Book Reviews

Yes to Life

Books of Comfort and Consolation after Living Through 2020

The year 2020 needs no introduction. Many people will agree it was the year from hell. Job losses, schools going remote, and worst of all, losing loved ones. My father passed away in June (non-COVID related) and my mother passed in December (COVID-related). This has put me in a new cold stark reality along with the hassles of wearing a mask every time I go out, continually washing my hands, and coping with an extremely restricted social life. I know countless other people have their stories as well.

But there were a few bright spots: I wrote and published my second novel, I took online courses in copyediting, proofreading and SEO copywriting. I also took on a few projects in these areas. And I read some books that helped me stay sane and grateful. I would like to share my list of books that gave me comfort and consolation during 2020.

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

An elderly artist who once enjoyed a prominent career now lives as a recluse. When he leaves his personal journal behind in a cafe, Monica, the café owner, finds it and adds her own innermost thoughts. Other characters find it and add their own entries. They meet the artist, who ends up teaching art lessons in the café where the characters bond as they learn how to draw.  

The Authenticity Project is the perfect book to read when you are forced to stay at home and need some cheering up. It can also restore your faith in the goodness of special people.

The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Two lifelong friends find they are in a rut and dare each other to try new things and actually learn to live. One of the women is 34-year-old Ellen Fox, who accidentally became pregnant at 17 and was abandoned by her boyfriend before the baby’s birth. She has been raising her son and supporting him while never venturing back into the dating world. Her friend, Unity Leandre, also 34, married her husband at 18 and became a widow at 31. She is still keeping vigil for her late husband and has never dated since. These ladies make a pact: Each writes a list of things she wants to do and whoever actually accomplishes the most on her list will pay for the two of them to go to a luxury spa for a weekend. A few of their goals include having a serious relationship with a man, getting a tattoo, and skydiving.

The Friendship List is about overcoming challenges and the highs and lows of taking chances in the quest to live a full, satisfying life. 

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas

Joseph, an English graduate student at Berkeley, receives the news that his father in Egypt has passed away. He lives with his mother and stepfather and has only visited his father a few times. Joseph has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father and has never felt particularly connected to either group, yet when he receives a mysterious package that his father directed to be sent to him, it propels Joseph to travel to Cairo, Egypt. There he learns about his father and his dedication to being the last in his family’s line to serve as watchman of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, a job that has been in the family for over a thousand years. After his journey Joseph not only understand his father but also finds himself.

Losing my own father and mother, I was able to relate to Joseph’s sadness, introspection, and the realization of how special my parents were.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything by Victor Frankl

The Austrian Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl was the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is from the author’s series of lectures he gave almost a year after the holocaust. His message still resonates today: it is essential to find purpose even after experiencing setbacks and tragedies. Having a purpose in everyday living sustains a person and allows them to be productive and happy so as not to give in to despair. This is coming from a survivor of the holocaust who  lost his wife and unborn child in the death camps.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything gives the reader a newfound appreciation of life and strength to carry on.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui

In the early years of Syria’s civil war, the Assad regime bombed the town of Daraya daily and cut off basic supplies in order to force out the inhabitants. A group of young Syrian men resisted and hid in a library. They read books such as Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, discuss their ideas and beliefs, and talk and communicate with a journalist via the computer about their plight. The journalist then wrote this book to capture their spirit and strength while their lives were at risk on a daily basis.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War was a reminder that although we are suffering from the COVID lockdown, there are people in the world who are enduring even worse trials.

The Book of Revelations by Idelle Kursman

This is my own women’s fiction book that I wrote and published this year. It is a story about self-acceptance. After going through much upheaval earlier in her life, Christine Goldberg is married and works as a representative for a modeling agency. Her husband adopted her twins, a boy and a girl who want to learn about their biological father, but Christine refuses to divulge his identity. But her past catches up with her and she is forced to not only deal with the challenges she has worked so hard to escape but also deal with new ones. Christine must face her old demons now, including her estrangement from her parents and her children’s questions about the mystery of their biological father.

For those who feel like they failed to live up to their life-long dreams and goals, this story is about being easier on yourself and looking at all you did accomplish.

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Book Review of Anxious People

Book Review: Anxious People is a Winner

This year has been heartbreaking. I lost both of my parents. Countless other people have lost loved ones. There were many job layoffs and jobs furloughed. Families and friends could not get together, even for Thanksgiving. Reading Anxious People is just what I needed. A bank robber on the verge of losing everything holds people hostage at an apartment viewing the day before the New Year. Readers learn the backstory of most of these characters, including the policemen who rescue them.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman combines insights about life, adding humor and some absurd conversations as he chronicles the hostage drama. The theme is life is a struggle and everyone carries their own pain and anxieties. We often cannot create the life we desire but should instead try to get through as best as we can while hopefully cherishing some good memories along the way. At the heart of the story is the despair we often experience when things do not go our way or we cannot save our loved ones from themselves.

