Monthly Archives: June 2014

Trouble in Paradise

CBR_Logo2Death Stalks Door County:
A Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery
by Patricia Skalka

Paradise is a word often used in the same sentence as Door County, Wisconsin, by the natives as well as about two million yearly visitors. Author Patricia Skalka chose the beautiful Door Peninsula, serenely located between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, as the setting for her first mystery novel, Death Stalks Door County.

door county coverIn Skalka’s fictional world, the beginning of the tourist seasonthe major support of a healthy Door County economy—is marred by six bizarre deaths. The victims die in quite different ways. The initial inclination to think of them as a series of unusual but unconnected accidents gradually shifts to the feeling that a dangerous killer is at work. Dave Cubiak, a Chicago homicide detective who has just taken a position as a park ranger to help him work through his grief and feelings of personal guilt for the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter, is asked to investigate. Even though he believes foul play is probably involved, he has faced too much death recently and refuses the assignment. However, as the biggest festival of the season approaches and the possible danger to more people increases, Cubiak agrees to help the local police.

As he searches for clues, with the encouragement and help of important Door County leaders, it becomes difficult to know who can be trusted and who should be considered a suspect. The travel brochure landscape that is Door County conceals a tangled web of greed, betrayal, bitter rivalries, and lost love.

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Author Patricia Skalka

Patricia Skalka captures the spirit and feeling of the area and its residents, and her descriptions of the atmosphere of the villages and spectacular scenery will resonate with readers who have spent time on the Door Peninsula. One of the reasons for this is that, although she lives in Chicago, Skalka has a vacation home in Door County and so has accumulated personal knowledge of her crime scenes. Another reason is that she is an experienced writer, having developed her skills through years as a freelance writer for Reader’s Digest and as a magazine editor, ghost writer, and writing instructor.

Although Skalka’s settings are well wrought, some of the plotting is not so neatly written. [Spoiler Alert!] It’s difficult not to wonder if the eventually unmasked killer could have committed all the murders alone. One of them was extra hard to believe. However, the author explains it all in a seemingly logical way. The surprising ending also fit the character of the killer as well as the setting for the story.

Death Stalks Door County is a good first novel and an interesting beginning for what we are told is the first in the Dave Cubiak mystery series. Skalka says she has already outlined four more books in the collection, published by the University of Wisconsin Press’s new imprint, Terrace Books. It’s also interesting to speculate about the reactions of the author’s vacation neighbors to the book’s alarming threats to their beloved Door County tourist industry. (Hey! It’s only make-believe—they’ll get used to it.) Patricia Skalka plans to continue disturbing the peace in Door County for quite a while, which should be a good thing for readers.

Four-Star Review

May 2014, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Fiction/Mystery
$26.95, hardcover, 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-299-29940-8

—Reviewed by Betty Nicholas

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A Soaring Debut

CBR_Logo2Bird
by Crystal Chan

Twelve years ago, the day Jewel was born, her five-year-old brother, Bird, flung himself off a cliff thinking he could fly. Since that day, Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word, and he and Dad have devoted all their energy to protecting the home and family from Duppies—Jamaican spirits whose mission is to cause trouble. Meanwhile, Mom spends most days lost in sadness despite Jewel’s best efforts to cheer her up.

In an effort to get out from under the Bird-filled silence of her family, Jewel explores the woods and trails around her home, drawn especially to the cliff from which her brother jumped. She does all her exploring alone until her twelfth birthday, when she meets a new boy in the woods. That day, everything changes.

bird-9781442450905_lgThe real strength of Chicago author Crystal Chan’s debut novel lies in her rendering of its protagonist. Jewel’s first-person narrative voice is compelling and complex from the first page, and Chan does a beautiful job allowing readers to really inhabit that twelve-year-old mind, in which shades of gray are just beginning to appear between the black and white of right and wrong. Jewel’s friendship with the new boy, John, develops rapidly, and her emotions are, appropriately for her age, extreme and extremely honest. In Jewel and John we have two irresistible young voices guiding the story.

