The Things We Keep

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko

The Things We Keep, the premier novel of Ms. Julee Balko, is a story about grief, both that which we let go and that which we keep. The thread of grieving carries the story from far before we meet Serena to the final resolution of her own pain. As the reader progresses through the layers of understanding Ms. Balko reveals how grief can poison a family.

The Things We Keep begins with one of the little absurdities that follow a death in the family. Serena is swamped, as are all survivors, with the photos and tchotchkes that carried meaning for her mother. Those items now missing the memory that made them precious become part of the sea of ‘stuff’ that accompanies death.

While alive those maddening quirks of our families are concealed in pantries – they aren’t ours to deal with. After a person’s death – suddenly all those quirks become our property and our problem. When the story opened with Serena dealing with her mother’s cans of beets I immediately understood where she was.

And seriously, what do you do with 53 cans of beets?
Or, in my case, 32 loaf pans?

Book reviews Cover The Things We Keep by Balko
The cover of The Things We Keep Book Reviews and Quote – “Family complexity told with honest simplicity.”

Death, the great equalizer, is also the great reorganizer. In the wake of death within a family, there is an inevitable reshuffling of roles, of emotions, of perceptions, and of truths.

Compounding her grief, for Serena, was the question of why? Why had there been such coldness towards her from her mother? Why had a chasm formed between them?

The loss of her mother comes with both the loss of her opportunity for resolution and a new chance for answers. Although Serena could no longer ask her mother for the reasons, death finally broke the grip of her mother’s choice to hide the truth.

The revelations tumble out as layer upon layer of false memory is peeled away. With the final exposure of the original loss which started the chain of losses throughout the family comes freedom for everyone. The heavy warping burden of grief is finally lifted and the healing of an old wound can begin.

Ms. Balko captures grief with all its facets. She portrays all of the exhausting, frustrating, maddening minefield of emotions that comprise grief, both your own and everyone else’s, with heartbreaking honesty.

The prose is clear and painfully honest. Her words were perfectly pitched for this story of difficult relations and complex family dynamics. Lines of flowery prose would have stifled the impact by dressing it in too much perfume.

As always with grief and secrets, you need to explore down to the roots before you can let go and finally heal.

The Things We Keep is, in short, a complex story told with honest simplicity.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Intense Transformation

Cover of Intense Transformation by Matthews

This little book is rather like a HIIT workout itself. Short, intense, sometimes a challenge, but in the end, it is worth the work.

For those that are not familiar with the term, H.I.I.T. stands for High-Intensity Interval Training. Many programs over the years have followed the HIIT principles. Among them, Crossfit, P90X, Tabata, and interval training all have connections to the core idea of HIIT.

Intense Transformation
by Paul W. Matthews

I was happy to see the author spend time on the benefits outside of sheer physicality. There is a component of HIIT that includes body awareness, mindfulness, intention, and breathing. He also hits on the commensurate nature of HIIT and Yogic practice.

He emphasizes the use of mindfulness in HIIT workouts and the value of precision in movement over just throwing out a load of badly formed reps. This gave me a great deal of hope as I was reading. His emphasis on bettering your own performance is exactly where it needs to be.

Instead of the manifesto, I was kind of thinking I would see, Mr. Matthews seems well-read in the current state of sport research. He uses science to back up his writing, another feature I enjoyed.

Initially, I was afraid I was picking up a dude-bro-type training manual. While he is positive, and ever encouraging the author is also well-grounded in science, mindfulness, and practicality.

I am motivated to go dust off my kettlebell.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Ta Le – Book 1: Knowledge

Cover of Ta Le by Yessoh

I picked up the novel of Yessoh G.D. entitled “Ta Le” because I wanted to experience a culture that was not my own. I find myself torn about leaving this review because my background is not African and I’m wondering if I am missing something, or if I’m taking something for granted that is not applicable.

Either way, I’m going to plunge ahead and leave my honest review. I will leave it up to the reader to decide if I have encapsulated the novel with accuracy and fairness. So, let’s begin.

