Friday, January 22, 2010

Extra! Extra!

Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York
by Renee Wendinger

(Legendary Publications / 978-0-615-29755-2 / 2009 / 180 pages / Hardcover $29.95)

Reviewed by Donna Aviles for PODBRAM

The orphan train movement of 1854-1929 was a 75-year period in American history when over 250,000 orphaned and abandoned children were transported by train from East coast cities to farming communities in the Midwest in search of homes. The brainchild of Rev. Charles Loring Brace who founded the Children’s Aid Society, the process was soon duplicated by other agencies, including the New York Foundling Hospital. Known at the time as “placing out”, the orphan train movement has come to be recognized as the forerunner of today’s foster care system.

Renee Wendinger, president of the Orphan Train Riders of NY and daughter of orphan train rider Sophie Kaminsky Hillesheim, has recently released Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York. A wonderful addition to other books available on this subject, Extra! Extra! takes a unique approach to the topic, educating the reader through archival materials such as newspaper articles, rider biographies, letters written by mothers who were forced to abandon their children, and original poetry. There are several books that delve deeply into the history of this time, but this work puts a very personal face on the subject that will no doubt grab the interest of anyone who is fortunate enough to pick it up.

A 170-page hardcover, 8 ½ x 11 book using high quality gloss paper, Extra! Extra! is divided into two sections. The first half of the book gives a concise history of the orphan trains, the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital. There are many wonderful photographs and drawings on each page and, as someone who has studied and written about the orphan trains, I was thrilled to find new and interesting material and pictures. There are over thirty biographies of children who rode the trains and there is even an entry by Baby Peggy, a child star from the 1900’s who visited the Foundling Home in 1923.

The second half of Extra! Extra! is devoted to the Newsboys and Bootblacks of the time period. I was most struck to learn that although these boys worked for pennies a day, they had a strong code of conduct and were especially protective of one another. The reader will learn – through photos and news articles of the day – about the lodging, lifestyle, and struggles of the thousands of adolescent boys who often opted for the chance of a better life in the West (via the orphan trains).

Extra! Extra! is well designed and edited, published independently through Legendary Publications. This documentary type book has already gained the attention of professors at Brooklyn College who have developed a graduate level course based on Extra! Extra! entitled, Flight of the Social Classes in Urban Communities.

Extra! Extra! The Orphan Trains and Newsboys of New York is sold exclusively through Renee Wendinger’s website at The Orphan Train.

See also: The Author's Website
Donna Aviles' Orphan Train Blog
Donna's Orphan Train Review

Monday, January 18, 2010

Oilspill Dotcom

Oilspill dotcom by Alon Shalev
(BookSurge / 1-439-20651-1 / 978-1-439-20651-5 / May 2009 / 294 pages / $14.99 / Kindle $4.99)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

Imagine going on a first date hoping to have hot sex and you end up being the Webmaster for a site that is part of the defense against a libel suit brought by one of the largest oil conglomerates on the planet. In addition, you are fired from your high-paying job and start working for nothing, except for the sex. It must have been incredible sex since this huge oil corporation hires an army of lawyers and is willing to spend tens of millions of dollars in court to stop Suzie, the new girlfriend, and send her to jail for a few years. The oil company even hires two security companies to infiltrate the environmental group Suzie works with.

I guess I should slow down and mention that Suzie's environmental group is fighting for a tribe in South America to keep this oil company from spoiling the land this primitive tribe has lived on for centuries. There is oil under the rainforest and money to be made, but there is an obstacle: the locals who want to live as they've always lived without losing the trees.

Several years later, Suzie is still in court and the website Matt built has had almost two hundred million hits, and he has altered history by showing the world what can be done with the Internet, things Matt didn't even know could be done. The story takes place in the 1990s. Boy, love is powerful! The Website is called Oilspill dotcom, hence the name of the book.

When we first meet Matt, he has no girlfriend but wants one and he's talking to his cat Gates. Since Matt is a computer geek, who gets paid big money and is a member of a programmer dream team, I wondered if the cat was named after Bill Gates. Smart cat.

