Mango Rash by Nan Sanders Pokerwinski

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Set in 1960s American Samoa, Mango Rash recounts Nan Sanders Pokerwinski’s transformation from typical Oklahoma teen to world traveller.

Samoa presents the perfect backdrop for adolescence.  Pokerwinski’s family arrives during a wave of heightened American influence on the island; it is changing as much as Nancy.  Over the course of her 11 month stay, she falls in love (more than once), makes new friends, rebels more than she ever has, dances, tutors elementary students, occasions an indoor disaster, as well as witnesses a disastrous hurricane, and watches expats come and go.  She gets sick. She considers her experience like palolo, “a delicacy to be scooped up and devoured….  Gobbling it all down before it was gone” (148).

In careful attention to language, Pokerwinski relishes each new experience, from unforgettable to mundane.  Her science writing background shows through in her keen observations of her exotic environment. Each chapter begins with a quote about Samoa or a Samoan idiom, establishing a clear theme for the chapter’s stories.  She delves into Samoan vocabulary for wisdom. (A helpful glossary of all words used follows at the end). Italicized sections act as interludes, probing deeper into Samoan life or Pokerwinski’s inner thoughts. Inspired by Margaret Mead’s book about Samoa, Pokerwinski’s reflections lean toward social experiment, engaging with culture more than studying it.  She relates how Samoa influences her shifting identity.  In this way, her book appeals beyond an insightful glimpse into Samoa; it sounds a global message about self-awareness and making sense of memory.

The epilogue hints that there is more of the story to come.  This taste of Pokerwinski’s adventurous life is enough to pique interest in a sequel.

Part coming-of-age, part anthropology, part travelogue, Mango Rash highlights teenage turbulence with Samoan flair.

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Never Divided by Todd Stadtman

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In Never Divided, the third and final book in Todd Stadtman’s San Francisco Punk series, Scott and friends butt heads with the police again – this time from the inside.  

In the previous two books, Please Don’t be Waiting for Me and So Good It’s Bad, the punk friends sought justice for the murder of follow rocker, Nadya.  In this finale to the trilogy, the crew takes part in a 1984 protest against Reagan and the Democrats’ ineffectiveness against him. Given Scott’s record, the Feds think Scott and crew might be up to worse than mere protesting.  They accuse his roommate, Micah, of killing an officer during the event. But the police might need the punks’ help against their own: a gang of nefarious policeman inside the SFPD.

The novel begins with a domestic scene: Scott and girlfriend, Bridge, meet Scott’s dad’s new girlfriend and her son, Hunter.  Little do they know, Hunter will become part of an adventure Scott and Bridge never intend to have, involving bar fights, sting operations, and kidnappings.  They thought they were done with this! The book flirts with settling down into adulthood. Yet, Scott never compromises his punk spirit. If there’s injustice afoot, Scott will face it, along with his pals.

New characters in the series, Hunter, and Micah’s girlfriend, Shiva, add ripples to the plot.  Scott and Bridge feel parental toward young Hunter – new feelings for them both. Shiva’s mysterious past makes her suspect to all the friends.  She must prove herself time and again. Reed, aka Inspector Serious, returns, with a humorous twist. These fresh relationships add depth and complexity to the high energy. 

Like the other two books in the series, this one is full of vivid, action-packed scenes.  The chapters are short, each focusing on one scene. Sub-plots are woven into a thick fabric of intrigue.  Sentences are robust, like the layered sound of a punk band. Most chapters end with a cliffhanger, making it hard to stop reading.  Love for San Francisco is palpable. Hot spots around the city enliven the narrative.

A coming of age story and crime thriller, the mature characters in Never Divided are also never diluted. Find it on Amazon

Queen of the Flowers by Delia Cerpa

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With warmth and precision, Delia Cerpa’s memoir, Queen of the Flowers, chronicles her “wonder years” in Puerto Rico and migration to the US in the 1950s.

After her father’s suicide when she’s an infant, Delia Cerpa, youngest of eleven, is well cared for by a resilient mother and thoughtful siblings.  Her mother manages the family’s new farm while her children work and go to school. Delia Cerpa excels as a scholar. Her eagerness to learn extends into 4H and religious studies.  She searches for answers about her father’s death. As the world economy changes after WWII, the farm is sold and many family members move to the States. Mama Cerpa, Delia and her brother follow in 1952.  

