Book Reviews


Wind Down By Mark Ewig

Aaron has a big problem — and it all started with the night he was stabbed in the back by one of his roommates. You’ll be drawn into this outstanding and dynamic story from the very start, and carried forward on a wave of mystery and paranormal suspense.

Was it Drew, on meds because of an abusive situation at home? Or Ryan, who fought with Drew the night of the incident? Finally, there’s Jason, who disavows any involvement outright.

Aaron goes to the hospital and stays four days while the police try to figure out who plunged the knife into his back. His girlfriend Jessica just wants to be there for him as the four friends break up and go their separate ways with the mystery of Aaron’s assault unsolved.

Fast forward fifteen years. Jessica and Aaron are married with three wonderful children. His life is idyllic — a nice home, good job, and a family who loves him. But suddenly, things start going wrong.

He blacks out, sometimes while driving, sometimes for days on end. And that’s not all. He begins seeing things: an elderly couple that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye; an apparition that oozes from his television, known to him only as the shadow man; and odd, tingly sensations and a crushing weight that descends on him just prior to each blackout.

A shaman that he meets offers a startling explanation, and it’s one that he initially rejects.

“The power to control the world is in your hands,” intones the shaman, who encourages Aaron to link back up with his old roommates in an effort to see who might have set this strange series of life events in motion.

He gets no real answers from Jason, who now works as a policeman in a small town in Indiana. He continues to claim innocence, but does use his police connections to get the current addresses for Ryan and Drew.

On the way to see Ryan he again blacks out and comes to in a hotel room. Disoriented, he wanders the halls until he encounters Amanda — another friend from college, but looking like she hasn’t aged a day. She, too, encourages him to continue on his “journey.”

Will Aaron find the answers that he seeks? What is the significance of the wind-up monkey? And what’s the deal with the two bluebirds on the inner thigh of a stripper in central Illinois?

Follow Aaron on his quest for the truth. You, like he, may get more than you bargained for.

I give Wind Down five stars for inventive plot, intriguing and complex characters and a genuinely good story.

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The Wanderer’s Last Journey by Murray Lee Eiland Jr.

Mystery looms right off the bat in this excellent fourth novel in the Orfeo Saga, as Orfeo is kidnapped and stowed aboard a full-sailed, deep-hulled ship of indeterminate origin.

His wife, the beautiful and strong-willed Clarice, is baffled by the abduction, as is his good friend Daryush, who sets sail in search of Orfeo. He is accompanied by Semira, his wife.

“They stood for us at our wedding,” she insists, with the full force of her determination. “If it were not for them, we would not be here.”

Strong indeed are the bonds between Orfeo and his friends, including his old mentor Zurga, who prowls the harbor of the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis, looking for the elusive vessel.

While in Egypt, Zurga — also called by some “The Last Wanderer” — heals the mother of King Thutmosis and samples one of the goods traded by those aboard the mystery ship: a white, powdery substance that, when smoked, brings on feelings of euphoria. Today we know it as cocaine.

Interesting as that is, however, Zurga finds out very little from the king about the ship and its exotic crew. So, he travels on, carrying with him the hope that he will not have to cross the fearsome “Great Sea” to find Orfeo.

Fast forward several chapters. Asok, high priest of the Quetzalcoatl cult in Ixtlan, cannot believe his good luck. A golden-haired god long-foretold has arrived just in time to help him bilk the superstitious populace into parting with their hard-earned gold, just for a peek at Orfeo, who remains bemused by his predicament, mistaken as the storied man-deity.

Then, just as the Ixtlans — the native people holding Orfeo — and the rival nation Nastases are preparing for war, Clarice and all her friends swoop in to rescue him. But wait! Whose ship is burning in the harbor? Alas, it is the getaway boat, and Orfeo and his mates must now make ready to fight for their lives.

This splendid sequel to Zurga’s Fire spares no swashbuckling as Orfeo and his intrepid trio of B.C. buds are drawn into a fierce fight for freedom. The first half of the book ends on a bittersweet note, however, and we are thrust quickly into the second half, which could easily stand on its own.

Suffice to say, Orfeo, Clarice, Daryush, and Semira become hard-pressed in their respective homelands, defending themselves from armed aggressors and deranged demigods, such as deadly, yet strangely comical Hellion, who challenges Daryush to a fatal test of skill and strength. And, there’s the Spartan King Iraju, who tries to defy Daryush in an impenetrable stone tower. Are they successful?

You’ll need to purchase this five-star historical thriller to find out. Congratulations are in order to author Murray Lee Eiland, Jr., for his meticulous research and superb storytelling skills.

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Crowning Glory: An Experiment in Self-Discovery Through Disguise By Stacy Harshman

Heads swivel and catcalls rain down as the sultry redhead — call her “Kali” — sashays down a crowded Manhattan boulevard. Trailing discreetly behind is another young woman who is carefully documenting every stare and every come-on.

This is not New York street theatre. It’s the fascinating, touching, often funny and utterly revealing story of one woman’s outrageous attempt at coping with lifelong introversion and bipolar disorder.

Author Stacy Harshman goes over the top in this smart, candid account of how she ordered four different wigs and, following a carefully thought-out schedule, cruised the city’s various locales, seeking to determine if, in fact, blondes — as well as brunettes and redheads– truly have more fun.

Stacy advertises on Craigslist for a companion to keep track of the social experiment. Good-natured Bonnie applies and quickly falls in with the quirky assignment. She shadows Stacy through tony restaurants and chic nightspots, recording the extraordinary number of head turns and tongue-tied would-be suitors. It’s only week one, and she is ravishing in the luxuriant red wig, and relishing the amount of attention — so diametrically different from reactions to her real persona.

“Bonnie noted several wistful looks from women with ‘unfortunate hair,’ ” Stacy writes. “I sympathized. For most of my life, I’d looked longingly at women with Kali-like hair, and I had secretly or openly hated them. Now, I indulged in feeling superior.”

But Stacy must constantly fight nearly overwhelming panic attacks in between these sessions of smugness. Her therapist, after initially wrinkling his nose at the “experiment,” finally endorses the unusual scheme.

“This is good,” the therapist opines. “You’re doing this because you need to learn something about yourself.”

Indeed, Stacy elevates soul-searching to a whole new level by conducting the outré exercise. We learn much about the painful reasons for it — and her — in the process. Often, her recollections about life as an untreated bipolar six years earlier, and her barely successful attempts to cope with the disorder bring stabs of sympathy and heartrending resonance to her plight.

Week Two showcases a black, Morticia Addams-style wig and Stacy’s popularity plummets. Her Goth-like appearance serves only to depress her, and she quiickly retreats into herself.

“As we spent the hours strolling around and drinking coffee, I felt increasingly lonely, and my foghorn of existential angst was becoming too loud to ignore.”

Week Three and Stacy is back in business as a blonde bombshell hottie. But a tentative sexual romp with boyfriend Tim, while wearing Victoria’s Secret garters and fishnet stockings, quickly goes south when Tim hides under a protective shield of sheets up to his chin. The blonde chapter of Stacy’s experiment is officially logged as a nonevent.

Week Four finds Stacy stalking a “Hot or Not” man on the Internet, eventually agreeing to meet him for drinks in her newest persona as a raven-haired brunette. After a couple of fortifying gin and tonics, she confesses her past unpredictability and the evening ends on a bittersweet note. But an earlier vignette involving stuck zippers and wardrobe malfunctions in Times Square is hilarious.

Week Five is all about Stacy facing the world in her real hair — no wigs to hide behind. How does it turn out? You’ll just have to buy the book and find out. Revealing the final scores on which hairdo turned the most heads in this space would suspend the mystery — and the outright fun of reading this delightful memoir.

Five-plus stars to Crowning Glory, an incredibly well-written and painfully honest account of a courageous young lady with tons of self-deprecating humor and wry insights. She will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.

This new author has a wonderful way with her writing style and keen insights. We hope many other books — on just about any topic she chooses — will be forthcoming.

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Isabella By Patricia M. Jackson

Isabella Donato just can’t resist those electric blue eyes of Chad Murphy. They are the main reason she fell in love with him. But now, on the eve of their marriage, she’s experiencing twinges of doubt. Why?

Why, indeed? This is the intriguing start to Patricia M. Jackson’s latest novel, and it’s an absorbing, unique tale of romance and conflict, set against the backdrop of professional hockey and small town values.

Isabella takes on the task of tutoring Chad so he can keep his grades up and continue his role as “Manic Murphy” on the Northern Michigan University hockey team. It’s no easy feat. Chad is dyslexic and cannot read. It’s a miracle he’s come this far academically.

But the tutoring sessions turn torrid when Chad and Izzy find they just can’t keep their hands off each other. These scenes are particularly well done, and they are guaranteed to steam up your reading glasses.

They continue to develop their relationship, each one finding a key component missing from their respective lives up until now. For Murphy, it’s a sense of belonging that the boisterous Donato clan fills; for Izzy, it’s the realization of a true love that has proven elusive up until now.

So, it’s particularly devastating when a meddling hockey groupie gossips to Izzy about Chad’s supposed interest in another coed. She leaps to the conclusion that the hapless young hockey star can’t be trusted with her heart, and abruptly breaks off all relations.

Meanwhile, a host of superb subplots add depth and texture to the story. Tom, Izzy’s twin brother, suffers a devastating injury on the ice one night. Sean, Chad’s younger brother, develops a very expensive — and dangerous — drug habit.

And Murphy and Izzy, finally engaged after months of estrangement, run up on rocky shoals when Chad announces he will quit college and turn pro.

Their back-and-forth love affair appears to be at an end. But is there hope nonetheless for these two lost souls who can’t seem to find happiness except in each others’ arms?

There is a pleasant pace and cadence to this work of romantic fiction, skillfully interweaving story elements to keep things lively, and carrying the reader right to the end in suspense about just what might happen with the major players.

There’s also great writing and impeccable editing. One lyrical example:

“The sky had streaks of wispy feather clouds against a steel-gray backdrop. The light of day was failing, leaving an opaque mask on the soft winter world.”

We give Isabella five unqualified stars and can’t wait for more from this talented storyteller.

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The Gordite Witch By Max W. Miller

There’s a wonderfully magic quality to the story of thirteen-year-old Sadie Mae Stevens in The Gordite Witch.

Forget what you thought you knew about early teen adventure stories. This tale is utterly refreshing and original, never predictable, and showcases a strong — yet vulnerable — female lead character that any young girl can surely idealize.

Sadie is abandoned by her frustrated father, who just can’t wrap his head around Sadie’s decidedly bizarre behavior. After all, how many teens are tasked with saving the world from such offbeat — yet lethal — creatures as hairy, smelly Pigwallers, who deceptively double as human children during the day?

Sadie is forcibly separated from her father and two younger brothers, and shipped off to Daufuskie Island, where a formidable lady named Hanna Freeargo is waiting.

Once there, Sadie discovers the truth: her father has sold her to Freeargo for $10,000 so the unscrupulous woman can perform a wide range of tests on her. The objective: to quantify — and hopefully reproduce — Sadie’s extraordinary powers for personal financial gain. Freeargo hopes to sell the results of her unholy testing regimen to the U.S. Army, which could then create an invincible soldier.

But Sadie is having none of that. Overcoming the evil Ms. Freeargo and a blundering henchman, she escapes, along with three other teens who have been held against their will on the island, and go in search of an ally.

They find two: Dr. and Mrs. Brimm — superbly supportive of the three girls and one boy, who have made their way to the Brimm’s home on the other side of the island. The Brimms, as it turns out, are affiliated with something called the Shiloh Company, which is dedicated to helping extraordinary youth like Sadie and the others.

Harrah, Jalind, and Printa join Sadie in exploring the outer limits of their supernatural abilities under the Doctor’s watchful eye. Things get a bit out of hand, however, when Harrah loses control and transforms into something horrific. A decision is made to send her to a foster home while the other three continue their training with the Brimms.

In the meantime, however, Sadie makes a momentous discovery that forces her to face her frightening fate — she must find and defeat the evil Gordite Witch who killed her mother many years ago.

With this grim task ahead of her, she begins training with an unlikely coach — a green, warty froglike creature named Norris — in the separate reality she visits by teleportation each night while her earthly body sleeps safely in her basement bed at the Brimm’s sprawling ranch home.

This novel takes the reader through the fantastic backstory underlying Sadie’s role here on Earth, making eminently plausible the notion that the planet is protected by people like Sadie, who are descended from the earliest inhabitants of the fabled Atlantis, 25,000 leagues under the sea.

YA readers will be particularly delighted with the intricate and absorbing detail that shines throughout this stellar story. The true-to-life verbal interplay between the teens is especially entertaining, with plenty of smirking, eye-rolling, and good-natured sarcasm at every turn.

Will Sadie fulfill her quest to find and destroy the giant zombie Gordite Witch? Who will help her in her time of triumph — or heartbreaking failure?

Getting to the surprising end is only half the fun in this five-star read. You won’t find many better YA books than The Gordite Witch.

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A Search For Family By Murray Lee Eiland Jr.

One of Hollywood’s biggest stars from days gone by suffers the bold kidnapping of his only daughter, and a veritable surfeit of suspects emerges. Heading up the fascinating cast of characters in this excellent whodunit from standout author Murray Lee Eiland, Jr. is a tough but sensitive private investigator by the name of Bart Northcote.

Bart takes the case originally to help film legend Matt Martin locate his 18-year-old daughter Ariadne, the product of a long-ago affair. But instead it’s love at first sight for Bart and Ari, despite a significant age difference between the two.

He takes Ari to a tony nightclub on Sunset Strip, where the scene borders on Bacchanalia. Bart sums it up:

“Being one of the few non-pharmacologically-enhanced people in a large room full of chemical travelers is disconcerting.”

This is not the kind of writing style one normally associates with the P.I. genre, and it’s a welcome change.

But back to the story. The stunningly beautiful Ari gets noticed quickly by one of her favorite stars, Dirk Dixon, who autographs her diary, then leans in to ask her out. She demurs, but, in a curious coincidence, Dirk’s at the scene of the abduction a few weeks later.

Plenty of other suspects are available, however. There’s leathery, wizened Roy Carter, Martin’s right-hand man, who clearly resents the newly found teenaged heir to Matt’s millions. And, there’s Sheena, another member of the film star’s household coterie. She also dislikes the attention now being paid to Ari and her mother, Roxanna. But renewed love is in the air between Matt and Roxanna — much to the distaste of former squeeze Sheena.

