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Consistently riveting—whether the protagonist contends with baddies or hones his skills in the courtroom.

JUSTICE BY THE POUND

From the Noah Shane Thriller series

A public defender’s first case concerns a fairly routine burglary until the prosecutor adds murder charges in this legal thriller.

Noah Shane nearly loses his new job as assistant public defender before it’s even begun. The flu-ridden lawyer misses his first two days, then braves the nausea to make it to the Public Defender’s office in Alameda County, California. His initial assignment is interviewing 23-year-old Pablo Ruiz, who’s in jail for allegedly swiping 300 pounds of butter from a dairy truck. The circumstances are unusual, but it’s a case Noah believes he can handle, especially if a plea bargain is on the table. But Noah is suddenly facing the district attorney’s chief trial deputy, Marco Salem, who amends the charges against Pablo to include murder in the first degree. The case now involves the bullet-riddled body of noted stockbroker Warren Van Zandt. Despite overwhelming evidence against Pablo, such as his fingerprints in Van Zandt’s condo, he denies even knowing the broker. Noah feels a more experienced lawyer should take the reins of a murder case, but his boss, Jim Stark, dismisses that suggestion. In fact, Stark demands that Noah take the prosecutor’s eventual plea offer. But Noah is determined to see things through even when he suspects his client isn’t telling him everything. Working closely with legal investigator Buzz Hoogasian, Noah starts unraveling the murder mystery. But certain individuals who want the case to go away resort to despicable tactics, from intimidation and threats to something decidedly more lethal. Weinberg’s (A Grateful Nation, 2015) story, a prequel to his earlier novel featuring the public defender, is an all-round solid thriller. Well-established villains, for one, are an unquestionable menace, trying to force Noah into submission by targeting his friends. At the same time, Van Zandt’s killer is not immediately known, leading to unnerving instances of Noah’s pondering the notion that Pablo is indeed guilty. The protagonist is admirable but grounded—a diligent lawyer prone to making mistakes. These flubs actually earn him sympathy: He’s the new guy at work and, with no one to guide him, learning as he goes along. Weinberg perfectly captures Noah’s first days on the job: He wisely gets help from whomever he can, including Stark’s accommodating assistant, Bobbi Matthews, and constantly worries about proper court procedure. But the tale’s pre-eminent scenes involve Noah’s jailhouse visits; just getting to Pablo is a process rife with meticulous steps and reminiscent of the slow but assiduous murder trial. They moreover showcase the story’s effectively prolonged moments: Pablo “reached into the left breast pocket of his jumpsuit and removed a worn, creased paper. He unfolded carefully, probably for the hundredth time, and flattened it on the table.” Supporting characters shine, particularly Buzz and Kate Waverly, Noah’s law school friend. A recovering alcoholic, Buzz has one-sided conversations with the rubber duck hanging from his car’s rearview mirror. Meanwhile, Noah’s relationship with potential lover Kate is complicated by Stark. He takes a shine to her but not so much to Noah.

Consistently riveting—whether the protagonist contends with baddies or hones his skills in the courtroom.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-944377-11-3

Page Count: 426

Publisher: Curtis Brown Unlimited

Review Posted Online: July 3, 2018

A dystopian tale both engaging and conceivable.

WORLD, INCORPORATED

A MODERN DYSTOPIA

In Gariffo’s sci-fi debut, a mysterious agent handles covert, sometimes-lethal jobs for one of the world-dominating corporations in the mid-21st century.

Agent Sliver’s clandestine work has become routine—even when it involves killing. His latest mission from World, Inc., in New Detroit is to shut down terrorists intent on attacking corporations such as Sliver’s employer. Within the last few decades, five supercorporations have saved the world from economic decline and, in the process, seized control from governments. While Sliver readily accepts assignments from his boss, Fellrock, he hopes his target will be Ancarn, CEO of a corporation called Multinational, though the agent is mum on the reason why. But change may be on the horizon. The typically unsentimental Sliver sympathizes with the daughter of targets he’s just eliminated. He takes Kelly aboard his airship but tells no one since she’s an anomaly (her genetics, for one, aren’t registered like everyone else’s). Complicating matters is a new mission that entails a high-profile assassination and someone’s discernible attempt to take out his ship—and Sliver as well. Luckily, the agent has allies, including the ship’s onboard computer he’s affectionately dubbed Franklin, for facing his would-be assassin. Gariffo painstakingly constructs a convincing near-future tale. The book’s highlight is a series of articles on the supercorporations’ gradual takeover (citizens further crippling the U.S. government by not paying income taxes is frighteningly plausible). The protagonist, meanwhile, is increasingly fascinating: Readers eventually learn his backstory with Ancarn and why Sliver habitually injects himself with Serum. Action scenes showcase Gariffo’s penchant for meticulous details: “Sliver swung the chair’s legs up into the face of the individual to his left and then threw the seat into the upper half of the flunky on his right.” Unfortunately, Kelly, the only significant female, is largely unexplored, from the impact of her family’s deaths to adjusting to a corporate-ruled world her parents kept hidden from her.

A dystopian tale both engaging and conceivable.

Pub Date: July 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-983349-60-7

Page Count: 286

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Aug. 13, 2018

Imaginative and thoroughly stimulating.

GITA

BETWEEN THE UNKNOWABLE AND THE UNREAL

Kazden’s (TotIs, 2015) novel imagines a conversation between a Greek philosopher and a self-doubting military leader.

In his previous novel, the author brought together great minds from past eras, including Socrates, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo da Vinci, to debate various concepts of truth and time. In this follow-up, he proposes two new definitions of reality: “totIs reality,” which is the one, true “prime reality,” and “antIs reality,” which is the individualistic interpretation of “totIs,” fabricated by our biosensory systems. Socrates returns to counsel a respected, fearless warrior named Gita, who’s the commanding general of an unnamed city that’s preparing for war. The opposing force is led by Gita’s uncle, Prince Fidi, and her cousins, Chatapodi and Kavouras. Gita’s fortitude is challenged by the prospect of spilling family members’ blood, causing her to reach out to Socrates for guidance. Her conversations with the philosopher span the length of the novel, drawing on wisdom from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita (after which Gita was named); the Chinese religious and philosophical text, the Tao Te Ching; and modern physics. The novel charts Gita’s journey toward a revelatory understanding of “totIs” and, in turn, a deeper conception of the world around her. Once again, Kazden demonstrates a rare ability to describe complex concepts with clarity and precision. He uses the character of Socrates to gently impart these ideas to readers: “Hot and cold are experiences of reality that are sensory driven, as are red and blue, happy and sad, near and far, before and after. All of our experiences of reality, in absolute terms, are sensory driven.” Kazden further embellishes the unique depiction of reality from his first novel with a specific emphasis on how “antIs” is a form of bondage, keeping people from the “freedom” and “truth” of “totIs.” The result is a thought-provoking intellectual journey that will encourage readers to reassess their own places in the universe.

Imaginative and thoroughly stimulating.

Pub Date: June 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-72076-987-3

Page Count: 186

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

A compassionate and beautifully crafted cautionary tale with memorable protagonists; cold seawater practically drips from...

A NIGHT IN OCTOBER

TALES FROM THE HURRICANE COAST

In this debut novel, the devastation in New York and New Jersey resulting from Superstorm Sandy forever alters one family.