Oilspill dotcom turned out to be a speedy read, since I had trouble putting the novel down. I've read two other books in 2009 that impressed me as five star books, and those books took a bit longer to read. As much as I liked 600 hours of Edward and At the Table of Want, Shalev's book grabbed me and wouldn't let go. The only thing better in this world is chocolate, and sex, of course. I started reading Sunday night and was done Tuesday morning. I haven't read a book that fast in years. I've read James Patterson, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and John Grisham, and in my opinion Shalev is a better writer. More than once, he had me laughing and getting teary eyed while smiling. Those other four guys never did that. Don't get me wrong. I like those other guys, but Shalev told a better story with more depth. The book's cover is unassuming and in no way hints at the treasure hidden inside.

See also: Alon Shalev's Website
Alon Shalev's Authors Den Page

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The 2009 PODBRAM Awards

This has been a banner year for PODBRAM, our best yet by far. The illustrious review team read and reviewed eighty-four books in '09, and many of them were outstanding. The high quality level of the books we read in 2009 has literally delayed the posting of these awards until now. We wanted to squeeze the total number of awards down to the number of winners in 2008, but the task was all too daunting. We presented twelve awards out of fifty-three books reviewed in '08. Now twelve outstanding works will receive official awards, but in addition, four more will receive honorable mention, and stay tuned for the special honorarium later in this post. Regular readers of PODBRAM know that in order to acquire a review here, an author's book must pass the gatekeeper's initial examination, be specifically selected by one of our reviewers, and then survive our legendary book strip-search and dunking tank. These are the best of the best. Without further delay, here they come!

Honorable Mentions

Faust by E. A. Bucchianeri
This study of a famous classic is a massive, two-volume work of dedication and research, far beyond the realm of ordinary POD releases.

Peeper by Paul Chandler
This book missed an award for contemporary fiction and another one for its cover by a mere eyelash.

In Her Name by Michael R. Hicks
This beginning of a new science fiction series is already receiving accolades everywhere from Amazon to the Kindle Boards.

Women of Magdalene by Rosemary Poole-Carter
The only reason this book missed an official award is that it has very recently been taken out of print.

The Official Awards

Best Cover: Winter Ghost by Don Meyer

Historical Concept: Voices Under Berlin by T.H.E. Hill

Christian Lit with Universal Appeal: Saints in the City by Andie Andrews

Science Fiction: Shifted by Colin D. Jones

Mystery/Thriller: Dark Shadows Red Bayou by John Atkinson

Coming of Age: Calling Out Your Name by Ned White

Historical Fiction: Boxcar Down by Charles L. Lunsford

Contemporary Fiction: Ghost Notes by Art Edwards

2009 Relevancy: The Crusading Spirit in Modern America by Richard J. Bazillion

Poignant Historical Fiction: Gone Over by David Chacko & Alexander Kulcsar

Contemporaneous Literature: The Saga of Beowulf by R. Scot Johns

Stunning Originality: Six-Hundred Hours of a Life by Craig Lancaster
(Re-released 10/23/09 as 600 Hours of Edward)
Special Honorarium

The world of quality POD authors, and specifically, the Independent Authors Guild, lost one of our own a few weeks ago. Steven A. Knutson had published a particularly entertaining, autobiographical trilogy during the last few years of his life, the third book of which was reviewed at PODBRAM in 2009. Steve's Valley of the Shadow is our final 2009 Honorable Mention Award. Lloyd Lofthouse will now present his elegy for Steven A. Knutson.
"Long after I'm gone, when my children tell their children, 'your Grandfather was crazy,'—I have lived a wild life, walking on tiptoes and holding in check any hint of a timid spirit. …" Steven A. Knutson
These words captured the Steve I met on the Internet in and out of the virtual IAG (Independent Author's Guild) discussions we had. I never met Steve in the flesh, but I read and reviewed the three books that make up his memoir. You can meet a person and never get to know him but through Steve's writing and e-mails, I got to know him better than most parents know their children these days.
Although Knutson admits to his wayward life as a kid in It Takes One to Catch One, after reading Confessions from the Last Frontier, I want to say that this former Alaskan Wildlife Trooper and Fish Cop made up for whatever transgressions and sins he wrote about in the first installment of his three-part memoir.
In Valley of the Shadow, I wrote, "I cannot imagine this book and the story of raw truth it vividly shows being published by any traditional publisher. I cannot imagine Hollywood making this book into a movie since it would go against the engineered political correctness that seems to rule American thought these days.
"After all, since Vietnam, it’s been a challenge to find the truth from the antiwar American mass-media machine. When you read or watch the news, do so with a grain of salt and consider that Hitler once said if you say a lie enough, it becomes the truth. On the other hand, Steve told the truth."
As long as one of his books survives, Steve's memory will live on. If possible, I'd like to combine all three of Steve's books into one volume with a different title, a new cover, a new ISBN and a new publisher, Three Clover Press. If his children hold the rights to Steve's books, my offer on royalties is 80% to Steve's family and 20% to the publisher, and Three Clover Press will pay the bills to keep Steve's work in print.
Goodbye, Steve, you may be gone, but your memory will live on through your work.