The book’s title comes from a highlight of Cerpa’s childhood, when she’s elected to become Queen of the school for a day.  The incident takes up a large part of the story, characterizing the place of school in her life, as well as her family’s gracious support of each member’s endeavors.  Her dress and accoutrements are described in luscious detail. Tastes, sounds, textures, and sensations are emphasized. Cerpa maintains a child’s perspective throughout.  Her family and neighbors play equal roles in shaping the many colorful tales, showing the communal spirit of her upbringing.  

The pacing is as steady as life on a well-maintained farm in a vibrant town.  Historical facts appear in the background, but the story is highly personal. Cerpa’s writing style is inviting, easy to follow and colloquial.  Hand drawn Illustrations accompany some chapters, adding to the playfulness of the story. Spanish text and translation is included, as are italicized quotes from Buddha and Cerpa herself – hints of wisdom coming from the future.

The book is the first in a planned series.  Ending with the migration to NY creates an eagerness for the next installment.  Extra chapters at the end fill out more history. These are integral to the story; don’t finish reading until the very last page!

Queen of the Flowers stands out as an immigrant autobiography for its innocence and awe in the face of tragedy. find the book at 3L publishing

The Librettist of Venice by Rodney Bolt

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Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice tells the tale of Lorenzo Da Ponte.  “Mozart’s poet, Casanova’s friend, and Italian opera’s impresario in America,” Da Ponte “seemed at a single touch to turn gold to dust.”  He is also called a phoenix, rising from each demise. The book captures Da Ponte’s life in the larger story of letters and arts in Europe and America at the turn of the nineteenth century.

   Born a Jew in Ceneda, Italy, 1749, Emanuele Conegliano becomes Lorenzo Da Ponte when he converts to Catholicism on the occasion of his father’s second marriage.  Da Ponte becomes a priest, teaching and writing in Venice, among other places. Banished from Venice for his poems and escapades, he finds temporary solace in Vienna, where he works with Mozart.  But, again, liaisons as well as enemies in the opera scene get the better of him. He moves with his new – and only – wife, Nancy, to London. While she runs coffeehouses and raises children, Da Ponte teaches and works in an opera house until he’s sacked.  He follows Nancy to New York, teaching Italian and opening a bookstore. He dies broke, buried in an unmarked grave.

Both Da Ponte and Mozart straddle the old world of aristocracy and patronage, as well as the new world of egalitarianism and freelancing, inspired by the American and French Revolutions.  Both outstanding in their fields, the the class system handicaps them. On the other hand, when Da Ponte arrives in class-averse America, the lack of high culture hinders him. His story has as much to do with social changes as his own ascents and falls.  

Da Ponte is his own force of nature.  The book highlights his dapper personal effects, his vanity (his memoirs are full of self-serving falsehoods the books sets straight), love affairs and his vulnerability to offense.  It presents him in full humanity and full of ideals. As such, he personifies the opera. Bolt dovetails opera’s story with Da Ponte’s.  

Although it is nonfiction, The Librettist of Venice reads like a novel.  Facts and mythical anecdotes incorporate seamlessly into the text. Bolt brings Da Ponte’s colorful world to life. 

Eye Exams: A Collection of Epigrams by Richard Krause

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Richard Krause’s collection of epigrams, Eye Exams jabs at collective truths, creating its own perspective, or lack thereof.

The preface defines an epigram as “a concise, often witty short statement that has a twist.”  Epigrams are time-full, whereas axioms, aphorisms and other quotes-to-live-by are timeless standards.  Epigrams may be true for now, but not later, yet make a lasting impact nonetheless. This collection’s epigrams deal in a variety of topics, from mundane to moral, such as: knowledge and beauty, carnal desires, power and courage, art, philosophy, religion, justice, honesty and jealousy, mastery and failure, and word play.  A common theme is how observations reflect most the observer. 

Written over 4-5 years, mostly in New York city, the epigrams do come from a context.  I found myself trying to locate the story in the collection. The literal space between the epigrams on the page lends itself to letting the imagination wander and make connections. Who is the author?  Under what circumstances would this statement have come about? Some statements use “I;” some “he” or “she.” To whom do they refer?    