By the time Sandy rolled up the New Jersey and Long Island coastlines on Oct. 29, 2012, she wasn’t even a hurricane anymore. Yet the convergence of the Atlantic storm surge, high tides, overflowing rivers and bays from relentless rain, and the still-substantial winds swamped the homes and villages of thousands of Atlantic seaside dwellers. Ricky and Sherry Buono, in their late 60s, are having breakfast in their condo on one of New York’s barrier islands when Sandy begins her assault. In their second bedroom is Terry, the baby granddaughter they recently adopted from their younger daughter, Jessie, who took off for the Rocky Mountains. They have been through major storms before. When Sherry urges Ricky not to go into his Manhattan office for the day, he cheerfully reminds her he must work. Down on the Jersey shore, the Buonos’ older daughter, Cammie, and their son-in-law, Artie Reily, aren’t overly concerned. They too have weathered storms and electrical outages. They and their teenage son, Lee, go to sleep in their darkened home Monday night, having no idea that the floodwaters have begun filling the first level of their house. Illo, an architect and structural engineer, employs his keen eye for detail to provide vibrant explanations of storm dynamics and to develop rich character portrayals in a novel filled with the everyday moments and drama of ordinary human existence. As Sandy rages, the author takes his time to skillfully create small novellas within the larger work. Even the storm becomes a strong main character through Illo’s evocative prose: Sandy “only did what it was meant to do and it took up only the energy that our planet freely gave to it. This system carried no intention about where or how its energy would be unleashed.” He lingers a bit too long on technical matters of physics, but patient readers will be rewarded with important lessons.

A compassionate and beautifully crafted cautionary tale with memorable protagonists; cold seawater practically drips from the pages.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-975913-33-5

Page Count: 340

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2018

An engaging, warts-and-all telling of the ups and downs of a full-time caregiver.

KICK-ASS KINDA GIRL

A MEMOIR OF LIFE, LOVE AND CAREGIVING

In this debut memoir, the wife of a wealthy entrepreneur cares for him after his debilitating stroke and reflects with pride on a life of service.

Koll opens her remembrance with the story of her brother, Don Robinson’s courting actress Dolores Hart, who abruptly canceled her engagement to Robinson in 1963 to join a monastery. Robinson never married, Koll says, but he maintained a platonic friendship with Hart until his death. With this star-studded beginning, readers may expect more celebrities, and there are a few: One of Koll’s childhood friends was Lucie Arnaz, for instance, and she later dated Mark Harmon. However, the author mainly tells of overcoming challenges, such as her father’s drinking problem, her mother’s death from cancer, and a divorce from her first husband. The heart of the book is devoted to her second marriage to the Los Angeles real estate developer and philanthropist Don Koll. Their first date was at a 1997 White House reception. There are accounts of Beverly Hills dinners, vacations in St. Tropez, and even an encounter with a car thief in France. In 2005, however, Don had a stroke, which changed Koll’s life forever. She became his caregiver, helping him through daily tasks of living until his death in 2011—the same year that her brother died. In this memoir, Koll offers cleareyed memories of hospitals, health care, and hope. The subject matter may remind some readers of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s 2005 account of coping with her husband’s death while tending to her sick daughter. Koll isn’t as contemplative as Didion is, but she does know how to make the people in her memories feel real to readers. Although the celebrity cameos sometimes feel gratuitous, the author’s attitude is consistently uplifting. She tells of working tirelessly to improve Don’s and her own quality of life; at one point, she asked his doctor if there might be a way for the couple to have “one more roll in the hay.” “You never give up,” his doctor told her later—a perfect summary of this clever, comforting memoir.

An engaging, warts-and-all telling of the ups and downs of a full-time caregiver.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-7323649-0-5

Page Count: 260

Publisher: Ward Publishing

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

An original religious plot buoyed by philosophical depth.

THE GOSPEL OF CATHERINE DEARE

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a woman leaves her family to follow a man she believes is Jesus.  

In this novel, Catherine Deare lives a happy but ordinary life in a suburb of Pennsylvania. Contentedly married and the mother of a well-adjusted teenager, she works as an entertainer at children’s birthday parties (she studied music in college). Then one day that begins like any other, she picks up a hitchhiker who says he’s headed to Philadelphia who’s preternaturally intuitive and generally mysterious, with just a hint of the kind of religious zeal that usually discomfits her. Before he departs, he inexplicably guesses that Catherine suffers from the loss of a child—she did, in fact, lose her daughter, Lindsey, in a freak accident some 10 years earlier. She is convinced she just met Jesus, and at the very least he looks the part: tall and slender, with a mane of long hair and a face blanketed with a full beard. Later that same day, Catherine discovers that the World Trade Center was attacked and the grim news slowly trickles in from friends, family, and television reports. The nation as a whole reacts to the catastrophe with a blend of implacable bloodlust and ostentatious displays of patriotism, which makes Catherine profoundly uncomfortable, a collective response powerfully captured by Colahan (Career School, 2015). Even Catherine’s husband, Brian, an otherwise reasonable man, is overcome by a “thirst for vengeance.” Then, emotionally roiled by stress and her family’s insistence that she enlist the help of a therapist, Catherine runs into that stranger yet again, who takes her to meet his group of disciples, who refer to him as “Lord” and “Master.” He confirms her suspicions that he is Jesus, and Catherine abandons her family to join his quest to return to Bethlehem.  Colahan builds an emotionally arresting drama around a refreshingly unconventional premise. And Jesus’ band of disciples is an intriguingly eclectic bunch, including a prostitute and a fugitive serial rapist. Jesus remains an enigmatic character even after he affirms his identity—he seems remarkably ordinary in some respects for a divine personage, and his refusal to present an unambiguous demonstration of his power through the performance of miracles frustrates his followers to no end. Still, there’s something nebulously masterly about him, a kind of supernatural spirituality that makes his preposterous claim plausible. The conceit of the novel produces some philosophically searching discussions about the nature of Christianity and moral judgment, the character of evil and sin, and topical issues like the death penalty. Colahan also raises a provocative question: If Jesus were to actually walk the Earth today, what would be his purpose? Jesus answers this obliquely: “Catherine, believe it or not, saving the world from its problems has never been my mission. That’s like expecting a marriage counselor to save every marriage. The counselor shows the troubled couple the route they should go, but they still have to take the journey themselves or the marriage will fail.” 

An original religious plot buoyed by philosophical depth. 

Pub Date: May 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-945330-90-2

Page Count: 391

Publisher: Telemachus Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2018

Well-written, insightful, and spooky—an entertaining courtroom tale.

MORE THAN ONE TRUTH

An attorney defends a childhood friend on a murder charge while receiving guidance from his mentor’s ghost in this debut legal thriller.

Born in the early 1980s in Chico, a California farming town, the nameless narrator of this novel becomes a lawyer in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps in South Florida. His apathy is, for once, replaced by pride and a sense of purpose. But when his lover, a former client, breaks things off with him, she reports him to his commanding officer, forcing the narrator’s resignation. Deciding that moving back to Chico might be a good idea, he sends around a highly embellished resume and gets an offer. In Chico, the narrator’s new boss, John Hodgkinson, becomes his mentor until dying about a year later. The narrator begins his own practice, his confidence increasing, although being back in Chico is lonely. His family ties are frayed (his mother’s dementia is worsening) and during many solitary hours, he drinks and goes on long drives, which later he recollects only vaguely. In 2016, the narrator’s self-assurance is shaken again by the homicide case he’s assigned, given that his resume falsely claimed experience with felony murder trials. His client is Scotty Watts, a high school acquaintance who’s deteriorated from sports hero to drug addict and jailbird. Scotty has since tried to go straight, but now faces a murder charge, claiming to remember nothing about why he was discovered mopping up a large pool of blood. No body can be found, but the amount of blood suggests murder. As the narrator investigates, he notices that something about the case is weirdly familiar. Odder still, Scotty’s dog begins speaking to him, and the narrator sees and hears John, who offers advice and commentary. As the narrator defends his client and keeps searching, he gets closer to unbearable truths. In his novel, Benson offers a believable courtroom drama that’s nicely explicated and grounded in good legal details such as the voir dire jury-selection process. The Chico setting also contributes to the overall story; for example, the tension between traditional agricultural farmers and marijuana growers like Scotty suggests possible motives for framing him. Beyond that, the author takes a standard form, the legal thriller, and adds subtle notes of psychological/supernatural suspense. John’s ghostly presence in the narrator’s life is at first mild, though strange; he offers supportive remarks and wise counsel, such as a book recommendation (The Conscience of a Lawyer by David Mellinkoff). The dog’s occasional comments could be seen as imaginative or even whimsical. But John’s appearances become frightening; he sports a grotesquely stretched-out smile and repeats phrases over and over (“The bandanna, the water, the farmers, the lot, the wind, the rain”) that have something to do with the murder, and drive the narrator to distraction. The groundwork for all this is laid early on, but with such a light touch that clues are easy to overlook, and will keep many readers guessing until the end.

