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Indie Best Books of the Month September

An explosive thriller full of engaging dialogue and action.

SANCTION

In Hunter’s debut espionage tale, the assassination of a Cambridge University professor reveals conspiracies involving terrorist bombings.

Sean Garrett’s instructions are to retrieve intelligence from distinguished academic Mohammad Ahmad regarding a King’s Cross Station bombing 14 months earlier. But he’s also contemplating revenge against Ahmad, as he believes that he’s linked to the attack, which killed Sean’s grandfather and put his sister in a coma. Quite unexpectedly, an assassin gets to the professor first. Sean witnesses the murder, which soon makes him a target of the elusive hit man. Both MI6 and the CIA want to find the assassin, as Ahmad was a shared asset, and they begin by analyzing closed-captioned TV footage, which seems to implicate Sean as the killer. MI6’s Banastre Montjoy, Ahmad’s original handler, is on the case, and soon others enter the investigation, officially or unofficially, including police from Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, the terrorists responsible for the King’s Cross Station attack and additional bombings are looking to tie off any loose ends, and they have a mole in British Intelligence that could help them do so. Hunter’s tale is deliciously complex, but it’s surprisingly easy to follow. Despite the influx of characters, for example, it’s generally easy to keep them all straight along with all of their respective agencies. The twists come in the form of shocking alliances, and the final-act explanation is an impressive one that manages to connect multiple events, botched parts and all. The prose throughout is clear and concise despite the characters’ use of coded messages and cockney slang (the latter of which is defined as soon as characters utter it). There are some moments of violence, although it’s never excessive, and the ending scene, all the way to the closing sentence, is extraordinary.

An explosive thriller full of engaging dialogue and action.

Pub Date: Aug. 31, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5470-5300-1

Page Count: 444

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

An irreverent fantasy crammed full of sunlight and surprises.

FISH WIELDER

From the Fish Wielder Series series , Vol. 1

This debut novel finds a swordsman and his talking fish battling a heartless mage, minions, and a doomsday dessert.

In the magical realm of Grome, Thoral Mighty Fist wars against evil with his enchanted broadsword, Blurmflard. He also has incredibly white teeth, a best friend named Brad—who’s a koi—and a heart “too heavy for adventure.” As Thoral finishes drowning his sorrows at a tavern, he pops the air-breathing Brad into his belt pouch and heads outside for his steed, Warlordhorse. He’s attacked by three black-cloaked figures, members of the Bad Religion. Thoral dispatches them speedily and then travels to the Godforsaken Swamp in search of a mood-enhancing escapade. He eventually finds a ruined castle and runs afoul of Necrogrond, the sorcerer, who wonders whether Thoral is the “Chosen One” from the Goomy Prophecy of Doom. After matching wits and magic with his new nemesis, Thoral frees an imprisoned elf princess, Nalweegie, daughter of King Elfrod. He then learns of Necrogrond’s plan to wipe the elves from Grome. Teamed with Elfrod’s army, the hero begins tracking a grasthling (flying squirrel) who will hopefully lead them to the Heartless One before the Pudding of Power and the Bracelet of Evil render the sinister forces unstoppable. In this deliciously deadpan fantasy, Hardison (Demon Freaks, 2017) parodies a genre that’s too often humorless and convoluted. He names people and places with childlike silliness (“The Gap of Goosh,” for example) and rivals the wryness of Neil Gaiman with explanations like “She is called Nalweegie, the Evening Snack...because to look on her in twilight quells the hunger of one’s heart without making one feel overfull, as can happen with a more substantial meal.” Thankfully, the author loves gore, too, and serves fans plenty of it (“He tore both of the elephant trunks off the gorilla body and threw them” so that they “splatted against the black altar and writhed around like huge worms”). Even if readers believe fantasy should always be dark and epic, Hardison’s comedic inventiveness and stamina are miraculous to behold.

An irreverent fantasy crammed full of sunlight and surprises.

Pub Date: Aug. 23, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-9968943-1-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Fiery Seas

Review Posted Online: June 29, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

A fine, engrossing portrait of mental illness and healing.

SOOTHING

LIVES OF A CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST

A psychologist looks back on his struggles to quiet the seething minds of his patients—and his own—in this debut memoir. 