Eye Exams itself becomes a subject.  It addresses readers as “you” or “we,” inviting introspection, critique and reaction.  It holds up a mirror, examines us, our vision, scrutinizing our beliefs and thoughts. It is difficult not to respond to its many bold statements, like “Violence is the knife no one knows you are carrying, that can’t be found even if you are frisked.”  But as strong as our agreement or disagreement may be, the collection wiggles out from under any blanket appraisal. “Contradictions are the unheralded completion of everything.”  

Best read in short bursts, as the disparate insights startle and linger, this flexible book confounds and compels.  It tests our willingness to question ourselves for the sake of truth.  find the book on Amazon

The Horror of the Ordinary by Richard Krause

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Nothing is as it seems in Richard Krause’s second collection of stories, The Horror of the Ordinary.

The 23 stories play with appearances, ironies and mysteries.  Some stories deal with masks characters hide behind. Fur coats or good deeds or fat or escape conceal ulterior motives.  Sometimes the crimes characters obsess over bringing to justice are the very crimes they fear they commit. Other stories turn perceptions on their heads.  A sniper’s target is mistaken as Osama bin Laden. A restaurant customer can hardly eat his food imagining it was made by Israeli operatives, when, in fact….  The stories reference Kafka, only, in these tales, animals are personified rather than people turning into animals. The final narratives are longest and most self-reflective and existential, asking questions about identity and the nature of storytelling.

First sentences tantalize.  “It was like he was visiting them,” one story begins.  What is “it”? Who is “he” and “them”? The narrator is often tangential to the main character, a distant yet invested observer.  As the stories progress and pronouns become persons, the point is not for the plot to become clear; rather, the point is the act of uncovering layers that obscure and complexify the truth.  The texture is rich and thoughtful. 

Much contemporary literature taunts readers to deduce the target its symbols point to.  Instead, Krause is candid with symbols, fileting them open and exploring their depths. Beetles, cockroaches and splinters explode into infestations.  Political and personal atrocities plague the text, from the treatment of animals to concentration camps to orphanages to food hoarding during the Great Depression to the current obesity crisis.  Sexual fantasies turn perverse. Pedophiles lurk in plain sight. Victims inflict revenge when perpetrators least expect it. Be ready to confront a disturbing dark side in these stories. The bright side is the book’s careful, artistic attention to visceral and psychological detail developed into stories as intricate as a Japanese puppet show.

The Horror of the Ordinary is a collection of surreal, grotesque and beautiful short fiction breaking open the mundane as a carrier for the absurd.   Find the book on Amazon

The Colonel and the Bee by Patrick Canning

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Hold onto your hats for this 19th century hot air balloon adventure hosted by a dapper detective and an escaped aerial artist!

The story begins in Switzerland as Beatrix (Bee) awaits a routine beating from her boss, circus ringleader, Ziro.  That is, after she wows dinner guests at a mountain mansion, on behalf of the circus. Bee and one guest, the Colonel, a tall chap in a top hat, both find themselves fleeing the evening’s gathering.  Bee joins the crew aboard the Colonel’s floating home, the Ox, on a hunt for just what or whom she will have to deduce as she goes along with the Colonel’s (literal) fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach.

An alchemy of exquisite detail and colorful characters yields a robust plot.  Bee and the Colonel build up as characters from the outside in. Bee’s scant circus attire and the stench of the Colonel’s yak urine lip balm concealed by fresh flowers tucked in his suit’s crevices reflect complex inner traits.  Bee’s acrobatic single-mindedness offsets the Colonel’s larger than life demeanor. The hard working Scottish couple, a scatterbrained lighthouse attendant and a host of animals also inhabiting the Ox compete with the Weasleys from Harry Potter for best supporting roles.  The entourage serve each other well traveling through Europe and Northern Africa on a scavenger hunt with warring treasure seeking families. Drawings at the end of each chapter highlight the playfulness of the story.

The story steers clear of moralizing.  The treasure hunting families are clearly the bad guys up against a dynamic family of free spirits.  But winning or losing is not the point. Set in the 1800s, the book is a refreshing break from dystopias, saving the climate, and other subjects of much current young adult fiction.  Steering a floating building, training birds, planning prison raids and sewing torn envelopes are the stuff of this book’s adventures. Romantic intrigue takes a back seat to a deeper love; the book celebrates the age old virtues of friendship.  

A coming of age story for all generations, The Colonel and the Bee entertains and warms the heart.       Check of the author’s website