Cover of Ta Le by Yessoh
Cover of TA LE by Yessoh

We follow two main storylines in the novel. The first is a government operation involving a young analyst drawn into affairs far above his pay grade. After the assassination of an important global figure, Kobenan is tapped to help solve the mystery of this death beside the mysterious leader of the government-based S-cell. The second storyline is of Joel a young man in the city who finds his familiar world unraveling at an alarming speed. In one evening he is orphaned and his sister is spirited away by creatures he has always seen, but never understood. With this act of violence, he is swept into a world of African lore, which appears to be preparing for war.

These two stories weave together through a convoluted series of events that introduces Kobenan and Joel to the unknown world of spirits and djinn that surrounds them. Powerful beings have come into the world and they are being manipulated and sought by a powerful magician who seems bent on the destruction of the current world. A nice twist arrives at the end when we discover — sorry, just can’t do that to you.

But, suffice it to say – I didn’t see them coming. That string of sudden revelations was a pleasant surprise. Overall, I found the pacing was good and the characters have so much more to give.

Now to the part of the story where I had problems. There were moments when through the voice of the narrator the modern world could fall away. I found myself immersed in a dark night on a vast savannah with only the comforting light of a campfire, the figure of a storyteller, and the story.

These moments were wonderful and engrossing and rare. The problem I had was that they were also invariably interrupted. As a reader I found myself confronted with a harsh flip back to modern times. Don’t mistake me. This wasn’t because of the mention of suits, or ties, or watches, or SUVs. The presence of modern items was not the problem. The jolts came from a sudden trip in style or the intrusion of modern language.

When the author draws the reader into the world of lore and djinn, and the ancestors it is truly a magical transformation. I wanted to stay there. My disappointment was that in the end, my time in those wild and untamed realms was all too brief.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Dark Apprentice

Book Review Cover of Dark Apprentice by Val Neil

Wow, I really dislike Nikolai Fedorov.

I know this guy. He is the guy who smirks when they think you can’t see. He is the guy convinced of their own superiority.

From the first page to the last Nikolai, the main character, is both protagonist and antagonist in his own story. He undoes himself at every turn. And, by the end, he has learned absolutely nothing, grown not one hair, and is still the conniving creature he was at the beginning.

Some readers might argue that Nikolai did “change” by the final scene. Nope. Look again. The only change was that he moved his teacher from his mental list of adversaries to his list of allies.

That is not growth. That is merely rearranging his opinion on someone’s usefulness to him.

So, why did I stick with the novel to the end? Good question. I’ll admit – I put it down twice and walked away. I think the thing that drew me back was a simple need to finish the thing so I could get it out of my head. And, because I think I know what Nikolai is hiding under all that calculating cunning. So, back I went.

Allow me to insert a note here: My degrees are in Soviet and E. European studies. My mother is a survivor of WWII. I have spent many hours speaking with people about the sieges of Leningrad and of Stalingrad. I have a well developed idea of just how grim a childhood was in one of those, or other Nazi occupied areas of the Soviet Union.

It makes sense that Nikolai would see the world as one brutal conflict to win – at all cost. So, on one hand I despise what he is and, on the other, I can pity him.

The other major player in the story is the immortal mage Medea. She takes Nikolai as an apprentice against all her better instincts. She has his measure and yet still takes on a power seeking, lying, cheating psychopath.

Her decision is explained late in the story. My response to the revelation was — And your best solution was to teach him? Uhm. Yeah. Medea may be immortal, but I have serious problems with her judgement. This is not to say she is a paragon. She obviously still has a few problems of her own to work out.

As far as the technical side of things went, the writing was clear and the story moved along. But, the emotional depth of the characters left me wanting something more. I didn’t so much make an emotional connection with the characters as I had an emotional reaction to them.

So, would I call this my usual “brain popcorn”? No. It’s more like candy-corn, you either like it or loathe it. This is the first in a series – Will I read book #2? At this instant, I don’t know if I’m willing to allow Nikolai to take up any more of my time.