Well-written, insightful, and spooky—an entertaining courtroom tale.

Pub Date: July 1, 2018

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 264

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Aug. 26, 2018

An absorbing, thoughtful, and joyful account of a business executive’s remarkable rise.

FINDING THE EXIT

IT’S NOT WHERE YOU START, IT'S WHERE YOU FINISH

A high school dropout from a small town in Nebraska creates a successful, multimillion-dollar startup in this debut autobiography.

“As they say in Texas, he can’t eat you and he can’t take your birthday,” marketing executive Ellermeier reassured herself before facing the new boss who demoted her. Colleagues also affected by the company’s restructuring convinced her to start a new business with them, but in the early 2000s after the dot-com crash, lenders were nervous. So was the author, as she struggled in her new role as CEO of Lingualcare, traveling abroad, fundraising, training, demonstrating her product—innovative customized orthodontic braces—and fighting ghosts from her past. A go-getter from the day she hawked Christmas cards door to door in the 1970s to buy a record player, she nevertheless endured a rape, dropped out of high school, found herself briefly homeless, and overcame alcoholism. Starting her new company, Ellermeier recalls that she was very clever in thinking on her feet and turning around bad situations but she still lacked confidence. She bluffed and blustered her way through mostly male opposition, despite her fears of bankruptcy. This “will require a real CEO, at best you might be qualified to run marketing,” sneered a potential investor, sounding like the author’s hypercritical, overbearing mother. Ellermeier fought all of the negativity and managed to hold onto her goal: a product that improved people’s lives and the sale of her mature venture. Readers of this memoir who think that government should be run like a business will discover a startup is deeply political: Activities include hiring friends and family, conducting backroom deals with competitors, and schmoozing with sharks. Yet at a startup’s core, the author maintains, is hard work, a call to service, and integrity. Ellermeier convincingly recounts meetings and re-creates dialogue to show how exhausting and precarious entrepreneurship truly is. Unlike so many difficult childhood narratives, this work delicately entwines the author’s personal and professional experiences to demonstrate why she makes certain decisions later. Her humor (with chapter headings like “So That’s a No” and “Emergencies of the Prada Kind”) is tender and smart, and this book becomes a mini-mentorship for future entrepreneurs.

An absorbing, thoughtful, and joyful account of a business executive’s remarkable rise.

Pub Date: June 5, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73231-180-0

Page Count: 310

Publisher: Mill Camp Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 7, 2018

An enjoyable, sometimes-challenging work for those who like contemplative, simmering mysteries.

VALEDICTORIAN

Another series installment that chronicles the adventures of a San Francisco Bay Area dominatrix detective.   

In this moody, curious, and intriguing noir mystery, Mason (Partitions of Unity, 2018, etc.) revisits her durable and multitalented protagonist Elizabeth Cromwell. In a bar one afternoon, the tall, blonde sex worker meets 60-ish Israel “Izzy” Zhulzhoff, an odd bird who tells her lengthy stories about his wife—and his pending divorce. He asks Cromwell to pose as his spouse at a high school reunion gala the same night. She agrees, but Zhulzhoff never shows up at the event. Instead, Cromwell meets and bonds with a woman named Sylvia Reynolds, another attendee whose husband is also curiously absent. Reynolds gives Cromwell the keys to her yellow Lamborghini, which Cromwell takes for a joyride across the Golden Gate Bridge; afterward, an unknown assailant attacks Cromwell, causing her to flee for her life. Deducing that she was set up by Reynolds, she trades notes with police, who provide her with an old file of unsolved murders of blonde women in the area. She also visits Mistress Annabel Flair, another local dominatrix, who’s happy to banter back and forth with her about sex dungeons and the business of “fantasy enactments,” although Annabel also reveals that she has plans to leave the Bay Area permanently. Cromwell develops a nagging suspicion that Reynolds may have been set up herself, and further snooping leads to an old but relevant case. Cromwell’s scrutiny of Zhulzhoff’s disappearance and likely death only leads her to more complicated connections. If the story seems rather convoluted rather than simply mysterious, that’s because it is. However, Mason’s prose still manages to provide it with a beating heart. Her style is artfully decorative for a detective novel, but it’s still resolutely functional, and it’s never in any way rushed or brisk. She makes use of cryptic dialogue and clever repartee to tell the story; many characters speak in near riddles with one another, and one can envision them volleying their one-of-a-kind bons mots back and forth with knowing grins. Readers of Mason’s other books will recognize her distinctive method of narration; indeed, some may well seek out this latest book because of it. It’s certainly a unique and quirky style, but it never diminishes the impact of the mystery plot or the overall characterization of Cromwell, who remains an intimidating figure to behold. She’s still clever, smart, seductive, edgy, beautiful, and every bit as tough as her “six feet two inches in pumps” stature suggests. From Cromwell’s first-person perspective, readers get to know intimately how she thinks, what she fears and desires, and, perhaps most importantly, how she investigates the crimes that always seems to land on her doorstep. Mason’s series of detective novels aren’t easy reads, to be sure, nor do they seem intended to be, as each carefully crafted line defies attempts at simplistic interpretation. Overall, readers will find that there’s much to savor in this moodily atmospheric whodunit.

An enjoyable, sometimes-challenging work for those who like contemplative, simmering mysteries.

Pub Date: Dec. 4, 2006

ISBN: 978-1-4257-2475-7

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A fun crime tale with some creepy cult elements.

A DREAM TO DIE FOR

A debut novel tells the story of a woman with strange dreams attempting to solve her therapist’s murder.

Anxious and self-doubting bartender Celeste Fortune has been recording her dreams at the behest of Larry Blatsky, her therapist and the leader of an organization called the Dreamscape. Some, including Celeste’s ex-fiance, Jake Kelly, consider the group a cult. The goal is for Celeste to experience not only her own dreams, but also those of other people, though she’s beginning to suspect that this is all just nonsense and that Larry is simply attempting to control the lives of his patients. Celeste goes over to Larry’s office, planning to quit their sessions after four years, but when she shares her final dream with him—“A woman, apron tied around her neck, rocking forward and back, like she’s kneading bread”—Larry panics and banishes her from the building. She returns a while later to retrieve a ring he insisted she give him only to find him dying in a pool of blood. The other Dreamers—including a member of the town’s police force—suspect that Celeste, a known “Doubter,” is Larry’s killer. With the help of Jake and her ex-Dreamer friend Gloria Cross, Celeste must find the computer full of recorded dreams that was stolen from Larry’s office. But what if Larry’s murder wasn’t an isolated incident? And what if her dream turns out to be real? Ritz’s precise prose captures the eerie milieu of the novel, which often verges on the supernatural: “She blinked hard, wondering what she was seeing. Larry floated in the space above his seat. Transfixed, Celeste shrank back as his feet and hands morphed into great furry paws, and his mouth and nose elongated into the muzzle of a lion.” The story is darkly comic, and the author delights in saddling her characters with tasks beyond their normal capabilities. The plot takes a while to rev up—the players’ overlapping relationships and past dramas commandeer a lot of page space—but once it gets going, it makes for a suitably engaging murder mystery.

