Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Fuhrer Virus

The Fuhrer Virus by Paul Schultz
(Eloquent Books / 1-606-93117-2 / 978-1-606-93117-2 / November 2008 / 320 pages / $17.50 / Amazon $14.18)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

This espionage-suspense caper is set during World War II, but during that odd and brooding breath-of-a moment-time period during 1941 when Russia and England were in a desperate, full-out balls-to-the wall war effort against Nazi Germany. America was officially a neutral nation but teetering on a knife-edge, with powerful and influential people and organizations – within the government and without, within America and without – pulling one way or the other, according to their own dictates and reasons.

The characters and their reasons for launching a scheme to infect Hitler, then riding high as the Third Reich looked to be all but unstoppable, are intricately linked. An American industrialist and his good friend, the Senator, have good reasons for wanting to keep America neutral. There are the German army officer and his old university friend – now influential in German Intelligence – who come up with a scheme to infect Hitler with an obscure viral disease. It is supposed to be only temporary and done from the very best of motivations: to sideline the Fuhrer just long enough to keep him from interfering in the conduct of the war on the Eastern Front, and allow his generals free hand to win in the campaign against Soviet Russia.

Roped into this convoluted plot is a disgraced American Army officer, with just the right medical background… and working against it is Michael Barnes, a military intelligence agent from the loose organization that would become the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. In an ironic contravention of the usual sort of World War II espionage thriller, his mission is to save Hitler’s life, rather than end it; since it is in the best long-term interests of the US that Hitler be allowed to thoroughly bungle his military’s war against Russia. The tangle of plots and cross-purposes are very well worked out, and in accordance with the actual historical circumstances; there were indeed substantial influences working against any involvement in a European war at that time. The FBI and other anti-espionage bodies were also quite efficient at keeping tabs on German efforts to extract an advantage from association with German-Americans. In my opinion, the one structural weakness in developing the plot was that the coincidence of Doctor Ross being exactly the sort of medical expert necessary AND being German-American, and fluent enough in German, as well has having just that very week been caught in a honey-trap. It struck me as being altogether just too much of a contrivance, and contrary to Mark Twain’s advice for those who write fiction: “confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.” Aside from that turn of plot and character, The Fuhrer Virus is a brisk and entertaining tale, and a look into a period of WWII which is usually rather underrated by the writers of this kind of adventure.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review
Paul Schultz at Eloquent Books

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gone Over

Gone Over
by David Chacko & Alexander Kulcsar

(Foremost Press / 0-981-84188-0 / 978-0-981-84188-5 / July 2009 / 446 pages / $18.97 / Amazon $17.07 / Kindle $6.99)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

I have always enjoyed good historical fiction, especially when set during the “days of fighting sail,” wooden ships and iron men and so forth, and since David Chacko's and Alexander Kulcsar's Gone Over takes place during the American Revolution, I expected to find it entertaining. I did, but more on that shortly.
I had never heard of the main character, one Israel Potter, but he was a real person. Wikipedia provides a thumbnail sketch: "Israel Potter (1744-1826) was... born in Cranston, Rhode Island. He had been a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill, a sailor in the Revolutionary navy, a prisoner of the British, an escapee in England, a secret agent and courier in France, and a 45-year exile from his native land as a laborer, pauper, and peddler in London." Such a man is clearly a fine subject for fictional treatment, all the more so because most details of his life are largely unknown. Mssrs. Chacko and Kulcsar are not the first to take advantage of this. The best known was no less than Herman Melville, whose serialized treatment of Potter's life was ultimately published in 1844-55 as a short novel, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. This work is of interest today mainly as an early example of Melville's developing narrative skills, and not as a creator of accurate historical fiction.

Being more a member of the tribe of general readers than a historian, I can report that Gone Over meshes with the mileposts of Potter's life reported in Wikipedia, but more gratifyingly, it fleshes out that life in most convincing detail. Perhaps the finest accomplishment is conveying a sense of the times – grand times, we think today: revolution was in the air. Great things were being done, by heroes! But few people would have thought that at the time. The colonists would have felt terribly overmatched against the mighty British Empire, sandwiched between British Canada and the (mostly) British Caribbean, threatened by large, well-equipped armies (including German) conquering American cities at will. Spies and loyalists were everywhere. Everything was in doubt, living was hard, and fear and anxiety would have been the order of the day. Gone Over conveys this ambience well, better than the histories that I am familiar with.