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Steady

Book Review Cover of Steady: Keeping Calm in a World Gone Viral by Johal

Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic by Dr. Sarb Johal is one of those books I wish everyone would read.

80% of the people around the globe would find some idea or thought within these pages that would help explain the currently fluid world we find ourselves within. They would find an understanding professional who clearly lays out the current causes of anxiety at every level from personal to global.

Dr. Johal is imminently well qualified to write this touchstone for the world. He has worked with governments and international organizations, to develop psychosocial responses for over a decade. Among the crises he has helped guide populations through is the H1N1 pandemic.

He knows his stuff.

The prose is clear and approachable. The concepts are clearly presented and there is ample reference to resources for those, like myself, who are inclined to look at the nuts and bolts of research.

It is, overall, a calming and reassuring look at the changing social landscape caused by the COVID pandemic. Dr. Johal offers understanding and practical approaches to the mental stresses that it seems everyone is facing. He doesn’t offer rainbows, but he is offering umbrellas to help us make it through the current series of crises.

One thing I found of particular note is his refusal to advocate for the ‘normal’. Quite rightly Dr. Johal reminds the reader that every situation is fluid, even if it is familiar. He doesn’t give any promises, but he does make emerging from the pandemic seem possible.

— Oh, and that other 20% or so, those are the folks who live with long term trauma. And while we may know a good bit about anxiety and uncertainty, we would do well to read the book, too. Because, sometimes we need to remember that not everyone is as programmed to flourish in the shifting unknown.

(And no, I don’t know if it really is a 80/20 split – it’s a metaphor.)

I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.

Oathbreaker

Book Review Cover of Oathbreaker by Rettger

If I was still giving my one line book reviews I would say Oathbreaker, the premier novel by author A.J. Rettger, was “Brain Popcorn.” I might even go with “Dark Brain Popcorn.” Oh, for simpler days. 

I picked up Oathbreaker because that is exactly what I thought the story would be, light, fluffy not much to chew on. I was so wrong. The novel turned out to be much more like toffee, in that there is a lot to chew on here. I still have some of it stuck to my teeth. 

The story started out pretty much what I thought it would be. A retelling of the dashing knight story. Young knight goes out into the world, slays monster, rescues maiden, happily ever after. Boom. Done. I swear I could almost hear the dice rolling in the background. 

“20!”
“That’s a crit.”
“Oh, dude. This is gonna hurt.”
“Crap.”
“Have a backup ready?”

In some ways that is exactly what I found. In other ways, not so much. 

A note on the mechanics of the novel. The writing is choppy at times and lacks a polish, but still the story moves along at a good clip. About halfway I stopped being derailed by the writing because I had enough interest in the story itself. I would like the characters to have a bit more depth. But, in reading this novel as a morality play the characters’ limits help them play the foil to the protagonist all the better. 

For the rest… I could be overthinking this. That has been known to happen. 

If you are familiar with Vonnegut’s story profiles then you’ll understand when I say that Oathbreaker definitely follows the Kafka profile. While there are no giant cockroaches to keep the reader awake, there are certainly enough monsters and incidents of the monstrous to provide some unease.

The story follows Mario Deschamps, son to a legendary knight, who dreams of following in his father’s illustrious footsteps.  The story begins on the day Mario is to be let out into the world from his education. He is a bright, shiny, newly minted Knight (pro-tem). But, before he even gets out of the gates there is an incident where Mario fails to live up to expectations. He disappoints himself and others. 

So, our newly minted knight has a chink in his armour. That’s fine – redemption is good for the soul. But – despite all his attempts to ‘do good’ we see Mario slide from one failure to another and perhaps more tellingly from small to greater and greater sins. On this quest, Mario finds companions that help, hinder, and suffer along with him. 