A fun crime tale with some creepy cult elements.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-557-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2019

A bleak but undeniably affecting family tale.

STORM SEASON

A couple’s misery over their drug-addicted daughter’s overdose soon sparks retribution against the men they blame for her death in this thriller.

Meg Storm plummets into depression when learning of her 30-year-old daughter’s death. Lily had been a heroin addict for years, but neither Meg nor her husband, Jay, buys the cops’ theory that the overdose was suicide. Regardless, the tragedy quickly frays the couple’s marriage, and Jay moves out of the house. Meg is determined to hold someone responsible for Lily’s death, and though initially blaming Jay and even God, she eventually fixates on the heroin dealers. Despite being separated from his wife, Jay seems to share her obsession; he starts secretly following Lily’s junkie boyfriend, Wesley, and his cohorts. But the Storms’ interest in Lily’s sordid drug life could prove hazardous, as Wesley, et al. have ties to a Mexican cartel headed by the vicious drug lord Zambada. Various agencies, from the FBI to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are more invested in Zambada setting up shop on San Juan Island. So Meg, who knows how to shoot a gun, seeks vengeance alone, and violence may be the only way to mete out justice against the men she’s designated her daughter’s killers. Wingate’s (The Last Maharajan, 2016, etc.) novel is a harrowing portrait of two parents losing a child. Lily dies before the end of her scheduled monthly blog posts, which become posthumous accounts from an addict and reveal an animosity toward her mother. Flashbacks with the Storm family mold Meg and Jay into sympathetic but flawed characters; both should have recognized signs of Lily’s turmoil even before she succumbed to heroin. The author writes with a shrewd, confident style; the characters’ experiences are often perceptible to readers. For example, Meg endures an emotional reaction as physical anguish: “This new pain was like a shot to the chest, radiating down and dark, through the soles of her feet.” Violence is stark but fleeting, as the profound tale is more about loss than revenge.

A bleak but undeniably affecting family tale.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2018

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 245

Publisher: Roberts Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 2, 2018

A thought-provoking, well-researched diagnosis of the Vietnam War.

WARRIORS AND FOOLS

HOW AMERICA'S LEADERS LOST THE VIETNAM WAR AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS

A military history book analyzes the sources of America’s failures in the Vietnam War.

People have been arguing about what went wrong in the Vietnam War since before it ended. Some say it was an unwinnable conflict from the start and that the United States should never have gotten involved. Others believe that the American military could easily have won the war, but its hands were tied by civilian leaders who didn’t have the stomach for more aggressive tactics. Rothmann (None Will Surpass, 2014), a West Point graduate, retired Army colonel, and veteran soldier who led infantry units into combat in Vietnam, has his own theories: “Leader misjudgments and miscalculations were not the only reasons for this failure…they were more a result of personal faults and a lack of trust, honesty, and understanding among and between American civilian leaders and their military counterparts.” Furthermore, neither the U.S. military commanders nor the nation’s civilian leaders had an adequate understanding or respect for their adversary, an expertly organized and dedicated force that pursued its clear goals through subterfuge and strategy. The author uses firsthand accounts from both sides to analyze the conflict from its beginnings in 1950s Cold War politics to the fall of Saigon in 1975. He also critiques the (incorrect) lessons that American leaders took from the Vietnam War and how these have been applied to the country’s subsequent conflicts. Rothmann writes in an accessible prose that reads mostly as general history (with a few of his own reflections and opinions scattered throughout): “I missed much of the sixties in America….My wife had been closer to it. She related that she had a tough time getting a place to stay while I was in Vietnam. No one in her hometown in New Jersey would rent a place for her to stay since she was a soldier’s wife whose husband was away at war.” At nearly 700 pages, this comprehensive, rigorous volume spreads the blame around fairly evenly and justifiably. In the author’s view, there’s no one-sentence explanation for America’s loss in Vietnam. He’s here to lead readers unflinchingly into the nuances.

A thought-provoking, well-researched diagnosis of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: April 8, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-692-16549-2

Page Count: 768

Publisher: Rothmann Consulting, Inc.

Review Posted Online: Aug. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

Another top-tier installment that showcases exemplary recurring characters and tech subplots.

THE ENIGMA SOURCE

From the Enigma series , Vol. 10

Various organizations find that using new digital currency is a surprisingly dangerous endeavor in the 10th outing in Breakfield and Burkey’s (The Enigma Dragon, 2017, etc.) techno-thriller series.

When there’s a security breach at the Global Bank, Interpol enlists the help of the R-Group in Switzerland, which specializes in cybersecurity. But the bank also needs assistance in getting control of assorted cryptocurrencies on the market after the appearance of a brand-new digital medium of exchange. Seeking additional help, Global Bank separately contacts Petra Rancowski, descendant of one of the R-Group’s founders. Other groups want to implement the new currency, as well, including a Chinese terrorist group that goes after R-Group associate Su Lin and her husband, Andy Greenwood. Once a part of the Chinese Cyber Warfare College, Lin created a particular type of cryptocurrency code. Combat-trained Mercedes Field of the Cyber Assassins Technology Services team (prominently featured in other series installments) essentially becomes Lin’s bodyguard—and soon, she must deal with an abduction. Meanwhile, Petra; her love interest, Jacob Michaels; and R-Group hacker Quip enter the cryptocurrency war by developing their own digital product while R-Group Financial Director and Jacob’s grandfather Wolfgang Mickelowski struggles with a grave illness. Breakfield and Burkey excel at efficiently recapping earlier events and character histories while also delivering a fresh story. The pace is unremitting throughout, aided by the authors’ use of very short scenes and chapters. Wolfgang’s ailment provides this entry with some tender moments as well as a further peek into the R-Group backstory; Jacob discovers books, written by Wolfgang, that tell of the organization’s possible origin. As in preceding entries, the technological jargon is both modern and comprehensible, and the abundant humor never sidetracks the narrative; one advertisement for Petra’s new currency, for instance, is amusingly flashy: “We broker 1’s and 0’s at digital speed for peace of mind!”

Another top-tier installment that showcases exemplary recurring characters and tech subplots.

Pub Date: Aug. 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-946858-36-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: ICABOD Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2018

A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy sequel that should make readers crave yet another visit to Nanosia.

FIRE MASTER

From the Nanosia series , Vol. 2

A journeyman, ill-equipped to be the new fire mage, will need strength and skills to save an increasingly unstable world in this second installment of a YA series.

Now that his master is dead, apprentice Loby is the likely candidate to take the role of fire mage. But as he’s never learned the secret of fire, he doesn’t want the responsibility of being one of the five elemental mages. Meanwhile, citizens of the kingdom of Romatica are understandably on edge, as the land is burdened by recurrent earthquakes and unseasonably icy weather. In order for earth mage Myrlo to calm the “distressed” planet, he’ll need to make a volcano—but that would require a fire mage at full power. Loby may find the secret of fire in the atom-sized world of Nanosia, which is populated by the universe’s elementary particles. He’ll also be able to stop Romatica’s despicable King Cestor, who’s in Nanosia to collect the invincible powers an oracle has promised him. Luckily, Loby has help from Prenda, a girl who may share his hankering for romance, as well as Pyck, his half brother, who, after leaving six years ago, has inexplicably returned to Romatica. As in the fantasy series’ first installment, Johnson (Queen of the Quantum Realm, 2017, etc.) aptly incorporates science into her fictional tale. For example, Nanosia resident Higgy (as in the Higgs field), who plans to abandon his duty of providing mass to particles, could destroy the entire universe. But the author is a skilled storyteller in multiple aspects: Pyck is especially mysterious, as readers know he’s in Romatica on some sort of “mission.” Furthermore, some scenes play out twice, with alternating points of view. It masterfully adds character dimension: While Loby is indisputably sympathetic, Pyck’s perspective makes the protagonist’s plea for help almost sound like babbling (“The earthquake, the cold….See there’s this girl”). The narrative’s speedy pace, from the beginning to the satisfying conclusion, never falters.