“Matt came up with the broad smile of someone who has been wakened after a long emotional nap. These old lovers had rekindled it all, and they were basking in the glow of fulfillment that some people try to make last for a lifetime.”

What great writing.

And it’s this very lyrical quality that makes the book stand head and shoulders above the usual lot in the crowded detective genre. The author takes great care with each character, moving subtly to craft a deeply textured tale of extraordinary charm and unpredictable turns.

The anxious father declines help from the FBI in locating Ariadne, relying instead on Bart’s superior detection skills. These are put to the test, however, as first one, then another of the suspects is grilled with little result.

Finally, with help from such unlikely, but colorful, sources as the colossally buxom Honey Moons, and a bungling bagman who tries to steal the ransom money, Bart picks up the scent, and the race is on to track the kidnappers to their lair.

The denouement is violent, yet satisfying, as all good P.I. fiction should be. But does Bart eventually wind up with the alluring Ariadne?

You’ll need to download this five-star thriller to find out. It’s only the second in what we hope will be a long line of Bart Northcote books from this stellar storyteller.

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Return: Reincarnation On A College Campus By Max W. Miller

Megan Smart can’t get her mind off those ancient Egyptians — the ones who made torrid, passionate love on the ceiling of her New York City hotel room late one night.

It’s a blistering beginning to this sexy new YA mystery by standout author Max W. Miller. The action is non-stop, and the characters come to vivid life through her carefully crafted storytelling skills.

Megan, teen daughter to a famed North Carolina neurosurgeon, had the X-rated NYC vision after a visit to the catacombs of a storied museum, where she innocently touched a stone tablet filled with carved cuneiform writing.

Now, on the verge of going away to college, she’s deeply troubled by the strange visitation that night and the secret desire that has surfaced in her toned young body since then.

Tyler, her chiseled young boyfriend, is trying his best to be there for Meg as she sorts her way through these conflicting desires, so out of character for the normally shy young woman. But he was the surprised beneficiary of her lusty, vision-inspired transformation that night in New York, and would like nothing better than a repeat performance.

The scene switches to Megan’s first night at MNU. A drunken frat party, and an ill-advised, pelvis-grinding slow dance with her roommate’s twin brother confuses Megan and sends Tyler into a tizzy, What could possibly have caused Meg to act so irresponsibly, dissing Tyler in front of his whole football team?

She flees home to Cary, NC for a session with a friend of her mother’s, who is deep into astrology. The heart-rending session with Dr. Bennu Epstein jars Meg right down to the bottom of her tortured soul — she finds that one of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti’s daughters is determined to hijack Meg’s spirit and come back to the land of the living for her own nefarious purposes.

What happens to Meg will leave you drained of emotion, trying to reach through the pages of this excellent novel to try and help her regain the love of her beloved Tyler, and make sense of what’s going on deep within her.

The characters in the book crackle with authenticity, and the story is never predictable. Indeed, the ending will startle and entice you with high expectations for the sequel.

Five stars to Return. It’s YA paranormal storytelling at its best, with more than a little adults-only eroticism thrown in for good measure. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and you will, too.

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The Things I Learned in College: My Year in the Ivy League By Sean-Michael Green

Ah, the storied halls of Harvard, the charisma of Cornell, the panache of Princeton, the naked parties of Yale.

Wait. What?

This is the insider’s guide to the Ivy League, the juicy parts of life and legends at these hallowed institutions, told with tongue firmly in cheek — a la George Plimpton — by a man who spent a year living and studying at the elite schools that line the East Coast of America.

With erudite humor, author Sean-Michael Green recounts his year as an avid observer at eight Ivy League institutions and tells readers the facts and fables embedded in the very fabric of Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth, Yale, The University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton.

Actually, there’s less emphasis given to undergrad misbehavior — including naked parties — and more emphasis on his first-hand experiences at each of the college campuses. It makes for a fascinating, unique look that you won’t find in the universities’ recruiting materials.

This work should be required reading for all college-bound students and their parents. You’ll learn a lot — mainly about these august institutions — but also about the general tenor of college life today. And for those folks with fond memories of fraternity parties and the whole undergrad experience, this insight into today’s collegiate environment is illuminating.

There are legends, traditions, and anecdotes both arcane and highly informative. At Cornell, for example, one story about two statues stands out:

“Painted footsteps on the walkway, courtesy of the local fraternities, span the space between them. These footsteps speak to the legend that if a virgin were to walk across the campus at the stroke of midnight as the carillon chimes play, the two statues will rise up, walk to the center of the quad, and shake hands.”

At Dartmouth, where he spent a month living in a rambling edifice known simply as The Experiment, he describes the ambiance:

“Without opening the refrigerator, or stepping into the bathroom, the house smelled of spaghetti sauce, marijuana, and sweat. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a defining feature of life there.”

The author provides exhaustive commentary on all the schools, sharing moments and observations on the stunning architecture, incisive lectures on a variety of topics, and revealing interviews with students, who impart local lore and opinions on the respective campus cultures.

This is an ambitious and excellent work, well written and laced with dry humor. Even the chapter subheadings are funny.

Five stars to The Things I Learned In College. Prospective Ivy League students — and all those who ever wondered about everyday life at these revered institutions — won’t be disappointed.

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The Computer Heist By Michael P. King

The Traveling Man, Joe Campbell, and his too-hot-to-handle wife, Tess, are back for another outrageous caper in this up-tempo thrill ride from accomplished author Michael P. King.

In play this time around is a soon-to-be-released revolutionary software, written by a disgruntled developer, Samantha Bartel. She contracts with Joe and Tess to hijack the entire program and then make it disappear, leaving her free to sell a bootlegged copy of it for big bucks to a well-heeled competitor.

But wait. In actuality, the vaunted data mining software is as buggy as a second story tenement in Harlem, and Samantha is just buying time until she can fix it and shoot Leapfrog Technologies stock up, thus saving the company, along with her job.

It’s just the first of many ingenious twists that make this elegantly constructed noir novel work so well. Heck, just the character descriptions alone are worth the price of the book:

“He had a face that was hard to remember.”

“She was blonde with brown eyes, all curves on a dancer’s frame.”

“She was plump, apple-shaped, and the tailored gray suit she wore made her look fat.”

This is finely crafted fiction from a gifted storyteller, and the subplots mix and mingle effortlessly to draw you deftly in, well before your first cup of coffee cools.

Samantha’s nephew Brandon is involved hip-deep in the scandalous subterfuge. He’s secretly stolen a copy of Auntie Sam’s software, seeking to score thirty large ones of his own by brokering it to the highest bidder. But after he sells the thumb drive to deliciously dangerous mob boss Jonny Chaos, he learns that there’s a virus in the electronic soup and has to confess the problem to the head thug. Chaos sics a couple of goons on him, encouraging Brandon to cough up the $30,000 he was just paid, plus an extra $15,000 in hurt feelings compensation.

Meanwhile, there are other complications. Ronnie Franklin, the director of new development for Leapfrog, is playing hide the salami with a woman who isn’t his free-spending wife while scheming to sail off to another company in case Leapfrog capsizes. But before he can make the first phone call, the company’s director of security begins squeezing him for blood money to keep Franklin’s involvement quiet.

This carefully convoluted storyline is a hallmark of the author’s excellent work, and will keep you turning pages feverishly in an effort to keep up.

As the tale unfolds, no less than four of the players are scrambling to either elude prosecution for the theft or outrun Jonny Chaos’ malicious minions. You’ll be fascinated by the Machiavellian machinations of these characters. And you’ll wonder repeatedly how in the world Joe and Tess are ever going to turn a profit from this mesmerizing set of circumstances. In fact, you’ll be kept guessing until the final few pages, when the book closes with a more-than-satisfying conclusion.

And, before I wrap up this review, I’d like to share one last choice turn-of-phrase from the writer:

“They stuck out like missionaries at a Hell’s Angels convention.”

Is that great writing, or what?

Five-plus stars to The Computer Heist. It’s a worthy addition to this excellent series of offbeat mysteries, spun by the talented mind of this prolific author. Can’t wait for Joe and Tess’ next adventure.

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Menosaurs By Simon James House

It’s late one night, and the farmhouse where Rex and Rion are sleeping is rocked by a massive explosion. They investigate and find — a tiny Tyrannosaurus! Well, tiny compared to its ancestors.

The mini-dinosaur apparently has arrived in a hollow meteorite that landed near the house and, while Rex and Rion watch breathlessly, it morphs into a human being.

“Holy moly!” cries Rex, cowering for protection under the long arm of his seven-foot-tall yeti companion, Rion. The two are inseparable.

“He loves that kid, well, as much as a droid could love. His programming is set to parental guidance, and that’s it for Rion. He’s Rex’s guardian, to serve and protect him at all costs; even if it means destroying himself or others, the kid comes first.”

This is NOT your average children’s story. Instead, it’s the delightful and riveting tale of how a boy and his super-powered droid become friends with an interstellar intruder.

But the story goes much deeper than that.

Earth long ago was home to Menosaurs — just like the unfortunate refugee that Rex and Rion find on their farm. Tarok — the boy who can transform into a T-Rex — tells them that his ancestors — the Earth’s dinosaurs — were wiped out by a gigantic attack from space by the ancient enemy of Tarok’s people back on Prehistoria, his home world.

The author goes to great lengths to reassure readers that Tarok and his people — er, dinosaurs — are friendly, and wish no harm to the citizens of Earth — which they said formerly was called Mordex.

But, in another part of the book, we find that there ARE evil dinosaurs back where Tarok came from, and they’re about to come looking for him. And, in the process, they want to re-colonize Earth.

To make matters worse, the U.S. military is actively searching the hills around Rex”s farm, hoping to find and “study” the unique creature. They don’t know yet that he’s just a small, scared boy — most of the time, anyway.

This excellent book delivers a first-rate tale of boyhood bonding while peopling it with plenty of suspense, danger and, above all, a satisfying ending.

Five stars to Menosaurs. Read it as a tantalizing tale with your children. They’ll thoroughly enjoy the imaginative story.

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Love in the End Times By James Dixon

“What can a soldier, a refugee and a scholar know about the delights of a simple afternoon, cresting a hill to look at one of the largest cities in the world coming to life?”

Michael, Mo, and Juno are those three — and they now barely can take a breath in a world gone mad. The virus has taken their once beautiful city and turned it into a teeming hive of animated, sentient zombies, who crawl towards them with intestines trailing, seeking to drink their blood.

In this far-better-than-average zombie thriller, the intrepid threesome are part of a small band of survivors, scratching out an existence in the tree-lined clearings above the dessicated city.

And yet, not all is bleak. Mo and Juno are in love. The lyrical writing in this standout fantasy shines as Mo describes the object of his affection:

“Her hair was as fresh as the darkness, it pulled him in. It smelled of the rain, of the cold wind from the bay, of the spaces between the trees and the starlight above.”

Certainly not your average zombie fare. Indeed, the author waxes positively poetic in his description of the small band’s leader, Michael, and the toll taken on his body by endless days battling the living dead:

“His eyes carried his sadness, his bones carried his age. He wasn’t an old man, but his bones didn’t know that. They called him old, they hurt him when he walked. They were heavy under their burden.”

The group must forage constantly for new supplies in the city, now overrun by the wretched creatures that swarm their vehicles. In retaliation, they open fire with automatic weapons, seeking a clean head shot — the only thing that will neutralize the zombies. After awhile, this vicious daily assault almost becomes a game:

“‘Glee, it’s the only word I can use; there was glee in their eyes as they cut them down,’ ‘they went out of their way to find more, to crush more,’ ‘they laughed as they drove, as they slew; they giggled like little children…’”

No, all is not right in this post-apocalyptic world so masterfully set forth by this amazing author.

I award Love In the End Times an unreserved five-plus stars and recommend it highly to anyone wanting a most unusual and excellent read.

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Aerisia: Field of Battle By Sarah Ashwood

It’s always something!

Hannah, now fully transformed into the world-saving Artan, must negotiate The Underworld in this, the final installment of the Aerisia trilogy.

She arrives at the Gate of Despair, seeking to pass unscathed through dark places to enter the Dreamer’s Vale, and so continue her quest to banish evil from the magical realm. The author’s description of the Vale — like so much in this fine book — is lyrical:

“An aura of trapped time and extended sleep scented the air. The whole atmosphere was seductive, promising that eternal peace waited if I would only surrender to rest.”

While in The Underworld, Hannah has her dream interpreted, but the meaning of it is not to her liking. Then, she has to fight a terrible battle to escape back to her world, with the aid of a mysterious character who calls himself The Hunter.

Back in Laytrii, the forces of Evil are preparing for war against the Artan along with all those who stand for good. Hannah’s love for Ilgard nearly overflows the bounds of court propriety, and soon, stolen kisses seem impossibly insufficient.

A murderous attack on Hannah reveals a traitor in their midst, and the scene soon shifts from Laytrii to Treygon, then, aboard a pirate ship where all hands swear undying fealty to the Artan. She rewards them in a most remarkable manner.

Revealing any more of the events that thunder like a runaway freight train toward the final, climactic battle would be imprudent. Suffice to say the action is nonstop and totally fulfilling.

Does the Artan truly save her people and bring unending peace to Aerisia, as foretold by legends? More importantly, is Hannah’s smoldering love for Ilgard finally consummated?

Download the five-star conclusion to this exceptional fantasy saga and find out for yourself.

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Aerisia: Gateway to the Underworld By Sarah Ashwood

Hannah returns as the reluctant heroine of an entire world in this remarkable fantasy tale of classic good versus evil, but set in a reality parallel to our own — in the magical land of Aerisia.

Author Sarah Ashwood recreates the enchanted domain and peoples it once more with all the depthless characters from Book One: the wondrous fairy Aureeyah, Hannah’s young friend Rittean, and, of course, her chief protector and smoldering love interest, Lord Ilgarth.

In this book, Hannah simmers as she speculates about her role as The Artan — legendary savior of the Aerisians, long foretold in lore and song. She doubts the prophecy’s veracity — until she’s handed a legendary blade one day. With it in her hand, she comes close to defeating Ilgard in what was — at first — a harmless trial of her dexterity with the weapon. She “Becomes” the blade, fighting with a manic zeal and level of accomplishment far beyond anyone’s expectations.

What follows is Hannah’s slow acceptance of her destiny: to defeat The Evil that threatens the very existence of Aerisia.

After returning to the city of Laytii, Hannah begins months of training to learn control of her newfound powers. Then, the arrival of a mysterious delegation of hooded folk set off alarm bells for Hannah and a few others. Their fears are quickly realized as The Artan sweeps into battle, fighting alongside Ilgard and other members of the storied Simathe guard.