We meet a father and son police officer team working on the case. The father is a widower who misses his wife, attempts to boost his son’s confidence in his police skills, and despairs that he cannot help his drug-addicted daughter. The bank robber recently experiences job loss, is in the process of getting divorced, and cannot pay the rent for an apartment. In addition, the robber’s spouse wants full custody of their children. The hostages have their stories as well.

Many of the keen observations about life come from the police officers reminiscing about their late wife and mother. She was a priest and this is just an example of what she used to tell them:

We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance…We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to convince ourselves that that will just have to…be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning” (p. 203).

The witness interviews consist of absurd conversations between the various hostages and the police officers that I found too annoying to be funny, but the dialogue and background information gave the story depth and insights. Backman builds a fascinating character with Zara, one of the hostages, in detailing her meetings with her psychologist prior to the main action.

The writing is superb, the plot is brilliantly woven, and the story is peppered with sharp observations about life.

I must be frank. This has been an all-out crappy year. But reading Anxious People reminds me we must get through these times and try to be there for each other.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations. They are for sale on Amazon and many other places.

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Summary of Best Writing Books

Whoever Said Books about Writing have to be Boring? Murder Your Darlings by Roy Peter Clark

Writers, do you want to read a book that contains summaries of the best books on writing? Look no further than Roy Peter Clark’s Murder Your Darlings and other gentle writing advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.  I found this book on the ACES website (The ACES: The Society for Editing). Clark is a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which is a world-famous school for journalists. Having taught writing for over forty years, Clark shares the advice of famous writers throughout history. This is his latest book and now I plan to search for his earlier works, which include The Art of X-Ray Reading, How to Write Short, The Glamour of Grammar, and Writing Tools. I felt an instant kinship to Clark for two reasons: He writes in the beginning that he did not get accepted into his first-choice school (Princeton) and he graduated from Providence College.  I also did not get into my first-choice school, Brown University, and I happen to be a native of Providence, Rhode Island, so I felt an affinity to this author right from the start.

To give readers a sample of Murder Your Darlings, I will summarize the advice of a few of the most noteworthy authors and their writing tips:

On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

Sir Quiller Couch, or Professor Q as he was affectionally known, told his students to “Murder Your Darlings.” He did not mean they should actually kill people, but rather if they come up with sentences they think are particularly witty or exceptional, they should by all means write them down. However, he cautioned they should not be so enamored with them that they refuse to delete them when editing.  Professor Q wrote that “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole heartedly, and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (p. 15)

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King really needs no introduction. In his book King shares his writing strategies as well as his own daily writing habits. The following are a few strategies in a nutshell:

  1. The story is more important than the plot. A good way to move the action is to ask “what-if” questions. For instance, “What if vampires invaded a small New England village, as in Salem’s Lot?(p. 143)
  2. When King thinks of the story’s pacing, he reminds himself of writer Elmore Leonard’s advice to cut out the boring parts. Even if you crafted some sentences that you are extremely proud of, if it slows down the story’s pacing, take it out (murder your darlings).
  3. Kings tells writers to use their imagination in their description, but make sure the readers can actually envision that description in their imagination. Description should not be exhaustively excessive but rather insert a few “well-chosen details” so they can imagine the rest.

Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa

Everyone has bias but journalists should make every effort to not allow theirs to creep into their work. S. I. Hayakawa emphasized that news reports must contain only verifiable facts with no propaganda to influence readers’ opinions. To ensure a sustainable democracy, the media have the responsibility to report provable information free of bias and their own subjectivity. How can they achieve this? The following is some of Hayakawa’s advice:

1. Avoid judgments. The writer should not express their approval or disapproval of the individuals they are writing about.

2. Avoid inferences. Hayakawa writes that there should be “. . . no guesses as to what is going on in other people’s minds.” (262) In other words, show actions such as “she hugged and kissed her sister” rather than “she was relieved to find her sister unharmed.”

3. Slant both ways at once. In other words, describe details that demonstrates impartiality. For example, if a writer is describing a rally, they may mention it was well-attended but they can also include unflattering details, such as the attendees were speaking among themselves instead of focusing their attention on the rally. Hayakawa’s point is to paint an accurate and objective portrait of the events being described.

How I wish more journalists today would heed his advice!

Writers, eager to read more? Get a copy of Murder Your Darlings.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.