A thoroughly enjoyable fantasy sequel that should make readers crave yet another visit to Nanosia.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-72288-862-6

Page Count: 306

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2018

A slow-burning, palpably grim dystopian tale.

THE WOLF AND THE RAIN

This post-apocalyptic debut sees a young woman with a past on the trail of a missing person.

The Decline has crippled the world. Rooted in global warming, the phenomenon encompasses humanity’s failure to cope with savage weather, food and water shortages, mosquito plagues, and diseases like the West Nile virus running amok. Samarra is from the barren South—a place requiring mental and physical discipline called Seira—but her new friends in the chaotic North think she’s from nearby Kanlan. Among the Vauns, who protect their own, she’s a drudge who travels around the Barrow, a half-flooded and trash-strewn city, to collect items from her group’s network of contacts. Sam is also friends with Ava, a woman whose daughter, Raina, could be missing or dead. Ava allows the Southerner to stay with her at an abandoned factory and use Raina’s boots and bed. One day, Sam discusses with Jackal, a fellow Vaun, how people often leave their lives behind on the solstice, hoping to start fresh elsewhere. Jackal suggests that Raina bolted with Finlay, her boyfriend. Later, members of the compound—Sam, Jackal, Hakuund, and twins Cassio and Xenia—visit a “party spot” called the Hive, where people enjoy music, gambling, and drinks. After a fire breaks out at the club and they barely escape, Sam’s dreams about her life in the South grow more intense. A sense of loss and failure surrounds a man named Corvus, and Sam begins to realize that finding Raina may mitigate the tragedy that her life has become. In this dour, atmospheric series opener, Lee explores how both the North and South cope with a ruined planet. In the North, stark environmental devastation haunts lines like “There was a mutation and the beetle’s appetite expanded to include other types of softwoods. Then came a second mutation and the hardwoods began to die.” Yet humanity perseveres, finding solace at card tables and drum circles, where “it was loud and damp and bordering on painful, but it was beautiful, and beauty was rare.” The author alternates chapters of Sam’s search for Raina with the protagonist’s Southern past as a child of the Administration. Militarized training centers keep reading, writing, and arithmetic alive while instilling a harsh code of conduct. Protector Gin, for example, tells cadets excited by guns to “prove that you can be trusted with a blade, and maybe you’ll get a projectile.” While these moments further darken the tale, reminding readers of a United States obsessed with the Second Amendment, the South’s “annual contests” are colorful shoutouts to genre favorites like The Hunger Games. Sam’s mission to locate Raina is slow to develop, though realistic in the way that she wakes to an inner conflict, summarized by the line “You think you can do one good thing one time for somebody else and it’ll erase what you did?” The truth behind Raina’s fate touches on another modern-day dilemma—one that hits women the hardest—and the sequel should anchor much of the worldbuilding done in the South.

A slow-burning, palpably grim dystopian tale.

Pub Date: Sept. 28, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-77359-291-0

Page Count: 382

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Sept. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

An exhilarating and emotionally astute mystery.

THE WINNER MAKER

When a popular high school teacher suddenly vanishes, a pack of his most devoted former students starts looking for him in this debut novel. 

Bob Fiske is a legendary high school English teacher and football coach at Evanston Township High in Michigan who’s known for his undying dedication to his students. He regularly compiles an unofficial list of “Winners,” a roster meant both to recognize students for their talents and inspire underachievers to fulfill their unrealized promise. Then Fiske mysteriously disappears, raising suspicions of foul play. Some admiring past Winners are so distraught they organize their own search party, prepared to put their lives on hold until they track him down, their loyalty to Fiske affectingly depicted by Bond. The group doesn’t have much time. Principal Mancini and Fiske have long been bitter rivals—the teacher is infamous for his confrontational demeanor. Mancini gives the band 24 hours to find Fiske before he’s terminated from his job for dereliction of duty. The team of faithful former students is led by Stephanie “Steph” Reece, who was one of Fiske’s brightest pupils. She is haunted by guilt that she squandered his support by falling short of her extraordinary potential. She’s especially attached to Fiske since he became something of a substitute for her own father, who died of cancer when she was only 3 years old. There’s a break in the case when another past Winner—Eric Pinkersby, an astonishingly successful tech entrepreneur—discovers that Fiske has been exchanging texts regularly with Autumn Brockert, a 16-year-old student of his. And when she too goes missing, the police suspect he abducted her, though Steph simply can’t accept that her idol is a craven predator.  Bond collapses two distinct literary genres into one seamless novelistic whole: a mystery and an emotional drama. While the past Winners hunt down clues in order to find Fiske, they’re forced to confront the memories of their high school selves and the extent to which their adult lives are either a consummation or betrayal of their youthful talents. And Fiske is deliciously enigmatic—though almost heroically supportive of his students, he seems to harbor a dark past, filled with rueful remorse. The author subtly captures Fiske’s complexity as well as his penchant for profoundly stirring inspiration: “Stephanie, time is our mortal enemy. Time leeches ambition. Never forget that greatness lives inside you. No matter how far off course you stray—no matter what you’ve done or have to atone for in the past—greatness remains. Greatness is never beyond salvage.” But the plot becomes increasingly convoluted and implausible and exchanges the dramatic nuance that typified the beginning for operatic melodrama. Yet Bond is so ingeniously inventive—he consistently moves the story in wholly unpredictable directions—that it’s likely readers will forgive these real but minor fictional vices. The novel’s central mystery is thrilling, but the true spine of the tale is the fragile connections between the past Winners, who must not only investigate Fiske’s disappearance, but also the authenticity of their lives and friendships. 

An exhilarating and emotionally astute mystery. 

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73225-520-3

Page Count: 330

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Aug. 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2018

Smart, invigorating, and, like the best zombie stories, relentlessly creepy.

GEHENNA RISES

Following a worldwide zombie plague, a survivor relates his personal account of a new menace more terrifying than swarms of the undead in Boote’s (EXIT, 2015, etc.) horror yarn.

Years after the Zombie War, Jay Boam is cast in a Hollywood film. The movie, set during the zombie outbreak, is about Beeston, which had been a safe haven during the war in Cheshire, England. History lionized the survivors at Beeston, a village and its castle, where an event known as the First Emergence ultimately led to victory over the undead. Knowing Hollywood’s penchant for altering facts, Jay decides to get the real story from Alec Mitchell, a Beeston survivor and the movie’s on-set adviser. During the zombie outbreak, Alec, an Anglican priest, used his background in science to research the undead’s reanimation with Beeston’s vet/doctor, Jennifer Edwards. Weeks into their work, the two recognized a zombie as someone from a nearby stronghold, so Beeston’s leader, Henry Jackson, sent a drone to survey the area. He then dispatched a group that found death and destruction, but the apparent attack didn’t seem to be the result of either an undead horde or living raiders. In fact, a dying girl at the stronghold claimed the devil himself had attacked them. Back at Beeston, Alec and others stumbled onto something they had never seen before, with the capacity to be far deadlier than zombies. As Beeston was ill-equipped to defend itself against this new threat, a vicious battle for survival ensued. However, present-day Alec, who doesn’t believe he deserves his status as hero, has a confession for Jay. Boote’s engrossing zombie tale is primarily Alec’s first-person story told to Jay, with occasional prompts from the latter. It’s a believable narration, entirely from the perspective of Alec, who even in retrospect doesn’t know what others were thinking. His account, told chronologically, likewise offers a few surprising plot turns, most notably the nightmarish evil described in the book’s latter half. The story shows a world enduring, as well as adjusting to, the zombie plague, not unlike George A. Romero’s series. Beeston’s harrowing fight is wrought with tension and occasionally grotesque. Fortunately, Boote (via Alec) is thoroughly descriptive: “From the matted mass of grey hair at the peak of his crown a dirty brown line traced a diagonal trail across his face, disappearing below where his right ear would have been, had not everything above that line been sliced clean away.” Footnotes clarify Alec’s copious references to historical events surrounding the war and zombie pandemic. These do nevertheless make some characters a literal footnote. We meet one in particular seconds before death, so readers may have trouble sympathizing. Regardless, other characters are outstanding, especially Henry and British Army Sgt. Peter John Rule, whom the government assigned to assist Beeston. The power struggle between these two further escalates suspense: Henry evidently hopes for a haven independent of the government, and Rule represents the authority he’s trying to escape. While the wrap-up provides sufficient insight into Alec on an emotional level, the novel concludes with an unforgettably unnerving and lasting impression.