The world-building here is once again first-class, with highly accomplished writing and impeccable editing that swiftly sweep the reader into the dual universe, caring deeply for the heroes and dreading each encounter with evil. In one particularly moving scene, Ilgard huskily vows his devotion to Hannah:

“Aye, lass,” he promised, voice earnest, low. “Though the Dark One himself appear, I will fight with you through whatever this night may bring.”

Across the Singing Bridge, and accompanied by unlikely giant allies, Hannah pursues her destiny with deceptive vulnerability and rare good grace. The action flows fast toward an ending that is at once satisfying and conclusive, yet leaving room for delicious speculation about what’s coming up in Book Three.

Five stars to Aerisia: Gateway to the Underworld. Stay tuned for the sequel — the final installment in this standout fantasy franchise.

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Summer to Autumn By J.J. Anderson

It’s Evensong in a tiny village in the U.K. A flower garden competition has just concluded, and Winnie confides to her husband, Frank, that all the glory of coming in first place should go to him — even if he is dead.

This, the opening chapter in a tightly woven series of vignettes, is a subtle tale of love and loss, indicative of the wide range of emotions that will be triggered in the reader as this fine collection is consumed, like an assortment of delicious Garibaldi biscuits at afternoon high tea.

Andrew and Yvonne, married — but not to each other — make afternoon love at an abandoned RAF air base in the nearby countryside. And suspicions swirl around the Summer Fete as a number of villagers decry machinations to maneuver activities and participants to the best advantage of a local few.

Things really heat up late in the book, however, when violence erupts in Flowers Estate. Everything is sorted out, though, just in time for an unlikely reunion at the Lion pub. Emotions run high over the arrival of a tall, handsome stranger — though things end well enough.

This is a charming little book that captures perfectly the innocence of rural British life as old-world traditions collide with some of the newer twenty-first century technology. Hint: among other events, the Lion creates a Facebook page for itself. Just imagine!

Five stars to Summer to Autumn. Hopefully, there’s a sequel in the works.

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Shadows, Darkness and Light By P. Zoro

This is a book filled with hope and elation, but tempered cruelly with despair. It soars to great heights of the human spirit, and trudges through the troughs of profound unhappiness and injustice.

Often, the stories are hard to read, as the author’s lead characters — all women of Zimbabwe — struggle just to survive another day, in the jungle physically or metaphorically. In many cases, they have no say in how they are treated, or what happens to them — even in the smallest matters.

In the story “Angels in Hell,” a young woman complains when her name is changed at her christening to Maria. She bitterly says, “It is not a bad name, but I do not like it. It makes me feel like a sold cow to which the owner gives a new name.”

Indeed, so much of a woman’s existence in this third-world country is beyond her control that one wonders how they ever put a smile on their faces.

And yet, some do.

In “Poignant Shadows,” a housewife much like any other around the world, is bustling about, getting her children ready for school in the city. She calls for her husband twice to get up; then, in exasperation, goes into the bedroom to wake him:

“I move closer with caution, ready to flee. But he strikes when I least expect it and grabs me, and I laugh, even though he always does that. We have been together twenty years now, but he clings to the small things that make me laugh.”

And much later, in “I Am Not Your Mother,” a young woman struggles to escape the consequences inflicted on her by a recalcitrant sibling — her only sister. And a bad lot she is.

One day she runs away, leaving her illegitimate daughter for the poor young woman to raise. The situation is dire; yet the author chooses to highlight the innocence of the child, who knows nothing of her mother’s worthlessness. The writing here — as in so much of this remarkable book — is lyrical:

“She reminds me of someone, an elusive face that is hidden in the soft contours of the baby fat. A shadow that lurks behind the soft skin that is peeling off, and the unseeing eyes that blink in the soft light of the day…”

Other reviewers have focused only on the harsh and alien culture that needlessly inflicts Zimbabwe’s women with unspeakable harshness. And that is true.

But there is also much in these writings that speak eloquently of the triumphs of the heart — a trait shared universally by strong women everywhere.

Five stars to this fine collection of stories. They spoke to me in ways only great literature can do. That this book is the product of a person whose native language is not English makes it all the more singular.

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Second Chance Heart By Marie Lavender

Dana Nelson still loves Vince Reynolds even after twelve long years. She just can’t reconcile that love with the equally strong feelings of bitterness and betrayal that well up in her every time she sees him nowadays.

Dana’s dilemma stems from a brief dalliance she caught him at when the two were in college. Of course circumstances for an ongoing relationship were less than ideal. She was in Chapel Hill attending Duke at the time, and he was at NYU, and, well, Vince got caught with a blonde in his bed during a surprise visit by Dana to the Big Apple.

But, twelve years have gone by and she finds to her dismay that the intervening time has not cooled her ardor for the dark-eyed hunk.

They meet by chance in a small town during the present day and, in a sudden and unexpected close encounter, his hungry lips cover hers with the same old intensity that so stirred her emotions way back then.

They break apart after the impulsive embrace and his confession of remorse for his youthful transgression seems sincere.

But can she trust him once more with her fragile heart? What if she gives in to her feelings, and he hurts her yet again?

Author Marie Lavender does a masterful job of putting us squarely in the middle of Dana’s turbulent thoughts about her future with Vince, and makes us care deeply for the two central characters in the surprisingly brief narrative that is Second Hand Heart.

Their conflicted feelings ring true as they try to find closure on a once-promising romance.

Find out what Dana decides to do when the star-crossed pair meet again at the wedding of an old friend.

Five stars for this flawless short story. It is brilliantly executed and stands as a testament to the powerful emotions that can be wrung from a reader even in the space of a few well-written pages. Bravo, Ms. Lavender.

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Sol of the Coliseum By Adam Gaylord

At last! A Gladiator book with heart and verve!

Author Adam Gaylord elevates his work far above the Dungeons and Dragons drudge so prevalent today by producing a protagonist worthy of our emotional investment.

Sol — an elite fighter in the Coliseum in the Romanesque city of Astrolia — has been brought up since birth deep within the lower confines of the Coliseum to be a gladiator. It’s the only existence he’s ever known, adopted by the other slaves and doted on since early childhood by a rotund but motherly cook and by kindly old Chief Guard Grall.

Every day Sol strides into the packed arena to an endless swell of voices chanting his name:

“Amplified by the deep stone bowl of the Coliseum, the sound was deafening. Blocks away, babies awoke, crying in their cribs, as the surrounding city shook with it. Down in the dungeons, carved from the lving stone beneath the Coliseum, fighters stirred in their bunks. The animal handlers backed away from the massive cages, whips cracking, trying to subdue the beasts driven mad by the sound.”

It’s old style, cinematic Charleston Heston-esque action, brought to vivid life by the author’s impeccable prose, and brimming with all the elements necessary for a good read in this genre: heroism, heartache, fast friendships, and, of course, the de rigeur bad guy, played in this case by sadistic slave subduer and assassin Lysik — nicknamed “The Crow.”

And, then, there’s Korra — the beautiful woman brought — as custom dictates — to Sol as the winning gladiator after a particularly brutal event on the stadium’s sands.

But his purpose, she finds quickly, is not to bed her. Rather, there is, instead, an almost child-like interchange in which Sol asks about the consistency of — snow. You see, as a longtime resident below ground, he’s never seen the white stuff, and his inquiry confounds Korra, who was, well, expecting a different outcome from her encounter with the famed fighter.

There are many such unexpected turns to this excellent book, even as Sol ascends to his inevitable role as leader of a grassroots rebellion. Again, there is action apace, and this will satisfy even the most voracious readers of such world-building fare.

But it is the careful humanity with which the author imbues his characters that most captured my admiration.

Five-plus stars to this carefully wrought work of fiction, and a fervent hope that Sol will continue his winning ways in subsequent volumes.

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Dial QR For Murder By A.E.H Veenman

A young hospital male nurse, on trial for stealing medications, is found shot, execution-style. The suspects quickly begin lining up in this exemplary murder mystery by author A.E.H. Veenman.

The key question for attorney Isis Ferrelli is: what is the “Triple-E,” the Ever Elusive Element that will lead to the motive and, ultimately, to the audacious shooter in this high-profile case.

Ferrelli makes use of her true-crime blog to garner leads and advice on how to pursue the trail to the smoking gun, which, she fears, will lead back to involvement by her organized crime family.

In addition to intensive investigation by Ferrelli, there’s a smokin’ hot romantic undertone as Ferrelli finds herself amorously attracted to assistant D.A. Jason Shahaman. Witness this description of the hunky attorney by an overheated Ferrelli:

“The entrance door to the morgue opened and the Shaman swept in, suit jacket across his arm and sleeves rolled up. He was tall and fit, had a faded haircut on the sides, and a beige complexion smooth as silk.”

But the romance is incidental to the lightning-fast action that marks the case’s progress. She begins to peel back the layers surrounding her dead client’s family and is surprised at what she finds. At the same time, a mystery man logs onto MyThugShot.Com and suspiciously seems to know more than he should.

A lot more.

Where will this well-structured whodunit wind up? Can Ferrelli sidestep the increasing danger of being actively involved in such a high-profile murder case? And, ultimately, can her blog provide the digital edge needed to crack the complex case?

Download this diabolical mystery today to determine for yourself all the nuances of this expertly crafted, superbly written crime novel. I award it five stars, and fervently hope we’ll see a lot more of Isis Ferrelli starring in a string of spellbinding stories.

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First Contract By Frank Westworth

Sergeant J.J. Stoner has just brutally executed five Iraquis in retaliation for an attack on one of his men. His punishment? He becomes a civilian black ops assassin under the direction of an urbane but totally ruthless handler called, simply, The Hard Man.

In this excellent short story by standout author Frank Westworth, human life is cheap and the principal player waxes philosophically about the killing for which he’s just been recruited:

‘I don’t care.’ Stoner appeared to be looking at himself. He inspected his fingernails with some care. ‘Should it help? Should it matter more to me whether I’m drilling holes through a patriotic Arab with sunburn and an impossible language in a hot country, or a paleskin patriotic Paddy who prefers eating sheep to goats and worships his own gods in his own ways in Latin?’

The action matches the dialogue in this brief piece of fiction — wildly witty and effortlessly accomplished. Stoner is a virtuoso with both his hands and with silenced firearms. When he meets the enigmatic character named Blesses, his initial reaction is quiet attraction. In a later liaison, less so.

This is fine writing wrapped cunningly around a totally credible character. J.J. Stoner is a man you’ll hope to meet again. Just not in a dark alley.

Five stars to First Contract. The author is a professional with poise and we look forward to reading his next piece.

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Hell is Empty and All the Devils Are Here By Mark Rounds

Who let the zombies out?

In this chilling and all-too-realistic novel about end-times fueled by virulent body fluids, first-time author Mark Rounds does a yeoman job of delivering a first-rate apocalyptic novel, long on graphic violence and cast with carefully crafted characters.

Major players Chad Strickland, Dave Tippet and a close-knit band of family and friends fend off wave after wave of whacked-out bikers and other bad guys as they struggle to survive against all odds.

Supplies run low and the action heats up as the AH10N3 virus runs rampant. It’s classic, blood-and-guts zombie fare, sure to satiate even the most jaded genre reader. And, at over 500 pages, there’s plenty to enjoy.

The taut action also features plenty of authentic military and police lingo, and tons of snappy dialogue. And the author clearly is at home with high-power weapons and military ordnance — all put to very good use in battling the bizarre bands of plague victims.

Here’s a sample of what you can expect:

“There was the crack of a high powered rifle, and the biker’s head exploded from the impact of a .338 Lapua round fired from Remington model 700 XCR. Dave quickly worked the action of the big rifle and scanned for his next target. Meanwhile, Chad, on the roof of his house, opened fire with his AR-15. The leader of the biker gang was staring at the wreck of a human, who moments before had been a member of his gang.”

But wait. Who is the sinister spook dispatched from Washington, D.C.’s highest levels to “eliminate” Strickland and any others who may know too much? Bad enough to have to grapple with ghouls at every turn. Does the federal government — ostensibly in place to preserve peace — have to be watched as well?

Five stars to this ambitious piece of apocalyptic fiction. The author clearly poured his heart and soul into this project, and it shows. Now, Mr. Rounds — how about a first-rate spy thriller? Good job!

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The Joy of Argument By Albert Navarra

The joy of winning an argument may be fleeting, but it can be ever so satisfying. So states author Albert Navarra in his excellent and inspirational book The Joy of Argument: 91 Ways to Get More of What You Want, and Less of What You Don’t.

Navarra goes on to assert that “there are things in life you want, but will never get unless you learn to argue for them.” Then, he goes on: “There are as many reasons to argue as there are reasons to live.”

Strong advice for a civilized age in which a high premium has always been placed on “getting along” with one’s fellow man. Some folks even argue that we should avoid the sort of conflict the author so gleefully espouses.

It’s worth it, however, Navarra says. Especially when you’re adequately prepared. First, he asserts, you should clarify the main point of the argument. “What exactly are you arguing about? What’s the issue?” Then, more accurately: “What do you want to accomplish?” If you go on to list the main points of your position, you’ll stand a much better chance of walking away a winner.

Many of Navarra’s assertions seem deceptively like common sense, boiled down to a ruthless methodology. But the fact remains: unless you want to go through life as a lackadaisical loser, you’d better pay close attention to his tips.

Case in point: “Arguing without listening is like flying without seeing,” he says. “Listening shows the other person you are open-minded, sincere, compassionate, helpful and trustworthy — even if you’re not!” The key, according to the author: “Careful listening will reveal where you need to go in your argument.”

Still later, Navarra opines that one exception to arguing is on the subject of faith. “After all,” he says, “what is there to argue about? You either believe it or you don’t. You can’t argue about facts, evidence, or reasoning because faith isn’t based on any of these things.” In short, his advice on matters of faith: “Let it be.”

Finally, the author advises against insulting anyone in an argument. Insults, he adds, are “very common” in weak arguments. They are, after all, “beside the point,’ he concludes.

Hmm. Wonder if Donald J. Trump shares that opinion?

Pick up a copy of this book today and start winning arguments tomorrow. I give it five-plus stars.

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Dark Destiny By Thomas Grave

Being the Grim Reaper is a tough job. Just ask seventeen-year-old Sebastian Scott, who has the dubious position thrust upon him against his will. He soon finds that the gig has both advantages and drawbacks.