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Cover of book reviewed

The Paris Hours: Great Writing but Ending Disappoints

I found Alex George’s The Paris Hours a beautifully-written story. Here is just a sample: “Every morning the piano rescues Souren Balakian from his dreams. The same low notes gently tug him away from everything that he has left behind. The ghosts that haunt his sleep are chased away by the music floating up through the floor from the studio below. He opens his eyes” (p.13).

The Paris Hours was published this year and is the first book of this author that I have read. Two of George’s earlier books have received widespread attention: A Good American was the #1 Indie Next Pick, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Setting Free The Kites was also an Indie Next Pick, A Library Reads Choice, and a Midwest Connection Pick. In addition, it won the Missouri Prize for Fiction in 2018. Wow!

While reading The Paris Hours, I appreciated the diligence and care George took in creating each of the four central characters, ordinary people who have suffered greatly during the First World War in France. He elicits readers’ empathy as he draws them into their lives: a refugee from the Armenian genocide who made his way into the country after losing his entire family, a French journalist who also lost his family during the war, a struggling painter desperately needing love and luck, and a former housekeeper of Marcel Proust desperately searching for a notebook belonging to the late artist because it could ruin her life. The author weaves in other famous artists besides Proust, the rest being American expatriates living in France: Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker, and Gertrude Stein, among others. But the story concentrates mainly on the four central characters and their quest for redemption.

However, as much as I enjoyed reading The Paris Hours, I was disappointed by the ending, which critics promised would be spellbinding. The lives of these characters are individualized and intricate, but for the conclusion they all come together in one setting. I do not want to give too much away other than stating I found it unsatisfying. Nevertheless, for readers who enjoy an author who produces beautifully crafted writing and unforgettable characters, The Paris Hours delivers.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations

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Meet Amy Shannon—Writer, Blogger, Book Reviewer

I am pleased to interview writer, blogger and book reviewer Amy Shannon. She is a prolific author who is dedicated to providing book reviews for indie authors on her website, Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews. On her second website, Amy Shannon: The window to my soul, starts with a blank page, she promotes her own work as well as provides promotion services for other authors, When I sent her my new novel, The Book of Revelations https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088F1P1SY, Amy promptly read it and posted her review. She also included my book review among a group of her other reviews in a special section of the e-magazine, Uncaged Reviews (www.uncagedbooks.com). As you will read in this interview, Amy’s work in the writing world is extensive and has recently expanded to podcasts.

1.) Q. Amy, please tell me about yourself and your writing career.

     A. I have been writing since I was a young girl but telling stories long before that. My mother used to call me her little storyteller because I was always making up stories or giving my own version of stories I have read. For a long time (and still do sometimes) I wrote poetry and short stories. In 2004, I started writing what I thought was a short story but ended up being a full-length novel. I published my first book Unwritten Lifein 2005 (since then it’s had several printings and updates). After that, stories were so much easier to write and they came to me so easily, but I kept going back to the characters in my first book, Unwritten Life. To date there are 67 volumes plus nine bonus books (it’s called the MOD Life Epic Saga).

 2.) Q. Tell me about your blog.

      A. I have two blogs. The first one I call my author blog, which is where I promote my own work and I also offer services to promote other authors’ works, especially indie authors. My second blog is Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews and that was started in 2014. To date, I have served over 1200 authors (and read and reviewed over 1800 books since then).

 3.) Q. What made you decide to become a book reviewer as well?

      A. At the beginning of the year 2014, I met an author online through LinkedIn. We were thinking about doing some book reviews together. At first, we were going to read each other’s work and write honest and unbiased reviews. Renee wrote children’s books that focused on children having cancer. I read all of hers but she was only able to read a few of mine. Her books were something very close to her heart. She herself had cancer and lost her battle that September. We were going to open our own blog together doing reviews but then she was gone, so I continued to do what we were going to do. The original blog was very raw and eventually, I found a new home with a better blog, which is what I have today. 

 4.) Q. Which writers are your role models and why?

      A. I am a big fan of classic work such as Walt Whitman’s poetry and stories, as well as William Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I really love his sonnets the best. I still read Edgar Allan Poe’s work, but I also read current authors such as James Patterson and Stephen King. I also think of all the authors that I read as role models and their writing as learning experiences because I can see a variety of writing styles. It’s not only shows me what I could challenge myself to write like but also a way that I would not want to write.

 5.) Q. What genres are your favorites? Do you turn down certain kinds of books?