Smart, invigorating, and, like the best zombie stories, relentlessly creepy.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-916187-21-4

Page Count: 274

Publisher: Ingram Spark

Review Posted Online: Aug. 17, 2018

A language enthusiast offers a compilation of amusing and singular columns.

WORDSTRUCK!

THE FUN AND FASCINATION OF LANGUAGE

A collection of newspaper columns muses on the eccentricities of English and other languages.

In this second edition of her volume of Bill Bryson–esque columns, Janssen draws on decades of teaching and learning languages to engage in a lighthearted exploration of grammar, etymology, family history, cultural exchange, and anything else that interests her. The columns, arranged thematically, deal primarily with the author’s lifelong fascination with languages—her native English, the Spanish she studied and taught, her parents’ Dutch and Italian—and her enthusiasm for sharing them with others. Many address the benefits, both financial and personal, of studying multiple languages, and the columns on grammar are refreshingly un-crotchety (enthusiastically endorsing, for instance, the singular they). Janssen is a knowledgeable teacher and enthusiastic student, but she is also charmingly self-deprecatory: “Keyboarding is not the only type of boarding at which I have failed. I’ve also flopped (literally, onto concrete and into ice banks) at skateboarding and snowboarding.” Although the book does not rely heavily on research citations, the information presented is solid and avoids the unsubstantiated folk etymologies that too often attract amateur linguists. Janssen’s insights into the nature of language are strengthened by her familiarity with several beyond her native tongue, allowing her to explore the cultural implications of hygge and schadenfreude as well as the value of the Spanish word “estadounidenses,” a concise way to describe U.S. citizens while allowing “American” to apply to the rest of the hemisphere. Columns celebrating the tradition/marketing ploy of naming a “word of the year” are particularly delightful (“There is no need to suffer the lengthy awkwardness of writing on your Christmas wish list, ‘I want one of those collapsible monopods to attach to my camera or cell phone for better selfies,’ when you can just say, ‘Dear Santa, please bring me a selfie stick!’ ”). Readers in search of engaging, entertaining, and occasionally thought-provoking essays should enjoy the pieces that make up this collection.

A language enthusiast offers a compilation of amusing and singular columns.

Pub Date: June 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9983048-2-3

Page Count: 366

Publisher: Lexicon Alley Press

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

A worthy personal guide that calls for healthier and more mindful relationships in all areas of life.

LIFE IS ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS

THE WAY YOU DEAL WITH OTHERS CAN ENHANCE YOUR LIFE AND THEIRS

A combination of autobiography and motivation manual explores relationships at the heart of life and business.

Debut author Strohl delivers a disarmingly straightforward and personal book about his plan to “improve the world, one relationship at a time.” He was born in Burlington, Iowa, and raised in Kansas as the son of a Methodist minister, who advised him that “you never make yourself look better by making someone else look worse.” Strohl graduated from Southwestern College in Kansas and spent 47 years working in Customer Service for AT&T before retiring to become a business consultant. In a series of short chapters written in clear, accessible prose, the author provides overviews of a number of well-known self-help books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and elaborates on the lessons he’s learned from a lifetime of dealing professionally with all types of folks in all kinds of capacities. He looks back on his long career and relates that there were hardly any bleak days in that tenure—and that most of those were caused by bosses. This accounts for the volume’s concentration on workplace advice, including how to get along with supervisors without being sycophantic. “Do you have to embrace them or lavish them with artificial compliments?” Strohl writes. “No, you merely act respectful to them and deal with them as you need to for the successful accomplishment of your task or job, and then hope the relationship is not life-long!” Topical elements enter the author’s narrative and are handled with considerable diplomacy. Looking at the divided states of America that he sees all over the news of the day, he stresses the basics of forming relationships as the basis for a decent society, particularly when it comes to leading others. His advice: ask for input, criticize gently, offer to help, never gossip, never talk down to people, and never yell or use angry language or threats. “Now many of you may be saying that these are very simple and understood methods and attributes so there is nothing new here and I would agree,” Strohl writes. “But then I would add, ‘Why is it these simple things aren’t being put into practice?’ ” The lessons of these chapters emphasize that simplicity. The author stresses that friendly, courteous communication is the fundamental key to fostering relationships of all kinds, urging his readers to be honest, nice, and respectful and underscoring the potential rewards: “It is very basic, simple day to day communication that anyone can initiate. But it pays dividends far beyond the effort necessary to do it!” Strohl’s observations about the crucial value of healthy relationships are fleshed out and given a good deal of warmth by personal anecdotes drawn from his life and career. Readers—and especially personnel managers—should find great value in these pages.

A worthy personal guide that calls for healthier and more mindful relationships in all areas of life.

Pub Date: June 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-73219-260-7

Page Count: 157

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

An engrossing Christmas Carol–esque parable of modern racism.

SEVEN FULL DAYS

A debut novel tells the story of a rising Atlanta businessman visited by disturbing dreams of the slavery era.

Jason Scott and his wife, Callie, get into a fight on the way home from a party with some of his co-workers. Callie feels that Jason’s ambition allows him to tolerate overt racism from his bosses while he thinks she is naïve about what it takes to get ahead in America. That night, while sleeping on a futon on the deck of their spacious Atlanta home, Jason has an incredible dream: He is flying without a plane (or even a body) across a sky. Descending through a hole in the clouds, he flies up behind a group of lightly dressed blacks walking along a forest path: “Jason realized he was headed directly for the man in front. Without a hint of deceleration, he was about to crash into the back of the man’s head.” Over the course of the next week, the waking Jason reflects on his long relationship with Callie while being forced to mete out increasingly demeaning admonishments to his black co-workers on behalf of his white managers. At night, however, Jason watches from inside the head of his ancient black host—without the ability to comment or control the man’s actions—as the figure is captured, placed in chains, and marched to a dungeon. What will these lessons of the slave trade teach Jason about his station in contemporary America? Shelton writes in a descriptive prose that captures his characters’ emotional states in vivid detail: “Their pupils were dilated, indistinguishable from the pitch-blackness of the rest of the room. If eyes are windows to the soul, he saw sets of eyes—scores of them, all reflecting souls traumatically impaired.” While the premise of the book might sound heavy-handed, the author shapes it with a surprising amount of grace and nuance. Jason is no Ebenezer Scrooge, and the everyday racism of contemporary America is shown to be both pernicious and exhausting. While perhaps too didactic for some readers, the novel strives—and largely succeeds—to present the issue in its complexity.

An engrossing Christmas Carol–esque parable of modern racism.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-945473-70-8

Page Count: 251

Publisher: Off the Common Books

Review Posted Online: Aug. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2018

An impressive assortment of lithe, charming tales.

SHORT ROUNDS

STORIES OF LIFE, LOVE, AND OTHER CALAMITIES

Life presents unexpected changes and romantic entanglements for characters populating this short story collection.