Author Thomas Graves does a wonderful job of thrusting the reader firmly into the middle of the non-stop action and highly visual supernatural environments. The pages fairly crackle with excitement and blood-chilling, life-and-death circumstances.

Sebastian eases into his new role by learning — to his dismay — that for every life he saves, one must be taken. And it’s Sebastian’s task to escort each soul through the ultra-scary realm of Purgatorium to the slender cone of bright white light that will take them into the next life.

Sara, the love of Sebastian’s young life, encounters an unfortunate accident near the start of the novel just as Sebastian is starting to get the hang of his supernatural abilities. Her fate becomes inextricably tied to that of Sebastian’s best friend Jared, and a titanic struggle between good and evil ensues.

But it’s the cinematic writing skills shown by the author that truly carry the day in this book. Consider, for example, this lyrical passage presaging a critical scene:

“The Reaper’s heartbeat quickened. He held his breath, waiting to see what would happen next. An electric and living power filled him, focused within the flesh of his hands, and slithered under his skin, almost burning him with the ache to be released. The sensation was as if he stood in a warm, dark ocean with the tide pulling at him, begging for him to let go.”

You’ll encounter Phantoms, Stalkers, sinister Souls, and even a friendly Zombie in this wildly imaginative romp through alternate realities. But wait. What are those Archangels doing here?

Five stars to Dark Destiny. It will surely satisfy the YA audience for whom it is intended — and it’s not a bad read if you’re an adult horror fan looking for something a little outre. But watch for the Reaper. He might be coming for you next!


Releasing Me By Melissa Payne

Releasing Me is the achingly poignant story of a traumatized ten-year-old girl speaking out at last through the mature and well-adjusted person she has, against all odds, grown into. Her story, recounted in great detail in this book, should give others in her situation the courage to speak out, and realize they are not alone.

A deeply felt gratitude should be extended by all who read this for this young woman’s courage in speaking out through this book, recounting the many hardships, mental anguish, and soul-searching moments she has endured.

Great job, Ms. Payne. Your superbly written and edited fictional account — based in painful fact — will undoubtedly inspire countless others.

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A.P.R. By Candy St. James

When Zoe Pendergast is kidnapped and a $1 million ransom is demanded, Zoe’s friends and coworkers embark on a zany scheme to raise the money in two days. The result is a madcap adventure that will capture your heart and leave you with aching sides from laughing at the antics necessary to pull off the switch of the century. But that’s only the beginning.

In short, Zoe works for A.P.R., an upscale firm specializing in design services. When the kidnapper demands the outrageous fee for her return, a plan is hatched to switch a golden museum piece (the priceless mask of Agamemnon) for a bronze fake.

This loveable comedy/mystery/drama would do well as a three-act play somewhere Off-Broadway. Loaded with snappy dialogue, it constantly put me in mind of a radio broadcast from the Thirties, complete with sound effects and plenty of wise-guy repartee. The scene where two of Zoe’s friends from the office simulate an impending baby delivery on the museum steps is a particular highlight.

Events take a serious turn, however, as the swap of money for Zoe — set to take place at a blacks-only club in Boston Commons — is botched and a wild melee ensues. And, in the middle of the action, someone is shot and rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

Does Zoe ever gain her freedom? Does the wounded man — who holds the key to Zoe’s whereabouts — ever recover? And what about A.P.R.’s bid to design an historic showplace for Agamemnon’s mask?

You’ll just have to download this enthralling bit of fiction-based-on-fact and find out for yourself. Five stars to A.P.R., and a warm welcome to debut storyteller Candy St. James.

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The Realmsic Conquest: The Hero of Legend By Demethius Jackson

Mysterious magic, stellar swordsmanship, and ruthless realm usurpers all come crashing together in this intense — and highly entertaining — fantasy tale by talented author Demethius Jackson. It’s called The Realmsic Conquest: The Hero of Legend, and it’s, well — fantastic.

Newly crowned King Maebus and a wonderful ensemble cast of supporting characters guards the crucial Realmsic Crystal from would-be conqueror Damian and his overwhelming horde of soldiers and supporters. In heart-stopping battle scenes, the two armies clash as War Wizards called Crucifers hurl deadly magic fireballs far into enemy lines.

Things are looking bleak for King Maebus and his battle-weary warriors: the cruel armies of Damian flood the valley floor and pour through the Realmsic Castle gates. But what’s this? Maebus’s forces have fallen back instead of fighting to the last man. There’s a plan afoot here, and King Maebus is its architect. Still, the displaced Council members grumble and many innocent civilians and townspeople die at the hands of the invaders.

And, oddly enough, one of the bad guys seems to be having second thoughts about the wanton violence, bringing new depth to what otherwise might be a stereotypical villain. In a revealing passage, a key enforcer for Damian — who signed on eagerly to help right ancient wrongs, as his people saw it — views dozens of bodies hanging in the marketplace and wonders: “At which point did the aggrieved become the aggressor?”

Indeed, this novel rises above the usual fare for this genre, layering rich texture and realistic vulnerability to its key players as the story develops. Even the exiled king seems to second-guess the wisdom of his actions.

And that doubt is only underscored when the conquering warlord embarks on a path of brutal punishments to the remaining survivors in an attempt to bring Maebus — and the Realmsic Crystal — within his reach.

The story then twists and winds through narrow escapes and startling revelations that deal with the origins of magic. But, in the end, it all seems to fall back on Maebus and his quest to regain his kingdom — and, if possible, end a millennia of war.

This is a book not to be missed, for all fans of fantasy. It’s the first installment in a series of adventures in this magical kingdom. Book Two, The Realmsic Conquest: The Icon of Earth is now available. Get it today and continue this imaginative venture into classic world-building fiction.

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Return to Mech City By Brian Bakos

Winston Horvath has his work cut out for him in this highly imaginative new take on the dystopian theme. The world of humans has ended, and it’s up to Winston — Scholar Model Robot Extraordinaire — to memorialize the human culture — forever!

There is plenty for human readers to like in this fanciful tale, told well by author Brian Bakos. He has created a post apocalyptic world and populated it with lively, three-dimensional characters you’ll soon come to care deeply about. There’s even a love interest, as Winston is wooed suggestively by sex-starved humanoid robot Star, who is, shall we say, fully functional in all respects.

But, back to the story. . .

Winston also needs to give hundreds of surviving robots a reason to live in this post-human landscape. Many have taken to committing robo-suicide by diving headfirst off tall buildings. Not good.

So, with the willing and able help of his mechanized mates, he begins with the renovation of a single seedy hotel — the REX — on a Mech City back street. This revitalizes the robo-populace and things look rosy.

All is well for several days. Then, the unthinkable occurs: an armed overthrow of Winston’s reform-minded movement by a savage new group vastly more powerful — Roboto Fascism, under the Hitleresque direction of a powerful and massive re-created robot named Fascisto Ultimo — or F.U., for short (get it?) Their aim is simple: create a Master Race of robots to assure the total destruction of everything remotely related to the formerly dominant human world.

It doesn’t take long for Winston to discover a way to thwart the new faction, however. But, in order to do so, he must make a long trek to a faraway lake to retrieve the head of a powerful robot named Ajax, now imprisoned by F.U. and his simpering minions. At the last minute, the statuesque and sultry Star volunteers to accompany Winston on his quest and, so, they embark one dark night on the long journey.

Don’t get ahead of me. Winston lacks the, ahem, necessary equipment to satisfy the risque robot’s rampant sexual needs. Nevertheless, some delicious dialogue is supplied by the author, who can’t seem to decide whether he’s relating an epic quest or a robotic Harlequin romance. In any event, it’s fun to come across some great lines in the dialogue.

At one point, for example, they find some graffiti spray-painted on the wall of a sporting goods store. “F**k the World!” it says.

“How is that possible?” Star asks in perfect innocence.

“Humans had many distorted ideas about their sexuality,” Winston retorts with metallic tongue firmly in cheek.

Does Winston succeed in his epic quest? Is Mech City freed from its yoke of tin-coated tyranny? Will Star get the satisfaction she so desperately needs? Download your copy today of this five-star send-up of doomsday scenarios and find out. You’ll be glad you did!

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Matthew and the Derelict By Joseph J. Wood

The first thing you notice about Matthew and the Derelict is the carefully structured, almost clinical writing, although it can run to lyricism at times:

“It was that time of night when the alcohol is beginning to take effect. When all the shops are closed, when all the restaurants are closed, and the city can stop worrying about being clean.”

Matthew follows Alan in sycophantic symbiosis as they move through the downtown area, spray-painting the ATM faces flat black. It’s a meaningless, purposeless act, but Matthew accepts the submissive role as his just due — his life story, it seems, reflecting a rudderless existence, fueled by blind fate.

Things get worse as Matthew finds a homeless man he once knew, befriends him, and then watches dispassionately the drunken violation of two underaged teenaged girls.

Another night, another impromptu party. They move from pub to club in a rented limousine. Matthew, drunk again — but still coherent enough to know better — participates in the gang rape of a girl who has been drugged.

Still later in the book, just when you think things can’t get worse, Matthew finds himself dragged physically to a suburban residence — drunk again — and is forced to have sex with a young woman while someone punches him repeatedly in the face.

On and on the violence and depravity go until a cataclysmic — and utterly senseless — act sends Matthew to a hospital, where he has a revelation in the middle of the night. He quietly disconnects all his peripherals and walks out into an unenlightened London.

He resolves to write and spread a manifesto to share his newfound knowledge. Now, if only he can find some paper, a pen, and a quiet refuge in which to compose his opus, he’ll be fine.

But nothing has ever come easily for Matthew, and this is no exception. He still has no moral backbone, never mind a compass, but he tries to bring some semblance of order from the depths of his chaotic mind.

He spends two months sleeping and living behind an abandoned factory, then emerges to share his apocalyptic knowledge.

It has to do with something he calls “the Infinite Instant” — a moment “when time and movement will become obsolete and the world will become an infinitely small and infinitely large flash of light, lasting forever while simultaneously vanishing before it can be seen.”

He sets out with two young men to distribute the manifesto, but runs into yet another problem which lands him back in the hospital.

Finally, in probably the only self-aware moment he has in the book, Matthew proclaims:

“There’s nothing worse than a man seeking an answer he would rather avoid; rushing headfirst by his own volition toward some individual pain and wishing to stop, looking for an excuse, someone else to blame for his relentless speed.”

Four stars to this unique, downbeat work of fiction. It is raw, and real, and gives us a glimpse into the mind and actions of a truly disturbed individual. If dark, noir novels are your thing, Matthew and the Derelict should suit you nicely.

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Healthy Relationships By Diana Loiewski, Tarane Sondoozi, and Linda Loiewski

In the groundbreaking self-help manual called Healthy Relationships, the authors — renowned specialists in clinical psychology and special education — put forth an easy-to-follow and common sense guide that literally has the power to change lives.

This is a workbook-based, self-guided introduction to a remarkable process — the discovery and exploration of your inner worth and how you can nurture its growth while maintaining close relationships.

In the section entitled “Understanding Your Relationship With Yourself,” you will learn that by looking carefully in your inner “mirror” on a regular basis, you will come to appreciate everything you bring to all your relationships — at home, at work, and elsewhere.

In another segment, communication is revealed as an essential element in keeping lines open with others, and expressing how you truly feel. There’s even a handy checklist that facilitates communication between you and whomever you choose, making sure the conversation stays honest and, above all, constructive.

Scattered throughout, there are SNAIL Wisdoms — bite-sized nuggets of advice to help you steer clear of possible problems. For example, here’s one on cyber awareness:

“Remember, a person that you meet over Social Media is an acquaintance until you meet him/her in person, meet his/her family, friends, and get to know him/her over time.”

Such sage and timely advice will keep you from jumping into a relationship too quickly — and too deeply. The authors go on to carefully delineate between what constitutes an “acquaintance” and a “friend,” so you can avoid costly misunderstandings down the road.

In a key section entitled “Knowing What You Want in Friendships,” you’ll be able to sort through characteristics and attributes you may find appealing in others. Again, there’s a simple checklist with which you can create a profile of the kind of person you might best be paired with as a friend. Should they be “outgoing, with high energy,” “friendly and energetic,” or “shy and reserved?” Answering questions like these up front can mean the difference between success and failure in a budding friendship.

Finally, creating Shared Goals can help lay the groundwork for communicating needs, wants, fears, and other aspects of your vision of a shared future to your partner, significant other, or just plain friend. This is the foundation upon which you can most effectively build toward tomorrow.

The last section is an exhaustive and invaluable guide to avoiding unhealthy relationships — which, in many cases, can be worth the price of the workbook alone. The Five Deal Breakers will tell you explicitly the kinds of behavior and traits that can raise both “pink flags,” and “red flags” to warn against beginning or continuing a flawed or toxic relationship.

Five stars to Healthy Relationships. This could very well be the most important book you’ll ever read.

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Capering on Glass Bridges By Jessica Hernandez

Kaia Stone is a sixteen-year-old girl on a mission to save thousands on a faraway island from a crippling, age-old curse. And, in this fascinating, well-written fantasy saga, she sets off on a ship one day and never looks back. For once in her young life, she feels she’s doing something worthwhile.

This is classic, world-building fiction with a YA focus. The author skillfully sets the scene, describing in meticulous detail everything in this imaginative landscape, from the curious little creatures called canonipoms, to the awesome and revered island of the Zavonia, where councilors hold mysterious sway.

It is from these august councilors — also called the Speakers — that Kaia receives her charge: to deliver a message to King Richard that could lift the curse on the Island of Mar. Kaia’s mother, although reluctant to let her daughter embark on the quest, nevertheless agrees that it is Kaia’s destiny:

“Something rare glimmers within you. I can see it, I always have. It shows itself on the bleakest of days, when misery runs rampant, and desolation seizes control of the helm, sailing into all that is grim, all that is foul, and all that inspires dread.”

And so she sets out with her sister, Elania, and a host of Princes to deliver her message to the King. Along the way, they meet creatures both fearsome and wondrous — some of whom emerge from the questing group itself, as they are “turned” — morphing quickly and suddenly into bloodthirsty beasts with razor-sharp teeth.

The travelers encounter enormous protective dragons, and forbidden fields of forgetfulness as they journey to meet the King. But despite being attacked by more fell beasts, and sustaining grave injuries, they nevertheless arrive at Enbeck — the site of the king’s castle — only to receive a royal shock.

This well-told tale is layered in both rich environment and characterization. Reminiscent of Tolkien’s fantastic — yet strangely familiar — construction of an entirely new world, the author succeeds wonderfully at creating a quest — and heroine — that is at once believable and utterly credible. Be sure to read all the way to the end, however, for the novel’s knock-your-socks-off surprise ending.