But in the dog-eat-dog world Mario seems to be outclassed by the bubbling menace that pervades everything. It is a world where you can’t stay innocent – much as you might try. Mario’s quest becomes a road paved with good intentions and failures. 

Mario is certainly guilty of Pride at the opening. But, he is quickly humbled by fate, at least for a little while. Anger, Lust, and Folly also make appearances. Each wreaks their particular brand of ‘evil’. But, the biggest sin isn’t seen directly. Unmentioned is Mario’s naivete, which is the most pernicious and ultimately damning sin.

In short: There is no light at the end of this tunnel. So, if you like your fantasy dark, this might be for you. Mr. Rettger has more to learn about the craft of writing, but he tells a good story.

Now, I am going to go read something a bit lighter, like the Book of Revelations.

Ground Control

Book Review Cover of Ground Control

From reading the blurbs about the story I thought I was in for a straight-forward girl meets guy, gets on a shuttle to Mars, all heck breaks loose, struggle until a happy ending.

I could not have been more wrong. While the plot does follow the basic tenets of Sci-fi and space colonization it is far more a story about inner space than outer space. 

Sarah, the story’s protagonist, resonated with me. At times that quality was appealing, at others not so much. Sarah is in many ways a woman plucked from today. Hopeful, loving, conflicted, selfish, needing and not being able to quantify or explain that need to anyone – including herself. 

While we all like to think we would rise to a challenge there is a portion of the population that operates day-to-day within confines they did not define, but which they accepted. They are spectators in their own lives. It is only when all the comforts of life are stripped away, all her securities gone that Sarah is forced to dig for her strengths to combat the danger posed to the mission and her family.

“There’s no going back.”
The phrase, included on the book’s blurb, seems to sum up a great many things about the story as well as life, in general. That simple truth is a pinpoint upon which so many people either change or stumble. The yearning for something which is gone can turn nostalgia into a trap. We are creatures made to unfold over time and Hough produces characters of fascinating origami.



I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily..

Wild Things Will Roam

Book Review Cover of Wild Things Will Roam by K.M. West

Wild Things Will Roam, the debut novel by K.M. West, is a post-apocalyptic gore fest with a soul. The surprises don’t stop there.

The concept that the things that go bump in the night are still with us is reframed. The beasties are wearing new fangs in the wilds left behind by the destruction of our familiar order. The idea is handled so skillfully that the reader is left wondering what might already be staring back from the dark.

The story is written with a crystal clear prose that doesn’t hamper the reader’s experience. The style allows the characters to shine and the story to move forward unimpeded. In short, it was a pleasure to read. A genuine surprise is waiting in West’s fluid and graceful prose even while walking the reader through the horrors of Hell.

The horrors of Hell, it is. The landscape drawn by West is far from benign. Readers who have a history of trauma might want to bear this in mind. The story is a frightening look into what lies under the thin veneer of civilization. It explores not only the world post disaster but also the consequences when that protection from the wild within our own nature is broken.

Cover of the novel Wild Things Will Roam
To Purchase a copy from Amazon

Within this brutal landscape the story follows the struggles of a small group of people thrown together by happenstance – or is it fate?

That is the question that challenges one of the characters, Liv, throughout the story. How much of our action is self-determined versus what our circumstances lead us toward?

While Liv struggles with the concepts of something beyond the seen, others in the group offer varying levels of acceptance with the unknown. Liv’s guardian, Carian starts the novel as aware of the unseen. Lash, a protector and guardian, takes the presence of an infinite plan for granted – perhaps he even sees it as his due. Ander, the younger brother to Lash, is so steeped in the ideas of some overarching other that he is often lost beyond the borders of reality. This causes him to act as something of a lightning rod between what is and what will.

But the question remains at the end, as we see everyone’s sense of the world has changed, is Ander led or deluded? What of his vision is true and what of it fantasy? It looks like we will have to wait for the next book in the series to find the answer.

I would consider buying the hardcover to have it on my library shelves. In a day of electronic consumption this says more of how I feel about this work than all the analysis I can offer.