This book opens with “The Cow That Jumped Over the Moon,” in which Melvin and Doreen McCook move from Phoenix to Bethel, Colorado, to buy and run a movie theater. Unfortunately, the theater doesn’t make much profit, as it’s 1980, during the rise of home media. But things change after Melvin saves a cow at a cattle auction; his new bovine companion becomes a local celebrity who may draw some business. J.D. Carpenter is likewise struggling with his small-town newspaper in “Dusty Feet,” also set in Bethel. He ultimately comes to the aid of Kofi Abel, an Ethiopian in town, to find Pad Hornung. Kofi knows Pad from his missionary work. But Kofi inadvertently stirs up J.D.’s past, including his two failed marriages. Other characters face tribulations far from home. Winston, for example, of “The Call of the Russalki,” is isolated in the South China Sea for a site survey. He’s surprised when he sees another boat; according to the skipper, it’s a scientific expedition, which entails an unusual, all-female crew, each clad in bikini tops and shorts. This tale is followed by “Christmas in July.” In it, Mason Morrison is an American writer in London who starts volunteering at Lulworth Court, essentially a nonprofit holiday spot for the disabled. But what’s Mason to do when his fling with a volunteer becomes something more? Gore’s (Ghosting the Willamette, 2017, etc.) book is an appealing, often endearing collection of nine stories. The majority of the characters are immensely likable. Melvin is so worried about Doreen’s reaction to his cattle purchase, as they’re financially strapped, that he avoids her for as long as possible. He even names the cow Emma, after a beloved girlfriend who died in an auto accident decades ago. Similarly, young Orion of “Tutledge” is a junior ranger who keeps an eye on his town’s wooded area via his watch tower (in actuality, a hay loft). The author writes in an uncomplicated, grounded style that adds credibility to the characters and tales. For example, romance in “Christmas” is a combination of lyricism and mere observation: “They looked up at the clouds moving across the darkening sky, and at some point, her hand found its way into his.” This further applies to humor throughout the book as well as occasional hints of the otherworldly. Comedy comes in the form of largely familiar situations, such as the mother in “The Great Rabbit Round-up,” who embodies her typical anger by clomping around in her novelty pair of Dutch wooden shoes. Likewise, there are a few instances of something seemingly supernatural, but they are ambiguous and could be merely taking place inside characters’ heads. Serious topical issues do crop up in the stories, and Gore wisely doesn’t treat them mildly. The most notable of these is “Tick!” about a boy with an apparent mental disorder who deals with tactless neighbors.

An impressive assortment of lithe, charming tales.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-984174-47-5

Page Count: 258

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

A curious, freewheeling read for inquiring young minds.

THE IMAGINATION WARRIORS

In Romanelli’s debut children’s novel, a young New Mexican and a talking feline go on a spiritual adventure.

Daisy May is a special cat. Not only can she talk, but she also has the gift of precognition. But although she leads a comfortable life in New York City, she feels unfulfilled. When her owner’s 9-year-old granddaughter, Philomena, invites her to come to Lamy, New Mexico, to investigate a mystery, the cat decides to put her psychic powers to good use. Philomena is an adventurous, independent child whose paleontologist father is often away from home. She’s been keeping watch on a painting of a Native American man that hangs in a Lamy saloon, whose details—such as the number of teepees in the background—have been changing. She takes Daisy May to meet her artist friend, Noshi, whose latest work, an image of a Native American princess, has been similarly mutable. Daisy May, Philomena, and Noshi declare themselves to be “Imagination Warriors,” and they find that they’re able to use the power of thought to enter Noshi’s painting; inside, they find conduits to other pictures and paths to other places and times. But will they ever figure out what’s going on with the pictures and make their way home? Romanelli portrays a world full of wonder and plays up the characters’ embrace of imagination. Daisy May and Philomena are full of inquisitiveness, not skepticism, which will appeal to a middle-grade audience. Romanelli effectively portrays imagination as a means for dealing with problems, such as loneliness or the feeling of being tied down by circumstance. By switching the narrative’s perspective to secondary characters—including Rama, a talking llama—the author shows how imagination can spread like ripples on a pond. The dialogue’s tone is formal, rather than naturalistic, but the story moves quickly as characters investigate the mystery, which is only partially resolved. Indeed, the book turns dark and ends rather chaotically, setting up a potential sequel. Even so, young readers will likely be happy to tag along. Sawyer’s (The Cupcake Book, 2014, etc.) full-color illustrations are suitably hazy and fantastical.

A curious, freewheeling read for inquiring young minds.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-9996389-0-3

Page Count: 231

Publisher: Little Roman Press

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

Sometimes rough around the edges but an imaginative illustration of emotional intelligence.

MAGIC MOON

A NEW BEGINNING

Magic Moon deals with bullies in his world, and camp counselors do the same on Earth in this fourth installment of a series.

In the three previous outings—two fairy-tale–style picture books and a contemporary chapter book—Magic Moon helped people by granting certain requests and giving advice. Now his Creator has sent him to a new world, one inhabited by beings with multicolored fur—all except Farni, who’s plain white all over. He’s bullied for this, considered a freak, and has no friends. At first, he’s terrified when Magic Moon addresses him, but his curiosity and courage allow them to become acquainted. On Earth, 17-year-old Roni, who’s white, and her Polynesian friend Makani are counselors at a girls’ camp. (In the previous volume, Roni’s cousin Tara helped a family cross into this world from a magic portal when Magic Moon had to leave.) When the counselors discover caramel-skinned Kauna, 8, crying by herself, they figure out that she’s being bullied and vow to put a stop to it, with the approval of camp director Gail. In both worlds, practical demonstrations show the wrongness of prejudice based on outward appearances. For example, Magic Moon reveals how a prism separates white light into a rainbow of colors—but it’s all the same light. Inward qualities, like Farni’s bravery, are what matter. Moulton (Magic Moon: Two Worlds, 2017, etc.) has an intriguing idea in marrying the anti-bullying message with fantasy. The important role of adults in responding to such behavior is modeled here in both worlds; on Earth more realistically, and in Farni’s world, with broader humor (Brown Bear, for example, becomes Farni’s protector). At times, the message becomes overly earnest, so the slightly loony feel of Farni’s realm is a good break. But the flow between worlds is choppy due to short chapters, often only two or three pages. And Moulton’s writing can be awkward or repetitive; for example, the unnecessary quotation marks in “a small, furry, white ‘bear-like’ creature, with a smaller, brown ‘dog-like’ creature.”

Sometimes rough around the edges but an imaginative illustration of emotional intelligence.

Pub Date: Nov. 2, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-978137-11-0

Page Count: 146

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: July 16, 2018

A clever and kinky theatrical romp with a big heart.

MIDSUMMER'S BOTTOM

In this fantasy novel, a disastrous theater troupe specializes in Shakespeare.

In Limerick, Ireland, the Midsummer Players have been presenting Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream for 19 years. Director Terence Devlin hopes that the upcoming 20th anniversary performance will be the one that garners the hardworking, though unevenly talented, company some renown. The Players, however, don’t realize that every fey character mentioned in the famous work is obligated to attend, thanks to a devious bargain with Shakespeare himself. And among the countless productions the fey King Oberon and Queen Titania have witnessed, Devlin’s is one of the worst. Enter the real fairy Puck, who’s come via portal to the mortal world to find a mischief-maker who can infiltrate the Players and halt the show. Del Chapman, who’s just unleashed a computer virus on his employer and made his getaway in a stolen BMW, is stunned when Puck appears in the passenger seat. After causing a car crash to prove his powers, Puck explains to Del that the fairy can’t directly interfere with the Players. Despite misgivings about his acting abilities, Del agrees to ingratiate himself with the troupe and derail the performance. Of course, this chaos agent doesn’t anticipate the long-brewing complications among the actors. In this ribald fantasy, Dash (An Other Place, 2016, etc.) gifts fans of the Bard a nuanced comedy that comments heavily on the travails of monogamy. Almost all of the Players are dysfunctional couples, including Devlin and his middle-aged wife, Anna; Felix Hill and Nuala Shay; and Don Magill and Ingmar Van Dorslaer. Rising star—and Devlin’s secret lover—Kate Pummel and shy banker Diarmid Garrigan are wild cards with whom Del and Puck cause mayhem. The author spices events further by sending Diarmid to the fey realm, where nudity is unremarkable. He laments to Titania and Oberon: “In the human sphere, bodies have different meanings. There is sex in that land, and one is always aware of it.” A duality emerges in the novel, speaking both to the benefits of unfettered sex and the frustration at mortals’ preoccupation with the act.