We see the terrible conditions Potter endured as a prisoner of the British. When he is offered a minor job as a spy, he accepts more out of a sense of self-preservation than loyalty to his fellow Americans. He finds he is good at spying, and gradually is given more important assignments. One of the most important is traveling to France, meeting Benjamin Franklin and dealing with some of the British spies around him. (Franklin is convincingly portrayed as well.)

Another assignment takes him back to America, to help recruit Benedict Arnold to the British cause. There, family connections, old acquaintances, romantic liaisons, and the dicey tactical situation take center stage.

There's no need to lay out the larger plot: all Americans know it (or should know it). Potter's life goes full circle as well, being given its own arc, and its own resolution, by the authors, couched in a prose style that, to me at least, nicely straddles the historic and the modern. Let me add in passing that the editing and proofreading are very nearly perfect. This is a completely professional product, a fine read, and a worthwhile book for lovers of good fiction.

See Also: Dr. Past's Review of Echo Five
Jack Dixon's Review of Devil's Feathers
David Chacko's Website

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Megan's Way

Megan’s Way
by Melissa Foster

(Outskirts Press / 1-432-74442-9 / 978-1-432-74442-7 / July 2009 / 304 pages / $14.95 / Amazon $13.45 / Kindle $5.99)

Reviewed by Donna Nordmark Aviles for PODBRAM

Megan Taylor is a single mom with a fourteen-year-old daughter, a tight knit circle of friends, a self-made career as a muralist, and terminal cancer. When Megan’s Way opens up, Megan’s cancer, which had been in remission, has returned with a vengeance. Although she has medication that may prolong the inevitable, she makes the difficult decision to forgo further treatment, effectively shortening her life and by extension she hopes, her daughter’s suffering.

Knowing that she will not be there for her daughter, Megan tries to gently push Olivia away in an effort to have her become more independent. Not knowing that her mother’s cancer has returned, Olivia feels confused and hurt by her mother’s actions. She becomes increasingly distant and withdrawn, eventually acting out in a dangerous way in a bid for her mom’s attention.

Megan’s best friend since childhood, Holly, is married to Jack who has also been in her inner circle of friends for years. Peter is the fourth friend in the group and he has been in and out of a relationship with his partner Cruz, unable to commit totally – perhaps because of his mother’s abandonment when he was just a child. All of these friends have a strong allegiance to one another and especially to Megan. They also all have some pretty intense secrets for a group of adults that are so connected.

In her debut novel, Melissa Foster weaves a tale of friendship and love intertwined with threads of heartache, deceit and missed opportunity. Her characters are complex and for the most part well developed although I did find some of their decisions and actions to be questionable.

Holly, for example, is defined in the beginning of the story by her longing for the child that she and Jack are unable to conceive. When her secret is revealed near the end of the book, however, her actions and negative feelings toward Megan are out of sync with the Holly that we’ve come to know.

Megan and Olivia have an unexplainable, almost spiritual connection that allows Megan to feel the same pain that Livi feels even as she feels it. This ability is witnessed by Megan’s friends on several occasions. For some readers that would be a hard pill to swallow in itself, but with the final reveal, it is thrown even further into question.

One of my favorite characters, and one that seems to have been overlooked by previous reviewers of Megan’s Way, was Jason. He is a young boy that Olivia befriends after Megan’s passing. Jason has lost his own parents in a tragic accident and his friendship and understanding are key elements in helping Olivia through the most difficult time in her young life.

Technically the book is well done with only a few, easy to overlook errors and a larger than normal font for an adult book. What I really find impressive is the author’s presence on the web and the exposure she has been able to garner for Megan’s Way after only a few short months in publication. Melissa Foster is clearly an author who entered the world of independent publishing with not only a vision for her book, but also a well thought out marketing plan.