     A. If I had to say I had a preference for specific genres, I would say crime genres and crime procedurals, as I like James Patterson’s Alex Cross series and his Women’s Murder Club series. I’ve also started reading Kathy Reich’s books and her Temperance Brennan series. I also like to read biographies about presidents and first ladies, interesting persons, whether it be someone famous or just an ordinary person’s memoir.

 The only books that I’ve ever turned away were books that were not in a published-ready state. Some authors in the past have sent me their rough drafts to read and I had to turn them away, but I’ve given them the option to resubmit for a review after the book has been edited thoroughly. I read genres of all kinds from any author. I’ve read everything from erotica to self-help to religion and politics, plus all types of fiction and all types of nonfiction. I’ve even reviewed books that I personally didn’t agree with the content, so I wrote the review based on the writer’s ability to write. I can pretty much deal with any subject matter, so it’s more about how it’s written than what is written.

 6.) Q. Being a writer, a blogger, and a book reviewer, have you noticed any latest trends in the publishing industry? 

     A. I know that trends come and go, but I think one of the biggest trends is being an indie author. In some cases, there is still a stigma to being an indie author. I hope with my reviews that I can show that most indie authors deserve to be read because their stories are great. Sometimes I find a gem that I wouldn’t have normally sought out.  I think the digital version of books is a trend that won’t go away and will get better with the different types of technology, but I think that paperback or print books will always have a place on someone’s shelf. I do see an increase in audiobooks and if I have read a paperback or a digital version and they want me to also review their audiobook, I will get the audiobook and listen to it, so I can also review on the narration and tone of the story. 

 7.) Q. You have accomplished quite a bit, including providing a valuable service for authors. What are your career goals for the next few years?

     A. I try to do what I can for any author. Sometimes I have to charge small fees for editing, proofreading, or other promotional services. I do take part in blog tours on my author blogs. Unfortunately, this past year I have been diagnosed with a tremor disorder which affects my ability to hand write and type. Actually, I’m filling out this interview using voice recognition and dictation. I hope in some way to be able to still tell my stories and I’m getting used to dictation software. Though I have thought about disbanding my book review blog, I don’t see it ending anytime soon. I would love to write again, even if it is short stories or poetry because writing is my passion and telling stories is in my soul.

I also co-host a podcast with author McKensie Stewart and it’s called The After Show. It runs on most Fridays except holidays and breaks between seasons. We are always looking for more guests and ways to increase our audience because it’s an outlet to help authors, especially indie authors, tell their story.

 8.) Q. How has the pandemic affected your business? I know the publishing industry has been hard hit. As someone who published a book this year, I am finding it difficult to promote. I must add that unlike you, many reviewers are not reviewing books now.

      A. I don’t think the pandemic has affected my business. However, I’m not getting as many requests for doing promotions, but I’m getting requests for reviews from authors who have written more than one book during the pandemic. 

 9.) Q. Before the pandemic, were you attending writing groups on a regular basis? Do you attend writer conventions? How do you network with other authors?

      A. Actually, I don’t really attend writing groups or conventions. I’ve network with other authors and make connections through email and social media. Usually we meet because I’ve read their books. I also connect with editors, publicists, publishing companies, and other author representatives. Usually once they send me one author, they send me more authors. 

 10.) Q. How many books have you written? Tell me about your books and what inspired your writing.

       A. In total and under three pen names I have written 114 books. Last year I retired two of the pen names and this year released as their final release a collection of all my books for one purchase. Under my name, Amy Shannon, I have written over 96 books and that is including poetry and my large epic saga. I have probably written my last full-length novel, but I have enough books written that I can continue to just publish those books until the year 2034 or more, depending on my releases. I have actually scheduled all my releases up to that year.

 As for inspiration, everything inspires me: my surroundings, other authors, and my observations of people. 

 11.) Q. Is there anything else you would like to share?

A. I am a big supporter of the indie author community. And basically, my goal for my life is to be an inspiration for someone else. I am a lifelong learner and I like to share what I’ve learned with others.

I would like to thank Amy for participating in this interview. I must also add that she works quickly. How do I know this? I gave her my interview questions in the late afternoon one day, thinking I would hear back from her in at least a few days, but she sent me back all her answers early the next morning!

 To learn more about Amy, including her contact information, the following are her links:

Author Blog: http://writeramyshannon.wixsite.com/amyshannonblog

Website: https://writeramyshannon.wixsite.com/stories

Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews: http://writeramyshannon.wixsite.com/bookshelfreviews

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/amyshannonnovelist/ and https://www.facebook.com/bookshelfreviews/

Twitter: @amyshan_author

Idelle Kursman is the author of True Mercy and The Book of Revelations. She is a freelance writer, copyeditor, and proofreader.

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