Five stars to Capering On Glass Bridges, and kudos to its accomplished author. Seldom have I read such a well-written and carefully edited piece of fiction. It was truly a joy to escape to this mythical land for awhile.

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Varga’s Passage By Tom David

When hardboiled CIA agent Nathan Colby meets museum curator Kate Tynan, sparks fly immediately in this outstanding 1980s vintage spy thriller. Human trafficking, Cold War-era Soviet operatives, and a mysterious murder add spice to the new, unlikely partnership of Colby and Ms. Tynan.

Not since John Wayne tussled on the village green with Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man has there been a more appealing pairing of characters. Only this time, the action takes place in and around York, England, and the barbs that are thrown back and forth between Nathan and Kate all take place in pursuit of the puzzle behind Varga’s Passage.

Throw in an ongoing running commentary of a momentous cricket Test Match between England and Australia, and you have the makings of a fascinating, offbeat tale that will keep you turning pages and wondering what in the world will happen next.

It all starts when Colby’s predecessor is found dead in a Leeds slum, and Colby, in pursuit of clues to the homicide, meets Kate in the museum there. He starts calling her “Honey,” and she reacts unfavorably to the brash, but handsome Yank. He feels an attraction to her as well. But you’d never know it to listen to their verbal sparring, which carries on even during the most harrowing chase scenes and calamitous situations that crop up as the plot progresses.

Plenty of colorful characters also emerge as Kate and Nathan go about their investigation. One, called Nasty Norman, has a tale of his own to tell about his house, which is a waystation for illegal Pakastani immigrants. And, a tweedy matron in York turns out to be anything but helpful in their quest, rendering a peaceful visit to the Minster into a life-and-death struggle.

Meanwhile, Soviet agents Pavel and Yevgeny, charged with the elimination of Colby, are having a devil of a time discharging their dastardly duty.

On and on the race continues across the Yorkshire moors and down to the seashore, as first one Russian hit man — er, person — after another tries to kill Colby. Kate chips in handily from time to time, also dispensing a wealth of Yorkshire lore along the way.

What’s the Endgame? Colby wonders. Why are all these people so intent on putting him out of commission — permanently? And, what does Varga’s Passage have to do with it?

Five stars to this imaginative spy thriller. You’ll be scratching your head as often as you hold your sides from laughing on the way to the novel’s surprising finish.

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Devil in the Grass By Christopher Bowron

Satanic rituals, a beautiful young woman, and a former NFL quarterback all come together to form the heart of this sensational mystery, carved out of the Florida Everglades and woven tightly with spellbinding suspense. This is an exceptional piece of first-class fiction, with a strong dose of Stephen King horror thrown in for good measure.

Jack Walker is just looking for a quiet restart to his life when he meets Sarah, a petite twenty-something who promises Jack a very good time if he can just accept one little thing about her — she’s a devil worshipper, a devout member of the Brotherhood of Set.

Jack doesn’t want to jeopardize his job working for a prominent state senator, but the flesh is oh-so-weak, and he winds up agreeing to deliver a packet stuffed with hundred-dollar bills to an old plantation house late one night.

What he finds there is a bloody knife, two dead bodies, and a frame-up custom-made to indict him. To make matters worse, his new girlfriend has disappeared, and he has to kill someone who is at her apartment waiting for him. The police quickly start pursuing Jack and, out of options, he flees to the Seminole reservation nearby, where he enlists the help of his family — native Americans with the ability to hide him in the trackless swamps.

Meanwhile, Jack’s luck is about to run out as both police and the Satanists begin closing in on him. The McFaddens — deranged good old boys in deep with the Devil worshippers — are seeking revenge for the brother who was killed when Jack fled Sarah’s apartment. They are the creepiest characters in the book and if they don’t produce at least one nightmare from you as you read this, you are either on high doses of Valium or not paying attention.

The author does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension as one event after another spiral things out of control. A hundred-year-old witch named Henrietta LePley figures prominently in the growing and grisly death toll, and characters for whom you’ve developed a strong emotional attachment begin falling under her spell — and worse. Much, much worse.

The story builds inexorably from its well-drawn beginning to its heart-stopping finish. Indeed, the entire last one-third of the novel will keep you riveted to the action as blood-thirsty gators and ten-foot-long bull sharks join in a feeding frenzy with one terrible objective — the painful death of Jack Walker and anyone who helps him.

Five sterling stars to Devil In the Grass, a stunning debut novel by Christopher Bowron, a talented writer with tremendous authorial expertise. We look forward eagerly to the sequel, and perhaps an action-packed movie as well.

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Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall By Aaron Safronoff

In Sunborn Rising, author Aaron Safronoff has skillfully woven together an epic tale that at once combines riveting, world-building fantasy with colorful creatures who carry the narrative to new heights at every turn.

As this imaginative story opens, Barra Swiftspur is in the Middens, searching for answers — clues that might ultimately lead to the cause of her father’s disappearance.

Barra’s mother, Brace, has called a meeting of the Council to discuss an insidious threat to their arboreal world — a black, sticky substance called Creepervine. Barra, slipping into the mysterious Middens each day against her mother’s wishes, has most recently been chased by Kudmoths right to her doorstep, thus setting into motion the called Council meeting.

The Council is unconvinced there’s a real threat, so Barra and her two best friends, Plicks and Tory, set off to find the proof they need.

In a fast-moving frenzy of action, the young adventurers find the winged insect menace that chased Barra home the night before. But catching a few as evidence turns out to be harder than they thought. In fact, in their haste to escape a fresh onslaught of the dangerous Kudmoths, they make a series of wrong moves — and wind up in free fall, floating ever closer to the one place they’ve been warned about all their young lives — the Root at the bottom of their world.

This is a taut, well-paced YA thriller, set deep in an ancient forest and peopled with fascinating characters like Barra, whose long tail saves her from many a mishap in the leafy canopy.

The writing in the book is carefully crafted and cinematic, drawing the reader involuntarily into Barra’s dire predicaments:

“Thrashing the nearby foliage with her tail, Barra created a threatening rush of noise ten times bigger than she was. She whip-snapped the bough twice, announcing a challenge. The Kudmoths clicked back at her in a cascade of flipping wings. Knowing she had their collective attention, she bolted through the hole in the trap and ran. The shadowy pool rapidly sublimated into a dark sentient cloud that followed her.”

Grotesque and wondrous creatures await the three friends down at the Root — and the ocean beyond. Gelatinous, playful guardians called Nebules provide invaluable guidance and protection. An Aetherial — older than time — also allies herself with the trio of intrepid bups. And a terrifying foe stands firmly in their way as battle lines are drawn for Cerulean’s very existence.

Can they ever find their way back to their families? Will the Great Forest survive the onslaught of the Creepervine? And, can Barra, Plicks and Tory find a way to save the world as they know it from being overrun with vile creatures that should rightfully inhabit only nightmares?

You’ll spend hours immersed in this excellent fantasy landscape, where ultra-vivid scenes are lavishly illustrated with breathtaking panels showing the action taking place throughout the book. Indeed, they are so rich in color and aspect, they might easily be captured cells straight from a Disney animated film.

At its heart, this story celebrates heroic valor and the unyielding bonds of family and friends in the face of overwhelming odds and black treachery. But it’s also a vibrant action saga that invites the reader to ride along on an epic quest.

Five stars to Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall. This is a superb work of fantasy fiction that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. It’s a standout among all Young Adult entries in the literary marketplace.

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Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo By Michael Pronko

How many drunken salarymen does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: three. One to screw it in and two to make sure his shirt is perfectly tucked.

If you don’t want to be taken for a common gaiijin (foreigner) when negotiating the byways of modern-day Tokyo, you’d best consult this excellent guide to the traditions, customs, and many charming quirks that a visitor to Japan’s largest city might encounter.

Written in an articulate style reminiscent of George Plimpton at his best, author Michael Pronko shares 43 insightful essays that reflect his unique observations as an American expatriate living and teaching in the largest city in the world.

In the essay “The Language Dance,” for example, Pronko discusses the proclivity of Tokyoites to be formal in just about every aspect of daily life. Even those who don’t work in the many high-rises seem always pressed and tidy — from construction workers to deliverymen.

One of the few times the Japanese get really casual, in fact, is when they’re speaking English:

“The Japanese can really loosen up in English. In English, the Japanese switch not just language, but cultural assumptions, body language and mindsets, and end up telling me more in English about themselves and their lives than they ever would in Japanese.”

Another valuable tip for optimum existence in Tokyo: learn how to skillfully negotiate the extensive train and subway system. When walking through an ultra-crowded station, you must be particularly adroit:

‘You have to be controlled to shoot at high speed through the crowd and out the narrow chutes of the train’s exit wickets. One misplaced step means a bruised knee or bruised hip, or, even worse, embarrassment. ”

In addition, Pronko relates, there seems to be a national obsession not just with cell phones, but the entire concept of doing many things at once. Even the TVs carry several information streams — all at once.

“The city itself seems built on multitasking, as if that has been the basic design principle. From any single point, you can find a hundred things to do, and imagine a hundred more. You can’t just walk through Tokyo; you have to deal with it — like an email inbox that never stops receiving new messages.”

There are dozens of erudite observations in this well-written and meticulously edited book. But perhaps one of the best passages, on the end of the annual cherry tree flowering, will resonate with you as it did with me:

“On days when the spring wind blows strong, the last blossoms release and dance through the air. The few late releasing petals seem more rare and more precious, floating alone through the warmer air of spring, like the last dancer pirouetting off the stage after a performance.”

This is a memoir to be savored like a fine red wine, crafted with supreme care by a man who clearly has fallen in love with his adopted city — and we are the beneficiaries of his lyrical reflections, making us want to visit and absorb the rich megalopolis of Tokyo for ourselves.

Five-plus stars to Motions and Moments, and to its warm and witty author Michael Pronko.

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A Thirty-Something Girl By Lisa M. Gott

In this complex, empathetic novel, author Lisa Gott weaves a compelling story about a young woman washed up on the shores of despair on her thirtieth birthday. She then goes on to portray the power of friendship and the intrinsic, yet hard-won, value of self-empowerment in rising from the depths.

Hope is surrounded by three of her best friends when the emotional floodgates burst wide open. Impending divorce, unemployment, foreclosure — all these things and more have happened to Hope in the past few months, and she hasn’t told a soul. Her friends jump in to support her.

But they’ve all got troubles of their own — as Hope knows all too well..

Emma wants to get married and start a family. But her boyfriend just “isn’t ready.” Clara and her husband have tried for five years to have a baby — and are anxiously awaiting the due date. Grace’s brother was driven by mental illness to kill himself several years ago, his wife died of cancer, and Grace and her husband have adopted the two boys from the marriage. Emma, a practicing psychiatrist whose job it is to help people feel better, feels lonely all the time.

Nevertheless, they all rally around Hope in her time of need. Then, the unexpected happens. She meets Sam.

He’s not like anyone she’s ever met before. He’s handsome, funny, sensitive — and, to some degree, broken, like her. Sam’s wife committed suicide and he blames himself — or, at least did for a long while. For Hope’s part she’s, well, hopelessly attracted to him. But, after a couple of demure dates that seem to turn torrid in spite of their best intentions, they agree to take it slowly for awhile.

Then, Hope finds a job; Sam finds one as well. Only problem is, his is two states away.

Can their fragile new love survive separation? Will her friends still be there to support Hope through this newest crisis? And what precious secret do Hope and Clara share? You’ll be well-rewarded by reading all the way to the end.

This excellent piece of fiction is so much more than your average chick-lit. Male readers will find plenty to which they can resonate as well. And the writing is so good. At a critical juncture, for example, Hope examines herself in a mirror:

“My eyes don’t scan my body, picking out each and every problem. Instead, I take a step back and admire the beautiful woman I see; a woman who, against her own odds, made it. A woman who, although frightened, still has the undeniable urge to keep going. A woman with an insatiable desire to live.”

And my favorite line, when she and Sam have tried unsuccessfully to make love for the first time:

“I wasn’t mentally ready for it. . .I really wish they sold memory bleach.”

There’s a lot to like in this romantic, articulate book. Five stars to A Thirty-Something Girl, and thanks to the author for presenting us with such a lovely literary gift.

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Love Unfeigned By Nadine Keels

Lorraine and Isaiah might have been at loose ends a bit in elementary and junior high, but there was never a doubt in Lorraine’s mind: she had met the love of her life.

This is a Hallmark movie waiting to happen. Author Nadine C. Keels does a wonderful job of conveying oh-so-accurately the ache that comes along with young love. And, she does an even better job of portraying unrequited love.

For such is the case for Lorraine when Isaiah begins sending mixed signals in junior high and high school, leaving Lorraine puzzled and dejected. Finally, she resigns herself to the fate she’s been dealt, and moves on with her life.

Fast-forward a decade or so. One day Lorraine steps inadvertently in front of a fast-moving car, and a strong hand pulls her back.

“. . . she was stilled with her back up against a department store window, one of her shopping bags on the ground and both her arms tightly gripped as she looked into the close, alarmed gape of sepia eyes facing her. Sepia eyes that she knew.”

This story moves unexpectedly — and delightfully — through a number of twists and turns as the author involves the reader deeply in the characters she has crafted so well. It’s a story of love kept waiting almost too long, and every girl who’s had a schoolyard crush can easily relate to Lorraine’s travails.

I won’t reveal how it all turns out, but suffice to say you won’t be disappointed. Five stars to this well-written paen to young love, grown into complete, lifelong love. Download a copy of this short novella and enjoy this movie that’s just waiting to be made.

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I Am Destined For Greatness By Lorraincia Lucretia De Juy

Life for Lorraincia Lucretia De Juy may not be rosy every day. But this single mother of three chooses to MAKE it a rosy day — every day. In her inspiring, sometimes painfully honest, autobiography, she tells the uplifting story about why she consciously makes that choice each day — and tells readers how they can do the same thing.

Sexually abused as a very young child and harassed by schoolmates for everything from her “big nose” to the day she soiled herself in class — because of an inconsiderate teacher — one would expect this sunny young mother to be an embittered, depressed individual.

But, because of an indomitable spirit and loads of hard-won self-esteem, Lorraincia is able to quote a wide range of world-class opinion leaders — including God and Mother Teresa — in making her case for pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps and not just getting on with life, but enjoying it to its fullest.

