it right. We should heed their words and listen as if our very own survival depends on it.

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: 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.

A Boxful of Books

BooksOne of my fondest memories of elementary school was the day the books from the Scholastic Book Services arrived in my classroom. Back in the 1960s/70s when I was in elementary school, there would be a Scholastic Book Services book fair at school or our teachers would hand out a two-four page flyer-like catalog with books that we could order such as The Trolley Car Family, Homer Price, and 100 Pounds of Popcorn. We would take the flyer home, which also included an order form that we would fill out and then bring it back to school with our money. After our teacher collected the money, she would send it off to the Scholastic.

And then we would wait.

And wait.

And wait.

One week would pass; then another week.

Every day we would come to school we would look toward the front of the class to see if the “box of books” had arrived.

Another week passed.

And then one day it was there! Yes, right there on the teacher’s desk! It was like Christmas, the Fourth of July, and our birthdays all wrapped up into one and inside the box. We couldn’t wait for our teacher to arrive and distribute the books. One by the one, our teacher would call our names, and we would march to the front of the class, grinning from ear to ear as our teacher handed us our books. And then we would be back at our desks ooh-ing and aah-ing as we thumbed through our new books.

That’s kind of how I felt today when I received a box of my books. It’s one thing to see your book posted on Amazon or someone’s Facebook page; it’s entirely something else when you see your books that you ordered inside the box. This was the first time that I had a multiple title book order, so there was a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing when I saw all these titles together in one box.

I’ve come a long way since Washington Grade School in Oglesby, Illinois but one thing remains the same: the thrill I get when I look inside a box and see “my” books.

For Crying Out Loud!

For those of you facryingmiliar with Amazon’s new payout scheme for Kindle Edition Normalized Pages (KENP), authors get paid for the number of pages read versus books sold. It theory it sounded like a good idea for authors who would write very thin books and then get paid the same rate as an author who wrote a much larger work. In the past, an author could expect around 1.14-1.35 for each borrowed through KDP Select.

Yes, in theory, it sounded like a good idea, but, to excuse the pun, it’s not paying off in the long run.

When Amazon started this last year, I was paid .0056 per page read. Then it was .0049 per page. Last month, it was down to .0046 per page.

The bottom line is that an indie author cannot make it out in the cruel, cold world of indie publishing without a friend like Amazon. Even though my books could be bought at other online sources, most people feel very comfortable and secure with buying only from Amazon. When I had my books at Smashwords, hardly anyone bought them. However, my top selling books continue to do quite well at Amazon with or without promotion. Also, reviews left on Amazon do drive sales.

I look at any sale, whether a book is purchased or borrowed, as a way of getting more exposure. On average, readers read approximately 900 pages a day, which comes out to about three books a day. That might not seem very much, but for an indie author, it’s a fantastic day. I will continue to stand by Amazon because there is no alternative. However, one has to wonder if Amazon’s KENP is really worth it.

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