Megan’s Way arrived in my mailbox with Melissa Foster’s business card that reads in part, “A mother’s journey, a daughter’s will to survive, and a circle of friends shrouded in secrets.” I was intrigued and dove right in hoping for a great read and I was not disappointed. Thank you, Melissa, for the opportunity to get to know Megan and the gang!

See Also: Melissa's Website
An Interview with Melissa Foster

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Coming Together

Coming Together:
A Novel of Love and Intrigue in Rio

by Joyce Norman and Joy Collins

(Chalet Publishers / 0-984-08362-6 / 978-0-984-08362-6 / June 2009 / 228 pages / $14.95 / Amazon $11.66 / Kindle $6.99)

Reviewed by Malcolm R. Campbell for PODBRAM

Acclaimed filmmaker Daisy Gardner is hired in Chapter Two of Coming Together to create a documentary about Brazil in the early 1980s that accurately depicts the country in all its moods from Rio to the rainforest and from the playground beaches of the rich to the nearby hillside huts of the pragmatic poor. Recently divorced from a man who was jealous about her success and who resented the fact she wasn’t ready to start a family, the thirty-two-year-old Daisy is more than ready to plunge into another foreign assignment.

Authors Joyce Norman and Joy Collins foreshadow the ultimate theme of this richly detailed novel in chapter one, as “the large wooden double doors fell in with a thunderous noise like a bomb exploding. Startled, Isabella dropped her fork and stood. When the dust cleared, she saw four Brazilian Federal Police, each holding a machine gun.” The police have raided Isabella’s home on Rio’s Corcovado Mountain where she cares for abandoned children while facilitating their adoption. The policemen grab as many children as they can carry and take them away to a state institution.

As Daisy plans her trip at her Washington, D.C., home, the plight of Brazil’s millions of street children some 4,769 miles away is well outside her field of vision. So, too, is a talented Brazilian filmmaker, Luis Campos, who will join Daisy and her long-time friend, cameraman Charlie Crawford on the project team. Daisy has never heard of Campos, but Charlie has met him and claims he “has the touch” and would be tailor-made for the project.

Once in Rio, Daisy soon discovers Campos’ contagious, yet bluntly honest, passion for Brazil and its history. In addition to his skills with a camera, he’s the perfect guide for a documentary team seeking the best locations for filming. One such location is Isabella’s “A Candeia” orphanage where the team will take dramatic footage of the tall Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue on the mountain’s summit.

Once there, Daisy meets the children and a hundred questions come to mind. Why is the orphanage hounded by the federal police? Why are those trying to adopt or otherwise help the abandoned children met with so much government scorn and interference? The children, variously considered a national nuisance and a national, scandal become one of the candid subjects for the film, as well as a cause Daisy finds she cannot overlook.

Isabella says, “If I could tell you the stories of the man babies we have found in garbage cans, in open fields in the Northeast, in filthy stables and God knows where else, then you would understand why I work day and night to get these babies out of Brazil. These babies are little fighters.”

While the documentary project serves as the novel’s foundation, Joyce Norman and Joy Collins have skillfully blended in Daisy’s on-going issues with her ex-husband and her parents to create a well-developed protagonist. The authors’ familiarity with the chaotic adoption process in Brazil leads to finely rendered scenes that add tension and urgency to the plot while effectively showing the overarching hopelessness of most street children’s future.

As Daisy, Charlie and Luis plan their documentary, the authors devote a fair amount of space to the sights, sounds, culture, restaurants, slums and architecture of Brazil, most especially Rio de Janeiro (“River of January”) with mixed results. These tours bring the city alive through the eyes of a filmmaker; but at times, they are more travelogues than fictional scenes and slow down the plot.

Readers may be unhappy with the authors’ decision to indirectly resolve one harrowing event late in the novel via a few offhand comments made during an after-the-fact conversation. Nonetheless, the plot succeeds. Daisy Gardner’s carefully organized business trip to Brazil becomes an unexpected and chaotic personal journey as well as a powerful and heartfelt story.

See Also: Joy Collins' Website
The PODBRAM Review of Joy's First Book

The B&N Page of Coming Together
The March of Books Review
The GoodReads Review
Malcolm's Review at Amazon UK