A clever and kinky theatrical romp with a big heart.

Pub Date: June 21, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-71720-021-1

Page Count: 458

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2018

A vulnerable and illuminating account of a wife attempting to save her marriage.

IT'S NOT TOO LATE BABY

A KUNDALINI LOVE STORY

A debut memoir tells how a woman put her marriage back together after her husband’s infidelity.

One day, while waiting for her husband to get home from a business trip, musician Kane discovered mysterious hotel charges on his monthly credit card statement. Adam, who had been increasingly distant since his sister’s death a few years earlier, quickly admitted to an affair with a stripper, though he assured Kane that it had ended. Both Kane and Adam wanted to save their 24-year marriage, but the next six months of therapy went horribly awry. It turned out that Adam hadn’t been fully honest with Kane, and she was forced to play the role of detective in order to get to the truth of what her husband was up to. In between sections recounting this period of problems with Adam, the author includes chapters that delve into her own past: her family, her discovery of music, her past relationships, and her long marriage. It turned out that therapy alone wasn’t enough to help Kane get past her lifetime of baggage to work out her marriage. Unexpectedly, she found the missing ingredient in Kundalini yoga. The effects of the practice on an otherwise fairly mainstream American couple are surprising, to say the least. “It’s not common for people whose marriages survive to reveal the ways they kept their marriage together,” the author writes in the book’s preface. “Instead of keeping my story mysteriously locked away, it might bring a little more happiness into the world unfolding in front of you.” Kane’s prose is warm and full of self-deprecating humor. This deeply confessional work exposes her as a flawed but highly sympathetic figure laying bare both her life’s joys and indignities.  The audience may not agree with her decision to stay with her husband—Adam does not come off well, though Kane’s treatment of him is always empathetic—but that makes, perhaps, for a more enlightening reading experience. It’s a strange story, but a very human one. A tie-in music album by the author is available as well.

A vulnerable and illuminating account of a wife attempting to save her marriage.

Pub Date: June 22, 2018

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 245

Publisher: Time Tunnel Media

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2018

A trilogy of exuberant and lucid tales that exhibits a fear of the future, regardless of the time period.

THE CHAOS TRILOGY

BETTER LIFE THROUGH ACME

In this sci-fi series, an alien species secretly on Earth tries to prevent humanity’s extinction.

This collection opens with The Chaos Machine, which describes freight haulers from the planet Shoomar landing on an unknown world in 5342 B.C.E. Their ship, capable of traversing the space-time continuum, experienced a “Bad Jump” that has left crew members stranded on Earth. Fortunately, they can live comfortably on the planet, which is comparable to Shoomar. But according to projections from the ship’s navigational system, earthlings will be wiped out in a thousand years, and the Shoomarans want to ensure that doesn’t happen. Millennia later, in the present day, California billionaire Allen Brookstone mysteriously vanishes. He’s been taken by an eccentric group with advanced technology, including the Chaos Machine, which has predicted the imminent end of the world. The band needs Allen’s assistance in stopping the apocalyptic event. Second Contact takes place in “5342 AB,” when Cassiopeia, a 19-year-old human living on the planet Perseus VII, learns about one of her ancestors who aided the Shoomarans in saving Earth’s inhabitants. Cassiopeia subsequently spearheads the fight for humans to be admitted into the intergalactic Universal Alliance, but some in the Shoomaran Empire have trouble believing in the strange race of Homo sapiens. The final and shortest novel, Mankind 2.0, takes readers back to Allen’s time period. He concocts a drastic plan to safeguard humanity from a Chaos Machine–predicted superstorm as well as other potential doomsday scenarios. Hamilton’s (Goddess of the Gillani, 2018, etc.) three books skillfully complement one another. While each novel is a self-contained narrative, this collection feels like one lengthy story divided into a trio of sections. There’s the occasional recap of preceding events, but it never overwhelms the saga or slows the overall steady pace. In the same vein, both technology and popular sci-fi notions are relatively simple. Portable notepods, for example, are familiar devices, described at one point as “computer tablets on steroids.” Even the more exotic Chaos Machine is comprehensible. Any intercession based on the machine’s predictions calls forth the butterfly effect, a phenomenon the author wisely assumes sci-fi fans already know. The author’s true focus is the story’s emotional core, including the Shoomarans’ ultimate decision to help humans; Cassiopeia’s exploration of her origin; and the very real possibility that a particular cataclysm will be unavoidable. Unfortunately, dialogue among so many characters is sometimes too interchangeable. Though Hamilton clarifies that he’s essentially translating the alien Universal language into English, the aliens and humans mostly sound alike, as one of the Shoomarans even drops a Star Wars–inspired line. But characters are otherwise distinctive. Tireless Cassiopeia is a standout: Securing admission into the alliance requires outsmarting the Shoomaran prime minister, who’s 69,000 years old. The book likewise boasts a bit of mystery, particularly throughout Contact. It entails a few references, like the Final Blackout, that aren’t clear until Mankind hops back in time.

A trilogy of exuberant and lucid tales that exhibits a fear of the future, regardless of the time period.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-979168-77-9

Page Count: 646

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2018

Taut, riveting story in which apparitions and corporeal baddies remain comparably terrifying.

DEAD RECKONING IN FREDERICK

A paranormal team’s investigation into spirits in Maryland exposes nefarious deeds that come with a human threat in this suspense novel.

When the Frederick County Landmarks Foundation suspects “something” is wrong with one of its historical buildings, the Dulany Paranormal Team takes the case. The 200-year-old home, Beacon’s Way, is a hub of recent unexplained events, including a mysterious leak in the ceiling and a heavy armoire that seemingly moves on its own. Team member and photographer Kayla Dunn snaps some pictures of the house and is shaken by what appears to be a specter staring at her. Investigating with her colleagues Parker Troxell and Henry Marfoh, Kayla looks into other local hauntings, all eventually linked by trompe l’oeil paintings, works with three-dimensional optical illusions. At the same time, there’s an equally unnerving human element, from a note that warns the foundation’s vice president to steer clear of Beacon’s Way to someone directly threatening Parker. There’s also the body that Kayla stumbles on—a Jane Doe and an indisputable homicide. Unfortunately, more killings follow, and the possible presence of phantoms may not be the greatest danger for Frederick County or the Dulany Team. Allen’s (Lies Beneath Ellicott City, 2015, etc.) novel is an engaging fusion of ghost story and thriller. The focus is primarily on the mystery: Humans are a definite menace but their objective is unclear, while the existence of spirits is initially vague. The intermittent merging of the two investigations—the Dulany Team’s and Detective Nick Nucci working the murders—further deepens the mystery with probable connections. The author grounds the paranormal sleuths with signs of their expertise, like relevant terminology: apport (an object appearing through spiritual means) versus asport (an object that a ghost takes or moves). But along with the realism, there are wonderful instances of spookiness; when Kayla carefully peruses her photos of Beacon’s Way, she spots a previously unseen individual who had been hiding.

Taut, riveting story in which apparitions and corporeal baddies remain comparably terrifying.

Pub Date: June 23, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5246-9552-1

Page Count: 338

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2018

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