“I have gone from suicidal, to striving for greatness,” she says, “because I now know that it is my birthright.”

This intelligent and articulate young woman tells story after story that many will relate to, including her first love, Shaun. When it ended, Lorraincia could have gone into the deep ditch of despair. But, as she would do on other trying occasions in her life, she just chose to quietly let go.

“True love is when you are willing to stand back, and take second place, if that choice will mean that the one you love will be happier.”

This short book is filled with inspirational nuggets, which, if read all by themselves, would make this a worthwhile and wonderful self-help guide unlike any other I’ve read recently. But there is so much more.

She advocates, among other things, making a written list of all the things you do / are that are admirable. She even shares her list, which looks like a pyramid of plaudits tacked on postcards to a wall.

“I am a dreamer;” “I am kind;” “I communicate well;” “I love helping others;” “I have faith.”

In another book, I would call this shameless self-congratulation. But coming from this gentle, well-spoken Namibia native, they are simply the sort of self-affirmations which anyone feeling down about themselves or their circumstances would do well to emulate.

I award an unqualified five stars to this resonant piece of inspirational literature. It will make a worthy gift — either to friends who are down on their luck — or to yourself, for times when you think you might be the only one with troubles.

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Trina Bell’s Humming Summer By Silke Stein

What do a three-legged dog, a slim green and creamy white hummingbird named Sweet Pea, and a twelve-year-old girl have in common? Answer: they’re all central characters in a delightful new children’s book called Trina Bell’s Humming Summer.

When Trina’s famous wildlife photographer father takes her to a tiny British Columbia island after years of pleading on her part about always being left alone, she gets more than she bargained for — but in a pleasant way. She meets Moss, the dog, and an ensemble cast of other animal characters large and small who share a common trait.

They all talk.

Or, at least, they talk to Trina, and that’s a good thing, as it propels her into an unlikely adventure brimming with imagination and a good deal of inventiveness on the part of the author.

When Sweet Pea falsely accuses Trina of bird-napping — she’s been seen around the island carrying a clear bottle with a tiny hummingbird named Arrow in it — Trina explains that the bottle is Arrow’s home, and she and Moss were only giving him an outing.

But the bird-napping threat is real, Sweet Pea explains, as thirty-one hummingbirds have disappeared on the islands over the past few days. Can Trina and Moss help solve the mystery? she asks.

And so Trina and the three-legged pooch fall in with a swarm of hummingbirds searching for the real perpetrators of this insidious plot.

Suspicion falls immediately on Professor Charles Finch, whose vast collection of stuffed hummingbirds throw Sweet Pea into a birdy swoon. Trina and her friends start weaving their investigational web around the odd old man.

There are some priceless turns-of-phrase in the book. Among them: “Driftwood is scattered all over the shoreline like the bleached bones of dinosaurs.” And: “Moist air hit my skin, startling like the icy breath of an open freezer.” And my favorite, spoken by the dog: “There are two kinds of people, Treenabelle: the happy and the haunted.”

Is the professor guilty of absconding with all the missing hummingbirds? Will Trina’s father finally stay home and realize what a treasure he has in this bright, bubbly girl? And, what will come of the budding romance between Trina and Kale, a boy she meets on the island?

Download a copy for your preteen daughter and see for yourself!

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The Prophet of Marathon By Bob Waldner

If you’re looking for a mesmerizing, quirky mystery — with plenty of I-didn’t-see-that-coming moments, you’ve got to read The Prophet of Marathon. It’s full of totally believable characters that you’ll either love or hate. And, the funny thing is — your opinions will likely swing wildly as the book unfolds.

Chief among your emotional targets will be the protagonist, a rudderless, thirty-year-old man who seems intent on perpetuating his listless, directionless life as a part-time gambler and full-time whiner.

James Bennett is the son of a well-heeled, successful and very wealthy New York City banker. His privileged upbringing has been one long series of struggles against authority — particularly his father, who simply wants him to get — and keep — a real job.

When he gets involved with a defrocked minister, he warms to the older man’s initially paternal direction and interest. Indeed, it seems for awhile that he’s finally found his niche, helping John Wainwright establish a small church in Marathon, Florida.

But, when he couriers $30,000 back to the reverend from a doughy older man, then discovers that the man has apparently bought a teenaged girl — deeply influenced by Wainwright — as a bride, he begins digging deeper into Wainwright’s dubious dealings.

Bennett, ever the hapless dupe, flies to Las Vegas at Wainwright’s request to foster a reconciliation between the minister and his estranged daughter. He finds her, all right — she’s a stripper at a tony Vegas gentlemen’s club.

From there, the story dips and twists through a series of plot developments that will first have you rooting for James, then slapping your forehead at his incredible, self-absorbed naivete. Yet the narrative nevertheless firmly holds your interest, wondering if Wainwright will ever get his comeuppance.

I rarely say that I couldn’t put a book down, but this was certainly the case with this well-written, meticulously crafted novel. The lead character, James Bennett, stays doggedly in character almost to the end, even managing to achieve a certain grudging acceptance from his father.

But, does Wainwright ever get what should be coming to him, after decades of ministerial malfeasance and manipulation? Read this novel right through to the end, and find out.

Five stars to The Prophet of Marathon. It’s a gem that showcases the power of excellent, consistent character development and its ultimate contribution to a story well-told.

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Greylock By Paula Kappa

Greylock is a stunning masterpiece of innovative horror. Award-winning author Paula Kappa delivers a virtuoso performance in fiction, with characters you’ll care deeply about and sinister evil that will trouble your sleep for a long time to come.

Composer and classical concert pianist Alexei Georg has a dream: to put the music of the beluga whales off Russia’s coast into a musical composition for piano and symphony orchestra. Only two things are stopping him: a shrewish wife and a black apparition that haunts his recent performances.

His lover, radio meteorologist Lia Marrs, wants very much to believe that Alexei will be successful in his bid to divorce the diabolical Carole Anne, but his soon-to-be ex-wife has a secret she’s holding over his head — the revelation that his signature composition “October” was, in fact, written over a hundred years earlier by someone else.

He travels to the icy waters where the whales are known to sing their eerie songs, and encounters a female Russian shaman who alternately intrigues him and terrifies him with her enigmatic interpretations.

Then, Carole Anne’s murder throws things into turmoil as Alexei, suspected of the crime, flees to remote Mount Greylock, still pursued by the dark phantom.

This inspired story of the creative process, and the lengths to which a composer might go to realize his dream, is at once cautionary and revealing. Who can say what dark muses we all might entreat to achieve our artistic aims and aspirations?

Five well-earned stars to Greylock. I’ve not seen anything like it since Hitchcock and duMaurier gave us The Birds.

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Half Irish By Pete Morin and Suzanne O’Leary

Murder, money and crooked lawyers all figure prominently in this excellent new mystery by co-authors Pete Morin and Suzanne O’Leary. It’s one of the most well-written whodunits I’ve seen in quite a while.

What do Dermot, Kieran and Sean have in common? Besides being Irish, and relatively new to America, they all died in mysterious circumstances at construction sites. And, their widows back in Ireland all got far less than their insurance policies paid out. Who’s to blame, and who is profiting? The reader finds that out — partially, at least — early on.

But proving it. Ah, there’s the true brilliance of the story.

This finely crafted tale plays out deliciously as Boston attorney Paul Forte teams up with Dublin journalist Finola McGee to unravel a twisted skein of deceit, lies and fraud leading to the much darker matter of willful murder.

There are eligible suspects galore in the scheme that lures unemployed Irish laborers to the United States in search of lucrative jobs. But when one, then two, then three lads are killed at construction sites scattered around the U.S. — well, it’s just a bit too coincidental to suit Forte and McGee.

Written by an attorney and an Irish national, respectively, this novel is packed with satisfying detail about American legal intricacies and a wealth of local color about Irish politics and chicanery. You’ll soon be rooting for these painstaking investigators and their small but efficient cadre of assistants.

And I love the outstanding dialogue and the enticing turns-of-phrase scattered throughout the book:

“Rex’s bushy eyebrows jumped around his forehead.”


“He was soft as a grape by then.”

Through Georgia’s finest golf course fairways, Chicago’s Merchandize Mart and a wild, Jerry Springer-type show in Dublin, the story winds toward its climax. But not before we are served another tasty literary bon mot:

“Looks like Superman and Mother Teresa rolled into one.”

Five stars to this entertaining read. And, to mystery lovers everywhere, a new tag team of stellar investigators has emerged.

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A Fistful of Evil By Rebecca Chastain

Madison Fox is twenty-five, jobless and desperate when she is offered the ubiquitous job of IE — Illuminant Enforcer — in the wildly imaginative YA novel A Fistful of Evil. Her new job is to rid her district of small, furry, chinchilla-like, invisible orbs of negative energy — imps — that latch onto humans and suck positive energy from their souls.

Good thing she has been born with the innate ability to see them, whereas most folks just blithely go through life with the evil little buggers attached to their ankles, draining away their life-force. But once Madison gets her hands on them, they implode — Pfft! — into dancing shards of light.

Of course, the job turns out not to be that easy. There are far worse creatures roving Madison’s district, and they just exude atrum — dark energy. Madison is forced to learn the ropes of her new profession as she goes. But she has help from a well-drawn cadre of supporting characters — her best friend Bridget, her co-worker Rose, and, of course, the best IE in the office, Niko Demetrius — a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of male humanity.

“I inhaled as he passed; he smelled delicious, like something I hadn’t known I’d been craving. I turned to watch his firm ass disappear. He moves like danger, I thought.”

In this zany romp through an infectious fantasy world that apparently exists in an uneasy coexistence with our own, Madison must use her special sight and IE abilities to keep the forces of evil at bay — and, as she begins her task with intrepid enthusiasm, she finds she may not be fully up to it.

A local hotel is hosting a videogamers conversation and the outlandish exhibits containing “booth babes” — scantily clad women in videogame warrior garb — are all crawling with evil little imps. In addition, monkey-like apparitions called vervets are swinging from the chandeliers. But Madison is lucky in her first visit to an evil-infested venue like the hotel — there’s not a demon in sight. At her stage of training, the challenge would be too much.

Next, her fantasies are partially fulfilled when she’s paired with Niko to cleanse a bar near the hotel. They quickly purge the place of imps and vervets while simultaneously infusing the place with pure goodness — the positive energy called lux lucis.

Finally, they return to the hotel and Madison comes face to face with the demon she missed on her earlier visit — and you won’t believe what happens next.

A Fistful of Evil is a thoroughly entertaining ride through the author’s imaginary world of soul-sight and horrendous creatures that apparently exist just out of the sight of mere mortals. And, in between her battles with the baddies, Madison manages to slip in plenty of humor and more than a few laugh-out-loud sequences perfect for the YA crowd.

Five stars to A Fistful of Evil and its author, Rebecca Chastain. And take heart, fans — Book Two in this series is already available. Check out A Fistful of Fire on Amazon. Here’s the link:

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Two Heirs By Peter Kenson

Two Heirs is a first-class science fiction tale with elements not normally found in the genre — among them, swordplay, horses, and telepathic princes. In fact, this first part in a three-part trilogy has all the makings of an epic classic.

David Held is not the man he appears to be. A deadly swordsman, he’s also a natural leader. So, when he appears out of nowhere to take the lives of two very bad men, the band they were leading begin saluting him and calling him “milord.”

It’s just a side benefit in a perilous quest for Held — the quest to find and save the heir to an entire planet.

He traces the teen-aged Lord Jeren to the dusty plains of a world dominated by warlords and peopled with a pre-industrial civilization. Many are wandering gypsies, like the tribe to which Jeren belongs.

Trouble is, Held can’t use any of his off-world fighting expertise in recovering the lad. They’ve all been stripped away — along with the knowledge of who he really is — so that he doesn’t violate any of the Imperial dictums for interfering in a backward culture.

Still, he does the best he can, skillfully dispatching marauding renegades and rescuing dozens of kidnapped children in the course of his mission.

Young Lord Jeren surprises everyone — including his elders at the council — by declaring that he will march at the head of a conquering army to retake the glittering city of Marmoros in the fabled Neverwinter valley — their ancient homeland. The fact that he does not yet command such a fighting force is immaterial. His vision is contagious and he soon even has Held agreeing to oversee the arrangements.

Meanwhile, in the faraway city of Puerto Reis, Josep and Agnes Benyahim have heard of the prince’s bold vision and are making plans to meet up with him and join the cause. With them are Zak, his wife Beth, Rachel and a mysterious young swordsman named Seb.

The parts they play, and the adventures of Jeren, Held and the others makes for great reading as they pursue their respective journeys. And, amidst all the warmongering, there is still room for a love story.

The author sets a good pace in telling this epic tale of kingdoms lost and brave warriors doing great deeds of valor and honor. Indeed, in many places, it reads like portions of The Lord of the Rings, in which military strategy against superior forces comes in mighty handy. The author clearly either has had military training or is well-read on the topic. The main character even has a coat of mithril chain mail.

But, it is the detailed descriptions of the countryside and reality of the characters that brings the book to vivid life, and you’ll soon be immersed in this faraway land, well-caught up in the quest yourself.

Five stars to this opening narrative in The Marmaros Trilogy. All fans of a good, old-fashioned, swashbuckling story should love it.

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Y By Rain Arlender

Neasa Morrigan is the wonderfully complex protagonist at the center of Rain Arlender’s outstanding novel simply titled “Y.” This is a smart, well-written story, set in Ireland. But to characterize it as your typical coming-of-age piece of fiction is to undersell its inventiveness, its rich characterizations, and its ability to immerse the reader in Neasa’s world.

She just wants to be left alone — except for the time she spends with Aiden, of course. Aiden — severely asthmatic — is just a friend, Neasa proclaims. That’s good, because when a good-looking actor named Ryan Delaney comes into her life unexpectedly, she must wrestle with feelings that are both new and uncomfortable.

She goes — against her will — to one of his performances — using tickets he’s given her as repayment for offering sanctuary from screaming adolescent fans at the library where she works. Onstage, he’s quoting Shakespeare.

“As soon as he started reciting he stepped out of the light, only his voice was there, alone in the darkness, deep, slightly hoarse, but still, like a velvety caress.”

It seems, however, that everything Ryan does to deepen the friendship, Neasa pulls away. He doesn’t understand at first that this is a girl who’s never been given a Christmas present, never lied to her parents, and certainly has never allowed anyone to get close to her — emotionally or physically.