Editor's Note: A special thank you goes out to T.H.E. Hill for creating our new PODBRAM Awards Logo.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Searching for Pemberley

Searching for Pemberley
by Mary Lydon Simonsen

(Sourcebooks Landmark / 1-402-22439-7 / 978-1-402-22439-3 / December 2009 / 496 pages / $14.99 / Amazon $10.19)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Maggie Joyce, a young American living in post-World War II England, begins this novel by searching for Pemberley – or, rather, visiting a Regency-era home that may have been the inspiration for the stately home of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s famous novel. However, a simple afternoon excursion and a conversation about a beloved book ultimately lead Maggie into a soulful search for her own heart’s content.

I read the original, self-published version of this novel, Pemberley Remembered, and enjoyed it very much. This newer, enriched version, published by Sourcebooks in December 2009, is superior, however, in that it weaves multiple layers of history and romance into a compelling tale and satisfactorily wraps up a narrative that was left open-ended in the original book.

Maggie’s interest in the story of a Regency-era family who may have inspired Jane Austen’s timeless book Pride and Prejudice blossoms into an enduring friendship with the British couple who have kept and catalogued the family letters and diaries. Through these historical documents, readers are treated to a retelling of the P & P story, with characters and events just different enough from the Austen novel to keep things interesting. Soon, however, we become immersed in the story of the British couple themselves, Beth and Jack Crowell. Beth is a descendent of the Darcy family (here named Lacey) and Jack is the son of her family’s butler. Their unorthodox and class-breaking romance is set against the backdrop of World War I, when a generation of young Englishmen were killed, maimed, or emotionally-scarred by the horrors of war.

Meanwhile, as Maggie grows closer to these people, she begins a romance of her own with a former American flyer, Rob McAllister, who bears visible and not-so-visible scars from his own experiences bombing Germany. As Maggie tentatively embarks on her first true love affair, she finds herself conflicted. She loves Rob, but he will not commit to her, and she is undeniably attracted to Michael Crowell, the son of Beth and Jack, a man she barely knows, but whose family (and ancestors) she has come to love.

This novel intricately weaves multiple timelines of British history – the Regency era and both World Wars – and also includes an engaging glimpse of Maggie’s own hometown in the coal-mining region of the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains, near Scranton. Simonsen has created characters who tug at your heart and skillfully paints an emotional picture of the devastation of war. When Jack Crowell, who lost a brother and two brothers-in-law in the first war, reacts to the news that his younger son has been assigned to combat in Burma, I was reduced to tears. However, there were also plenty of joyful and truly funny moments, such as a diary entry in which “Mrs. Bennet” gives advice on the marriage bed to her daughters and a humorous retelling of the eldest Crowell son facing a “privacy hole” cut into the bedcovers on his wedding night in Italy.

Searching for Pemberley is a historical romance of complexity and depth, with skillfully layered characters that readers will remember for a long time.