Bird becomes murky in its development of Jewel’s parents, whose turbulent relationship and wildly differing cultural and spiritual beliefs remain difficult to grasp, though they serve as the focal point of much of the novel’s conflict. Of course, the self-absorbed nature of their relationship underscores Jewel’s loneliness and heightens the credibility of her indignant complaints that nobody ever listens to her or tries to understand her behavior before punishing it. However, Mom’s and Dad’s fights about who is responsible for Bird’s death, about what Jewel should know about her father’s Jamaican spiritual beliefs (and the disorienting flurry of Aztec and Western Christian superstitions he also subscribes to), about how the home should be run, etc., feel too fresh and new for the twelfth anniversary of the tragedy, leaving the reader wondering why the adults haven’t at least come to some sort of impasse, even if they haven’t yet healed.

All in all, Bird is a highly compelling read for middle-grade audiences and older; adults will like this one, too. Chan’s prose is evocative and moving, and her young characters leap off the page as fully developed individuals with complex objectives and conflicts. Bird is a beautiful debut novel, and Chan’s is a literary voice to listen for in the future.

Four-Star Review

January 2014, Atheneum (S&S)
Fiction/YA
$16.99, hardcover, 295 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4424-5089-9

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

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Life During Wartime

CBR_Logo2Grand Crossing:
Coming of Age on Chicago’s South Side During the Great Depression
by Jack McGuire

Memoirs are difficult to do well. A memoir is not an autobiography, which focuses on the author himself (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi or Malcom X). Rather, a memoir is about the times, the circumstances, or larger-than-life characters of the memoirist’s life. Often, memoir falls into nostalgia.

Grand Crossing—an “Irish-American Memoir”—has tremendous potential: the Great Depression, an Irish family in an ethnically diverse Chicago, a policeman as father. Unfortunately, the publication doesn’t live up to its possibilities.

9781457523441 grand crossingObviously, the reader knows this is Chicago during the Great Depression, but there is no sense of the time or the place in the vignettes that fill the book. While both are clearly in the author’s head, he fails to translate that to the page. The book doesn’t smell or taste of this great Midwestern city; it doesn’t say “Chicago.” It doesn’t impart the feel or texture of the Depression. And despite the subtitle, this is no coming-of-age work. The author doesn’t grow from youth to manhood; there is no revelation, no personal growth, no loss of innocence while gaining wisdom.

Although Grand Crossing has its engaging moments, they are not enough to carry the book. A car crash in Ohio while returning from vacation resulted in spending a night at a farmer’s house. Unfortunately, the reader learns nothing of the circumstances of the farmer’s home and life. The contrast of rural family life during the Depression to the author’s urban existence could have been revealing. A second story that held potential concerned the author’s oldest sister learning from their Aunt Elsie the truth about the sister’s conception and her parents’ marriage. Aunt Elsie’s motive reflects the aunt’s cruelty. Finally, near the end of the book, the reader learns of the involvement of the author’s father in a shootout where his father kills a man. This is truly riveting, but the conversation among the policemen in the car before the shootout is cloying and clichéd.

The bulk of the book is much blander and clearly outweighs these stronger stories. The reader is treated to two paragraphs on what kind of bath soap he and his family members use. An utterly predictable chapter is dedicated to the young boy looking at pictures of scantily clad women or sneaking peaks of girls through bedroom windows. “The Trial” chapter was undoubtedly amusing in the author’s remembrance, but the humor and poignancy don’t come out in the retelling.

Jack McGuire

Author Jack McGuire

The question of the priesthood for the author is a potential conflict. Throughout the book are references to Catholicism, and three chapters focus on this rich topic. Unfortunately, the author doesn’t explore the full fabric of the Catholic religion and what it means to him. The conflicting desires of father and son concerning the priesthood could have formed the basis for insight into religion, the father’s hopes and fears, and the son’s relation to his father.

Grand Crossing is framed by the author’s experience during and just after World War II. The conceit seems to be the author’s recall of his youth while living through the fighting in Europe. This frame may explain the often jarring switches between past and present tense. It also may explain the racial and ethnic slurs that appear occasionally throughout the book. The author may be trying to recreate a sense of the times when such slurs were acceptable. Only once—in the “Red & Me” chapter—are the slurs dealt with directly. Mr. James tells Jack McGuire that using such language is not acceptable. Did the author learn a lesson here? It’s not clear, since he is soon talking about getting a new job.

Grand Crossing is a straight retelling of a few high-jinks and stories with little color, tension, or insight. Self-published books are often referred to as “vanity press” titles. This book seems to fit that description: interesting for the author, less so for the reader.

One-Star Review

April 2014, Dog Ear Publishing
Biography/Memoir
$15.95, paperback, 208 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4575-2344-1

—Reviewed by Stephen Isaacs

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