Watching the pathologically withdrawn Neasa go through the fits and starts of figuring out how to have a relationship with a young man — much less the handsome and famous Ryan Delaney — is like watching a newborn colt trying to walk. You, as a reader, want desperately to reach into the pages to help — to reassure Neasa that everything will be all right.

But will it?

Ryan, for his part, is genuinely puzzled at Neasa’s inability to respond to even the mildest advances, or even take a compliment in stride. Then, he really throws her for a loop by asking her to go with him to a casting call in Dublin. Against all odds, she agrees — or, at least, doesn’t disagree.

This remarkable and unique story is one of paralyzing, deeply personal fear, fragile hope, and carefully emerging love. The book’s almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing is a bit unsettling at first. But it is this very construct that elevates it to lyrical heights.

— Like a planet, I spun in the Universe — in orbit, but unconsciously — completely lost in time and space.

— Every person is a different world — he replied — At first you just try to figure out whether it’s even worth luring the other person out of their shell. Because the process of finding out what they’re hiding is slow and gradual. And sometimes you can be surprised.

I want to die without leaving a trace.

Does Neasa finally let her defenses completely down to allow Ryan to explore — ever so cautiously — the slowly blossoming relationship? Can Neasa’s family and friends permit such closeness with an “outsider?”

I give this novel five stars, and look forward to discovering more about this delicate, yet strongly determined young woman in Part Two.

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In the Forest of Light and Dark By Mark Kasniak

If you like a good, eerie witch story — complete with hundreds of cats running around with the souls of children imprisoned in them — then In the Forest of Light and Dark is your kind of book. It’s a superb YA/teen read that will appeal to older readers as well.

Its narrator, Cera Singer, is a spot-on example of a down-home, countrified Southern girl, sixteen, going on seventeen, with plenty of attitude and eye-rolling sarcasm, though she’s basically a good person stuck in awful circumstances.

Her mama and step-daddy are both unemployed and on the verge of having their home repossessed when, out of the blue, a certified letter arrives with the news that Cera’s grandmother in New York state has died, leaving them a Cadillac, more than $400,000 in cash — and a huge house that comes with a peculiar stipulation — they must move from their home in Alabama and occupy it for a full year, or the inheritance is null and void.

After much soul-searching, the family decides it would be best to make the trek to the tiny village of Mount Harrison, N.Y., and have a go at it. Only problem — it’s Cera’s senior year in high school, which means she’ll have to endure the agony of making new friends. However, this turns out to be the least of Cera’s obstacles to a happy life up North.

Right away, the persecution begins for Cera and her poor mama. Their return to the small town heralds a fresh surge of deadly occurrences — deaths and unexplained illnesses — allegedly owing to a long history of witchcraft in Cera’s mother’s family. The townies recall more than two hundred years of bad happenings, all blamed on the supposed spells cast by the female members of the family through the years.

As a result, Cera is persecuted at her new school and actively harassed before finally making a friend — Katelyn, who stuns Cera with the news that she herself is, in fact, a practicing witch, and had been the apprentice of Cera’s grandmother before the old woman died.

The story gets progressively scarier as the two teens ditch school for the day and Katelyn confirms that the 280-year-old spirit of the first girl convicted of witchcraft in Mt. Harrison — Abalona Abbott — still haunts the forest bordering the property, and — even after all this time — she’s still pissed at the villagers for drowning her all those years before.

It’s a good premise for a spell-binding story, one that teens and many others will undoubtedly enjoy. The author does a magnificent job of making Cera and the other Southerners speak as though they’ve never heard of proper grammar and he also either has a teen — or is not far out of his teens himself — because Cera and her young friends use the universal language of youth everywhere effortlessly. Whatever!

Five stars to In the Forest of Light and Dark. It’s a story of triumph over supernatural tribulation and a tribute to the awesome power of family and friendship.

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Playback Effect By Karen A. Wyle

The sale of vivid dreams has become a reality in this high-test legal / sci-fi thriller from author Karen Wyle. Purchase a high-tech helmet and you can feel the carnal pleasures of someone’s guilty liaison — or experience an agonizing death. It’s up to you.

Unless, of course, you’ve committed a crime, as Harold “Hal” Wakeman has been accused of doing. Authorities allege he planted a powerful bomb inside a fountain sculpture that he designed. The resulting explosion killed or injured dozens — including his wife, Wynne.

When the couple discover a mental process that can make them forget their PTSD-like memories, they also discover that she can undergo the procedure – but he cannot. Intense recriminations ensue.

Wynne creates a wide spectrum of dreams and records them for sale, via the futuristic helmet technology that plays such a large part in this story. And the author is particularly good at describing the idyllic scenes Wynne conjures up:

‘She was floating, floating in a golden, glowing place of perfect warmth, rocking, cradled.She had nothing to need, nothing to do; she could simply float, and wait, and be.”

The supporting cast of characters complement the main protagonists very well, weaving texture into the book with their depth and complexity.

Arthur, Hannah, Tertius, Warden Heath, Dream Daemon — all play their parts flawlessly as the mystery rolls inexorably toward its stunning conclusion.

In a world where vicarious gratification is bought and sold like apples in a supermarket, no experience seems out of bounds — except, perhaps, the so-called “snuff product,” in which a person’s death is recorded and sold.

It’s grim stuff to contemplate, but, like all good science fiction, it’s uncomfortably close to plausibility — and therefore all the more terrifying.

Five stars to Playback Effect. It’s.excellent dystopian fare



Killer Fog By Bruce Wetterau

It’s late and foggy on a rural stretch of Virginia interstate as Clay Cantrell and his fiance Susan become involved in a situation many say can’t happen in the United States — a murderous attack by radical, zealot Muslims. This is the jarring and very convincing premise behind author Bruce Wetterau’s lightning-paced, intriguing novel Killer Fog.

Cantrell is caught up in a deadly scenario that has its roots in 1941 Nazi Germany — but stretches firmly into the twenty-first century as jihadist thugs first kill a former German scientist, then try multiple times to kill him. The question is, what’s the connection between the scientist named Benjamin Weiss and the wild-eyed radicals currently plotting the downfall of The Great Satan?

The author skillfully crafts this follow-up to his first novel, in which Cantrell and his business partner discovered a fortune in Confederate gold coins. Now, Cantrell must trace a trail of clues that begins with the dying words of Weiss: “Find Blake’s Hill.”

This turns out to be a person, not a place. Hill, a former FBI agent, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s and the information he might share about a long-ago wartime project of Weiss’ is locked up inside his improperly functioning mind.

At the rest home, Hill is remembering an incident back in the early 1940s when an unscrupulous lab assistant working for Weiss stole a notebook with the secret formula for making synthetic gasoline — a secret Hitler was desperate to get his hands on. Weiss was shot during the burglary, but survived and told Hill about it.

The fuzzy flashbacks continue for Hill and finally a tie-in to the present day emerges — a lead that Cantrell and Homeland Security can follow to unravel an intricate and explosive plot by Muslim radicals to infiltrate and overthrow the United States government from the inside out.

Throw in several hair-raising car chases and some grisly work done by gun and knife-toting jihadists, and the rest of the novel flies by in a flurry of subplots that are all satisfactorily tied up in the end.

The author interweaves some disturbing information in this book about the increased Muslim presence in the United States over the past decade, and the stated belief by some that they would like to see Shariah Law imposed here — a return to the rigid seventh century edicts and customs that are now considered by many to be barbaric.

But the adventure tale involving Clay Cantrell and a host of well-developed characters combine with practically non-stop action to keep the intricate story moving along nicely, so the underlying warning about Mideast influences on our doorstep don’t interfere with a good old-fashioned mystery and thriller.

I give five stars to Killer Fog and look forward to the next book in this series.

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I AM SLEEPLESS: Sim 299 By Johan Twiss

Simulated death, fierce mock-battles, and oozing green blood. It all comprises the essence of this terrific new fantasy tale, geared toward a YA audience, but eminently enjoyable by just about anybody who enjoys a rousing romp in an alien world.

Aiden, Fig, and Palomas are more than best friends. They have been raised from infancy together to become elite warriors. They live in the citadel of Mount Fegorio, training each day and mastering their unique skills.

Fig is a three-foot-tall mek who fights in a specially engineered suit. Palomas is a lug, able to effortlessly throw boulders 500 feet away to flatten virtual enemies. And Aiden — well, Aiden is special. He has TWO extraordinary powers that allow him to see threats before they can harm him, and easily figure out problems that would stump anyone else.

Plus, he’s managed to meld the two powers recently, which makes him formidable indeed.

He will need all his skill when he goes into The Castle in three weeks to finish a deadly simulation never before completed by anyone. To help in his quest, he must rely on two senior primes, sixteen-year-old agulator Dixon and another prime, Zana.

Refereeing the deadly game is an ancient dragleon named Sentinel, “the protector of the law, caretaker of the realm, and keeper of secrets.” It will not be an easy task.

Meanwhile, Fig and Palomas are seriously miffed that they are left out of the training.being carried on by Aiden, Dixon and Zana. Before a permanent rift occurs, however, an accord is reached and final plans to face the last challenge imposed by Simulation 233 are perfected.

The characterizations in this novel are first-rate, placing the reader firmly inside the physical — and mental — confines of the players and the facility in which they are training for the ongoing war.

Of particular interest is Sergeant Henderson, a human instructor who harbors intense dislike for his gifted students. The reasons for the dislike reveal a depth of character not often seen in books of this type. It’s a moving insight into a minor participant in the story and adds texture and depth to the tale.

What do Aiden and the others encounter when they finally return to The Castle? And what of the larger issue of the war with the dreaded Splicers?

Find out for yourself in this excellent and moving tale of triumph and tragedy in a galaxy, as they say, that is far, far away. Five stars to I Am Sleepless, and its imaginative author.

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Where Death is a Hunter By Christopher Stookey

When Debora Thein’s heart stops beating at 8:37 a.m.on a foggy January morning in San Francisco, Dr.Hannah Fatier is dumbstruck. There’s no warning, and — beyond the fact that she’s dead — she’s the wife of a hospital board member. And now they’re saying it’s Dr. Fatier’s fault.

This excellent medical thriller follows Hannah’s tortuous path to perdition as she is summarily fired over the incident, then works to make sense of the tragedy. Turns out, the woman’s death wasn’t a medical error at all. It was cold, pre-meditated murder.

And Hannah and everyone who is helping her solve the mystery is at risk.

Written by a physician, this fast-paced thriller is rich in medical terminology — yet simplified so that a layman can easily follow the protocols and procedures attendant to the tragedy. Indeed, you will feel as though you are on staff at the medical facility by the time the book is done.

Hannah enlists the help of a surf-loving, yet buttoned-down attorney, an ex-con computer hacker, and her best friend — a former fiance — in helping her fight the false charges. You’ll be rooting for her every step of the way — right up to the surprising climax.

Five stars for Where Death is a Hunter. Author Christopher Stookey combines a wealth of medical knowledge with a practiced authorial hand to deliver a story that could easily be made into a movie. Well done!

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The Driftwood of Our Lives Washed Up on Some Foreign Shore By Cooper Dozier

The Driftwood of Our Lives Washed Up On Some Foreign Shore is a brilliant piece of poetry, a thoughtful collection of verse in which anyone can find hope, inspiration and love.

Poet Cooper Dozier has written 36 soul-stirring poems that at once illuminate the mind and either stir or quiet the heart — depending on the verse.

I chose to listen to the poems through my Kindle text-to-speech app before reading them, and the result, with eyes closed, was remarkably soothing in some cases, intellectually stimulating in others.

The verses run from admonitions for appreciation (“Remember These Things”), to the awful decimation of war (“The Ins and Outs of Life”), to intense loneliness (“A Terrible Hint of Oneness”), and, finally, to hope just beyond our grasp (“A Symbol of Longing”).

These are eloquent, lyrical staves, with vivid mental images and raw emotions bared. Here is a sampling from one of the longer pieces:

“The songs we sung were of victory / A trembling hand arose / Coming into it we still had love / A pacing time was had / Our love knew no bounds / The time for waiting was over / One fish was made into a thousand / The clouds drifted overhead / Your fearless leader was there to stay / Our love remained ever strong”

Here’s another:

“Summer dreams all fly in a glitter of dust / Under drama the pile grows stale / Series of ages to walk through / Some happy, some sad / Some drama piles on the sadness / Aglitter the lashes flutter / Some dreams grow by stages / Aglitter the trauma fades in”

And one more :

“Snatches of conversation pass through the air / Collusions of words entwining”

This poetry leaves the reader refreshed one moment with boundless hope, and deep sadness the next — as any good collection of verse should. The book is a superb entrance into publishing for the author, and I give it five unqualified stars. Good work, Cooper.

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Strike At Charles’ Farm, by Dr. Nicole

Charles has a problem. None of the animals on his farm, including Bizzi the bee, want to work anymore. This is the excellent story of how Charles handles the situation.

The hen Coco, the horse Hoof, the sheep Curly, the cow Milky, the dog Woof, the rooster Moody, the cat Miaou, and the bee Bizzi all want different things, and they tell Charles they won’t do what they’re supposed to do until he grants their demands.

Find out how Charles handles the delicate situation by reading this superbly written and illustrated picture book with your child.

Five stars for Strike At Charles’ Farm, by Dr. Nicole!

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Are You Eating My Lunch? By Dr. Nicole

Xavier can’t find his lunch in this delightful and wonderfully illustrated picture book by Dr. Nicole.

He asks practically every animal in the zoo: “Are you eating my lunch?” But they all say no, and point to another animal to ask.

Where does Xavier finally find his lunch? Read this superb story along with your child and find out together!

Five stars for Are You Eating My Lunch?

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How To Make A Guy Realize You Are The One For Him By Titania Hudson

Attention, ladies! Tired of looking for Mr. Right in all the wrong places? Want a surefire, easy-to-follow guide to evaluating, dating and, finally, choosing your perfect mate?

Look no further. This guide is loaded with tips and techniques to have the man you want popping the question — on your timetable, not his.

In one chapter, you’ll set up an invaluable checklist of preferences to help you find the man of your dreams. How can you reach a destination without a clear roadmap? By listing the qualities and characteristics you’re looking for, you’re much less likely to go wrong in the evaluation process.

Another chapter provides a highly useful primer on exactly where and how to meet the best match for you. Among the practical suggestions: libraries or book clubs, dog-related events, and, of course, online dating services (this section offers several pages of highly useful dos and don’ts.)

Other turn-ons for guys that will have them eating out of your hand involve cultivation of an aura of sophistication, fashionable get-ups (including weblinks to savvy style sites and ways to find exactly what colors might be best for you), and attracting attention with exciting topics of conversation.