See also: The High Spirits Review
Dianne's review of The Second Date
Mary Lydon Simonsen's Blog

Sunday, January 03, 2010

At the Table of Want

At the Table of Want
by Larry Kimport

(Foremost Press / 1-936-15402-1 / 978-1-936-15402-9 / October 2009 / 344 pages / $16.97 / Amazon $15.27 / Smashwords $4.97)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

At the Table of Want by Larry Kimport is a five-star story. I've read only one other book this year that earned five stars (at Amazon) and that was 600 Hours of Edward, a novel by Craig Lancaster. I may have given five stars to books I read and reviewed prior to adopting Alice Wakefield's rating system in June 2009, but those reads are four-star books, all of them.

After I started reading At the Table of Want, it was a struggle not to drop everything else and read nonstop. Hooked, I was, but I managed to resist the urge to throw everything else aside, like my marriage, putting out the trash, eating and sleeping, and only read late at night or early in the morning for a limited time. Still, I finished Kimport's novel in record time, and I often thought of the story during the day. Each night as I picked up the book, it was like that slice of apple pie after not having one for several months.

Truman Kramer is the main character. He is orphaned young and ends up being raised by his loving Aunt Mabel, a widow. However, the story doesn't start with Truman's childhood. Chapter 1 starts in 1980 at 35,000 feet in a wide-bodied 747. Truman is on his way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, because he joined the Peace Corps soon after high school graduation. The other Peace Corps volunteers, mostly college graduates, are of the opinion that Truman will be one of the first to quit and return home. How wrong they are and Truman's decision to stay in Malaysia and work with poverty-stricken, abused, handicapped children, a job none of the other Peace Corps volunteers want, is what makes this story powerful.

The structure of the story may not make sense at first (it's still good reading), but by the time you are halfway through the book, you will be glad that the author wrote it that way. In the early chapters, the story alternates between Malaysia and Truman as a child seeing his mother die, being taken care of by an older man, then his Aunt Mabel, and the bully incident that sent Truman to a juvenile boy's home prison-like facility for a year when he was a teen (he was framed, but the bully got what he deserved). Because of the structure the author uses, we learn why it makes sense that Truman would have so much compassion for the abandoned, abused handicapped children, all special education types. Truman is not a teacher, he's never been to college and has no training to work with these kids.

The conditions these children live in are horrible. When Truman first sees them, most are naked, filthy and live in a concrete structure surrounded by trash and weeds, sort of like a rundown, bombed-out storage facility after a war. They have been abandoned by their families and their culture to be hidden away with no chance at any life worth living. Then Truman makes his decision, and just thinking about what he did for those kids brings tears to my eyes. Don't jump to conclusions. Truman is no saint. He drinks too much and has an affair with a skinny, bony, married, Malaysian Chinese woman, who is several years older than he is. This is not your standard, escapist, formula romance, and that plot line adds to the story, too.

Malaysia is an Islamic country and adultery is a risky venture at best. That is why I did something I've never done before in the fifty-plus years I've been reading books (thousands of them). With more than a hundred pages to go, I was worried that Truman was going to be caught and punished by the Islamic government of Malaysia, so I read the ending several days before I finished the book. If you want to discover what happens, you will have to buy the book and join Truman in Southeast Asia. Know this: the pleasure I gained from reading this book was not from the conclusion but in the story that a skilled pen crafted. The story is so convincing, I suspect that Larry Kimport must have been in the Peace Corps and lived in Malaysia for a few years. Halfway through the book, I wondered how much of this story was autobiographical. The details are that rich, that vivid.

I highly recommend At the Table of Want. Occasionally (only a few times), there would be a phrase or clause that didn't make sense to me as the author attempted to construct a sentence that had a poetic quality to it, but that was rare and it didn't diminish the story. The story works and so do ninety-nine percent of those poetic sentence constructions. Thank you, Larry Kimport, for taking me on a trip to Truman's Malaysia. I started a boutique press this year, and this is the kind of book I want to publish, one that goes beyond assembly line, formula fiction.

See also:A Small Harvest of Pretty Days by Larry Kimport
Lloyd's PODBRAM review of 600 Hours of a Life (original title)
Larry Kimport's bio at Foremost Press
A recent article about author Larry Kimport
Larry Kimport at Smashwords