Miller, a child and family therapist and founder of UCLA’s Parent Training Clinic, takes as his central task the “soothing” of psyches agitated by anxiety, shame, compulsions, and the unfulfillable expectations of parents and society and brings to bear two sources of insight into that process. The first is his own dysfunctional family history with an unstable father plagued by nervous breakdowns and a resilient but sometimes-cold mother. Out of that stew came the author’s own compulsive talkativeness and crippling stage fright when speaking to large audiences, a blend of neuroses he spent much of his life battling. The second is his trove of reminiscences of his patients. Miller’s case studies run the gamut: a young girl who hatches a new phobia whenever he cures the last one; a man in his 70s who obsessively buys CDs he never listens to; a bright, socially awkward teen with Asperger’s who fantasizes about mayhem and skulks on the roof with his dad’s rifle; and a female psychologist who comes to him for treatment, then leaves a note on his wife’s car ordering her to “stay the hell away from my therapist!” They also include a baseball player trying to get his batting average back to .300 and a young man slipping into paranoid schizophrenia who gets yanked from therapy by his parents, with tragic results. Miller writes with a nice balance of subtle, searching analysis and warm empathy that vividly evokes psychic pain and embarrassment—especially his own—while teasing out the convoluted mechanisms behind them. (Of one patient who threw a fit when a leaf fell off the author’s office ficus plant, he writes, “All she needed to recover from hellish abandonment was for her words to be accepted just as spoken with no judgment…to have her very existence acknowledged.”) It’s fascinating to watch as he improvises strategies to resolve his patients’ problems through everything from traditional talk therapy to breathing exercises and a technique called EMDR that involves slowly tapping the patient’s hands to unearth buried childhood traumas. The result is a revealing, humane, down-to-earth look at the day-to-day art of clinical psychology that should give many readers insights into their own problems.

A fine, engrossing portrait of mental illness and healing.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5245-4631-1

Page Count: 263

Publisher: Xlibris

Review Posted Online: July 5, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.

THE BIG BUDDHA BICYCLE RACE

An unusual Vietnam-era novel that features a bicycle race along with much soul-searching.

In 1970, Brendan Leary, the hero and narrator of Harkin’s debut novel, has just gotten out of college and decides to enlist in the U.S. Air Force before he’s drafted into the Army. A photographer with some experience under his belt, he hopes to eventually go to the famous University of Southern California film school, and maybe the GI Bill will help. He thinks that his Vietnam experience will be a cushy billet, editing film behind the front lines in an air-conditioned hut. He’s wrong, of course; first of all, he’s not in Vietnam but Thailand (in an illegal military operation), and he soon finds himself filming the action firsthand, riding an AC-130 gunship as it destroys Viet Cong caravans on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC return the favor with fierce anti-aircraft fire. To say that Brendan is terrified every time he goes up would be understatement. The airmen are either “hippies” or “lifers”; Brendan and friends are, of course, laid-back hippies (think M*A*S*H). There are lots of drugs—anyone who only smokes marijuana is practically a choirboy—and a club scene in which Brendan, a drummer, bangs away after hours. He falls half in love with the beautiful Tukada, who works at the club—even though he has another girlfriend stateside—and spends the rest of his hitch desperately trying to save her from her own heroin habit. This is all capped with an exhilarating bicycle race among the soldiers which ends very badly, indeed. Author Harkin has had a successful career as a Hollywood cameraman, and his idea of mixing war and photography in this novel is clever. He shows how it’s the photographer’s job to make the war look good while also providing some distance. It’s ironic that both guns and cameras “shoot” people, and the pictures help to make the carnage exciting, almost attractive; the Viet Cong and their supply trucks become like simple figures in a video game. Harkin also shows how Brendan realizes, over time, that the Americans are inflicting as much damage on the Thai people as on the avowed enemy, vulgarizing a beautiful culture and trashing the economy; bar girls and masseuses make more money than local professionals, and everything is sold cheap. In a final scene, readers discover that Thai Army Sgt. Prasert, a supposed friend, has been nursing a raging hatred for Americans all along, and readers will find it hard to blame him. But in a particularly tear-jerking scene, Brendan, his friend Tom, and Tukada perform their own very loopy three-way wedding. In the end, the tone of the book seems Shakespearian, as everybody in the narrative ends up losing. And Harkin’s prose is lyrical at times: “With a hundred incarnations of Death as their companion, ground pounders never had a chance to be lonely, especially in the hot and spicy nighttime when they were caressed by their desperate mistress, Fear.”

An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 2017

ISBN: 978-6-16-215132-3

Page Count: 396

Publisher: Silkworm Books

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

A novel of ideas can easily become righteous and preachy; this thoughtful matriarchal tale impressively rises above that.

WOMEN'S WORK

Finally in charge of the planet, women resolve to do a better job than men; but for all their good intentions, Utopia eludes them in this study of human nature and gender roles.

In this debut novel, the war to end all wars has been accomplished in the not-too-distant future for the simple reason that the world has run out of men and materiel to fight anymore. The countryside has been reduced to rubble and most men are dead or presumed so. Not coincidentally, in a wave of vicious misogyny, women had been severely oppressed. Now, it is 10 years after, and the roles are reversed. Through sheer grit, women continue to dig out of the ruins and vow to make a brave, new matriarchal world. But they must always be on guard against roving bands of “raiders,” men bent on pillage, rape, and worse. (A few men are accepted, but they are literally house husbands.) Kate Decker is making a go of it on her farm with her twins, Margaret and Laura, and son, Jonah. One night, a man emerges from the forest begging help for his sick boy, Evan. Thus begins the tentative, tortured relationship between Kate and Michael MacGregor, who has in effect kidnapped his own son so that he will not lose him. If the women in town find out, they will take young Evan and probably kill Michael. With so much hatred, can a true balance ever be achieved? Aguila is a remarkably talented novelist. Her vivid passages paint a fractured society; one female character says of men: “We buried all of them. Even the ones who survived.” The author is not afraid to let a scene grow at its own pace, and virtually everything rings true here. And this engrossing tale is wonderfully balanced with fully developed characters: readers understand what fear and loathing have done to most of these women (even to Kate near the end). But they also know that Michael is a good man and should not be tarred with the same brush aimed at most of his sex. Men and women will react differently to the story, but both should find much to ponder (attention, book clubs). In the end, readers are forced to examine the tragedies that evil can wreak.

A novel of ideas can easily become righteous and preachy; this thoughtful matriarchal tale impressively rises above that.

Pub Date: Nov. 18, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-9911650-0-1

Page Count: 298

Publisher: Coley Press

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

A brilliant display of legal erudition combined with historical incisiveness.

A TRAGIC FATE

LAW AND ETHICS IN THE BATTLE OVER NAZI-LOOTED ART

A comprehensive review of United States court cases involving art that was plundered by Nazis. 

Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was always keenly attuned to the power of cultural symbolism and eager to find new ways to disenfranchise Jewish people. These two preoccupations converged in their looting of privately owned art between 1933 and 1945. Some treasures were brazenly confiscated, while others were purchased at steep, coerced discounts. In the last few decades, there’s been growing interest in this large-scale larceny, and yet much of the stolen art will likely never be returned to its original owners. Debut author O’Donnell, an attorney, calls this the “central paradox posed by disputes in the last twenty years.” In this book, he diligently catalogs the many moral and judicial reasons for this absurdity as well as the evolution of laws regarding claims. His study specifically focuses on cases that resulted in litigation in America, providing an exhaustive account of each and arguing that such litigation can be an effective legal strategy despite complaints to the contrary. O’Donnell also includes discussions of landmark moments in art-restitution law, such as the London Declaration in 1943, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998, and the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The United States emerges in O’Donnell’s account as an early, forceful leader in international art restitution despite the fact that some of its own laws, and even the Fifth Amendment, can complicate victims’ options. His mastery of the relevant law is nothing short of stunning, and his meticulous parsing of legal detail leaves no stones unturned. This is primarily a work of legal scholarship, and the intense attention that it lavishes upon legal minutiae may prove prohibitive to lay readers. However, it also unearths the moral drama beneath the legal niceties and ably discusses the ways that uncooperative museums are complicit in Nazi theft and how nations grapple with the dark legacies of their pasts. 

A brilliant display of legal erudition combined with historical incisiveness. 

Pub Date: July 5, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-63425-733-6

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Ankerwycke

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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