Still more tips involve double checking for mutual values, keeping a journal to make sure a hot prospect stays consistent in his behavior, and ascertaining his depth of enchantment with you (this is a series of questions you can ask yourself to determine, among other things, his level of commitment.)

Finally, the author provides fourteen ways to deepen and enhance the relationship, such as clicking with his friends, being spontaneous, and (if you’re comfortable with it) giving great sex.

In short, this is THE most practical guide to dating that I’ve ever seen, and, if followed carefully, it could make a significant difference in your life.

Five stars to this invaluable how-to book, and a hearty congratulations to the author for sharing a great deal of good advice.

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Penny Dreadful By Cynthia Lee

Belle Fortune’s remarkable journey begins on the day she’s bundled off to the Glass Town Establishment for Girls. Belle is an imaginative young woman, and that’s the problem. This excellent and exceptionally well-written novel is the story of how Belle uses her imagination to transform her plain, ordinary life into one of untold possibilities.

Belle quickly learns that there are mysteries to be solved in the school and near Glass Town. Strange numbers scrawled on walls and dark hints of eerie goings-on at The House on the Island intrigue her and serve as welcome distractions from the dull work of learning to become a Well Brought Up Girl.

A grisly and disturbing play is performed at the palatial home of Horace Glass, the town magnate. He becomes irate and makes the mistake of slapping one of his daughters, who arranged for the theatrical production at the party. Will Reynolds, a footman and admirer of the daughter, Amity, lays him out, then must flee for his life.

Belle, who wrote the tale upon which the play was based, resolves to write more penny dreadful stories to delight her friends and the oppressed children who toil all day in Glass’ prisonlike factory. As a result, she is rounded up by Glass one day and banished to work in the factory herself.

From there, the narrative twists and winds, as Belle is rescued from the clutches of the oppressive overseer, Mr. Pinch, and Will is stricken with an insidious fever.

Can Belle liberate the poor children working like slaves at Glass’ onerous factory? Does Will finally recover and requite the desperate love of young Amity? And what other secrets will be uncovered in the course of this well-paced piece of fiction?

The book is filled with superb turns-of-phrase and lyrical passages that transport the reader into the pages. Early in the novel, the author describes the chilling, barren countryside:.

“The wind blew in a gust and the light flickered over something that moved there, a figure in the shape of a person with hair the color of old bones in moonlight, or a faded wedding gown.”

And later, describing Will’s fierce devotion to his friends and one true love:

“There had been anger in him, like a shiny black stone in his stomach, but also laughter that was a gaslight in his chest, and kindness that was a flashing silver streak running along his spine.”

Rich characterizations and superb story development make this nineteenth century-era novel resonate with hope, courage, and triumph. I give Penny Dreadful five unqualified stars, and recommend it to anyone who is looking for a rewarding read.

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Generation Dementia By Michael Hartnett

Generation Dementia is at once a cautionary tale of our times and a hilarious, in-depth look at the current collection of kids who make up Generation Dementia.

The story starts innocently enough as we join high school senior Hash O’Connell on his rounds through his tiny village of Frick, rat-holing cast-off items of trash as he lurches along on the back of the town’s sole garbage truck.

Hash is good for a zinger-a-minute:

“The three times I spoke to him he called me Master Hash, which made me sound either like a rapper, or an expensive brand of canned meat.”

“To see the future, I clearly had to see past a forest of apes.”

And my favorite: “Artie’s mouth twisted north, like he’d caught me eating dog food.”

Don’t get me wrong. This is a serious work of fiction, mining the deep veins of rich characters and outre situations in the tradition of Michael Chabon and John Irving. But that doesn’t take anything away from its ability to endlessly entertain.

Hash is part of a sudden movement to introduce today’s youth to hard work by starting up a program to have them become trash collectors, rolling noisily through Frick’s suburbs early each morning, and attracting enough national attention to turn their endeavors into a prime-time reality show.

The long-buried diary of a Pulitzer Prize-winning local journalist turns up, and Hash relates portions of the 1960s meanderings in his own narrative, imparting off-handedly that he has to look up the actors John Wayne and Sidney Poitier in Wikipedia in order to understand a story an entry in the writer’s ancient accounts.

For such is the fate of Generation Dementia and every new generation in future years — to wonder amusedly at icons of their parents’ past while “sitting in a circle silently texting each other.”

Five-plus stars to Generation Dementia. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen writing this good.

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Aerisia: Land Beyond the Sunset By Sarah Ashwood

Hannah is just a country girl at heart — but to the people of Aerisia, she’s the Artan, savior of their world. This excellent fantasy saga is the story of how Hannah — transported from Earth to the land of Aerisia by magic one afternoon — grows into one of the finest female heroines of her time.

The Moonkind and the good people of the city of Laytrii at first don’t know what to make of Hannah, standing before the Council in jeans, running shoes and a tee-shirt. Could this indeed be the One foretold to lead their people to victory against The Evil? Many have their doubts, including the dark-eyed, immortal men who will serve as her warriors in the coming fight.

They are the Simathe, and their leader, High Lord Ilgard, with his bronzed, muscular body and flowing black hair, is charged to protect her with his very soul.

This vow is soon put to the test as a pack of vicious drocnords burst from hiding in a field near the palace and threaten to kill Hannah. Ilgard, however, summons a troop of the Simathe and they beat back the creatures’ wild charge, allowing Hannah and her strong protector to escape to the city on the back of a racing stallion.

“We must now be Joined,” Ilgard announces firmly, but Hannah, fearing further separation from all the things she has known for all her young life up to this point, resists firmly. However, her resistance, as they say, is futile and she is carried off to the High Lord’s home city of Treygon, where she begins the long task of donning her destiny.

One vivid strength of the author is her ability to paint a compelling word portrait of the beautiful land of Aerisia, making the reader feel as though he or she is there:

“On the opposite side of the palace, more fields quickly gave way to scattered trees, which, in turn, yielded to a vast, dense forest. And encompassing the entire vista — city, palace, fields and beyond — stretching as high and far as the eye could see, were great mountains, shimmering a bluish-purple sheen.”

It is this very gift for description of Aerisia’s fantastic landscape, as well as its people — from well-bred Moonkind to the wonderful Fairies of the forest — that bring this tale to life. And the characters, including the impetuous Hannah and the mysterious High Lord Ilgard, who dominate this YA standout, add color and plenty of realism to a fantastic storyline.

I give Aerisia five stars and recommend it to anyone who loves tales of other worlds and lands beyond the sunset.

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Blue Flamingo: A Novella By Joyce V. Harrison

If you’re looking for a superbly written, well-crafted piece of contemporary fiction, they don’t get much better than Blue Flamingo by Joyce V. Harrison.

The story begins when Dylan Ryker — a young man in his early twenties — leaves Chicago after the unexpected death of his father. Dylan doesn’t really have a destination in mind. But, eventually, he winds up in Pelago, Florida, clutching a matchbook carried around for years by his dad. It has the name of a bar on it — The Blue Flamingo.

Dylan, desperately searching for his mother, who took off when he was a toddler, finds the seedy nightclub, and strikes up a friendship with the lounge’s owner — Rita Cornwall.

Rita takes pity on the young man who washes up at her front door one day in dirty dungarees and several days shy of a shower. He becomes her new bartender and bouncer. Trouble is, the first person he bounces is a local half-wit with a biker buddy. Not good.

Dylan winds up in the hospital several days later, courtesy of his new enemies. But one benefit of the beating is the visitation of a seventeen-year-old beauty who befriends him.

Well, there’s a little more to it than that but, hey — this is something of a romance, after all.

Things get complicated when Jena — Dylan’s new girlfriend — leaves home after her super-religious father becomes abusive. She stays with a friend until her eighteenth birthday, but, on the night of her party, the bad boys return for revenge, and a host of surprises surface in the encounter’s aftermath.

Blue Flamingo is a story of lost hope, complicated relationships, and, ultimately, the power of love, both new and old. Its characters are flawed, but imminently believable, and the novella’s pacing is spot-on.

Five stars-plus to Blue Flamingo. Come on in for a cold draft beer. You’ll be glad you did.

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Pale Highway By Nicholas Conley

The panoramic view from the windows of the Bright New Day Nursing Center offers stupendous views of the restless, turbulent Atlantic Ocean — but none of the briny, ever-so-salty air that Gabriel Schist craves.

He can’t leave the facility. He has Alzheimer’s, and the world has become an endless series of prisons — his stark little room, the common area dotted with other hopeless patients, and, of course, his own body, which has, in the end, betrayed him and exiled him to this endless netherworld where he resides, neither living not dead.

Pale Highway is the poignant story of one man’s journey into that cold, lonely, ever-narrowing corridor called Alzheimer’s. His attendants patronize him, his roommate talks too loud, and his daughter dutifully visits — but not too often, because the place depresses her almost as much as it saddens him

Author Nicholas Conley has clearly been a caregiver at some point for someone with this debilitating condition. He writes eloquently of the emotions and daily indignities endured by patients around the world. This story puts a face on the disease, and forces the reader to climb inside the disoriented body of Nobel-winning resident and famed microbiologist Gabriel Schist — the man who cured AIDS in this fictional tale set in the near future.

The writing is painstakingly vivid, evoking unexpected emotions from the reader that cut like the point of a serrated blade:

“Somewhere in the distance, the Crooner’s never-ending singsong echoed through the halls. Looking to his side, Gabriel noticed that Edna Foster had rolled her wheelchair up next to him. Her sons were gone, too. Together, they were childless parents of parentless children.”

And, so go the days, one folding endlessly into another — until fellow resident John Morris contracts what is euphemistically being called the Black Virus. Gabriel is galvanized into action, trying to persuade the nursing home’s staff to let him crack the code that will provide a desperately needed cure.

But, once again, Schist’s body betrays him, and he finds himself battling his own mental shortcomings as he searches for the elusive microbiological solution. He begins talking to the ever-present slugs that infest the nursing home — and they talk back to him! Reluctantly, they even agree to help in his quest for the cure.

This brilliant sci-fi work is a tour-de-force of great writing and meticulous research, all wrapped into a scientific thriller that will have you hoping that Gabriel can solve the life-threatening dilemma before it’s too late — both for him, and for mankind.

Five stars-plus for Pale Highway. It is a striking example of what can be achieved when imaginative writers tackle socially significant themes. We’re all the beneficiaries.

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The Butterfly That Returned By Serene Martin

In The Butterfly That Returned, author/ poet Serene Martin delivers verse that is at once introspective and lyrical.

In a series of thirty-three “heartfelt messages,” she examines self-truths, relationships and — above all — the need to believe in yourself.

In “Get On With It,” she affirms her belief that there are higher forces at work in us — and for us — every day:

“Call it faith. Call it the law of attraction. Call it the placebo effect. Call it God . . . Call it whatever you want and get on with it. Because life is so much better when you believe there are larger forces working for you and with you. . . You are the genius in the fool of every doe-eyed believer of the power of life.”

In “Feeling It,” the poet reveals that actions really do speak louder than words::

“Our dreams have wings / But it is our belief in them that gives them flight / Not words of faith / Our vibration of faith”

In “Good Enough,” a little girl offers up a prayer — and is surprised at the response:

“A single lonesome prayer she had once uttered in the depths of the night when she thought no one was listening had pierced the heavens / A prayer that she almost forgot she even said / And then she realised beyond any doubt / That we are all good enough for good things”

And finally, in “I Am You, ” the poet examines the miracle of just Being:

“I am the curve of your smile and the depth of your remorse / I am your friend and the friend of your enemy / I am what I am and I am you”

Each poem or long verse is uplifting and encouraging, and I also found this short collection to be wonderfully soothing.

Five stars to The Butterfly That Returned. It is a refreshing read.

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The Game By Angie West

A Crypt Keeper, a kilted Scotsman, and three ominous doorways. All these intriguing fictional elements — and much, much more — come together in a wildly imaginative extended short story entitled, simply, The Game.

Author Angie West takes the reader through a modern-day looking glass and into a sinister world where board games come hideously to life and you must play your way back to reality — or die trying.

Lei and her best friend Iris get together at Lei’s house for their traditional game night. But something goes terribly wrong as the young ladies begin to play a board game called Mechant — which translates to “evil” in French. Dark clouds swoop in around Lei’s house as they begin and CRASH — a window blows inward, simultaneously throwing them into darkness.

When they regain their senses, they are in the graveyard depicted on the gameboard, and a smarmy character calling himself the Crypt Keeper beckons them toward the doors of an old mansion. His message is simple: “Play, or die” — or forfeit the game and spend eternity trapped inside the confines of the game with him.

The ensuing action is chillingly vivid as both girls go through Door Number One in search of three keys to be exchanged for freedom if the game’s three levels can be executed successfully. Before they can escape the perils of Level One, however, the Crypt Keeper shows up and demands to hold Iris hostage in exchange for Lei’s life. Reluctantly, Iris agrees to sacrifice her freedom, and the dark figure dissolves, with Iris in tow.

Does Lei fight her way to freedom and rescue her best friend from board game hell? Or does the story simply end on a macabre and ghastly note, with both women doomed to play the game endlessly while they both grow old?

This is a hugely entertaining read, and well worth the price of purchase. Five stars to The Game. Great job, Ms. West!

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Prophecy By Benjamin A. Sorensen

Trust. It’s not a word that’s used idly in this excellent new fantasy novel by Benjamin A. Sorenson. Trust is the currency of the realm in the rival kingdoms of Kaylar and Mandyth. But Jard and his beautiful sister Arana are on the run from a swarm of bloodthirsty Kaylarian Knights, and it’s hard to know who is worthy of trust.

The Dragoncrystal has been stolen by someone who looks exactly like Arana. But the Knights’ modus operandi is to slash first and ask questions later — if at all. To complicate matters further, Arana discovers that she can read minds at will, and always has a devastating green spark ready in the palms of her hands. It turns out to be useful when a Knight gets too close and she slams him through a wall.

Not bad for a diminutive, four-foot-tall blonde who, until recently, was just a simple farm girl.

They escape to the city of Marsa, on the border between the two kingdoms and ally themselves with a storyteller named Telas. But their combined efforts are not enough to throw off their pursuers and they flee with a nomad named Ahl-Jer to the principal city of Mandynth.

Meanwhile, Stalarn — the Knight who was thrown into a wall — and the wizard Lord Dalen are still hunting for Arana, but they are far behind. Stalarn is forced to go his own way, crossing the sea to avoid pursuit by his own order of Knights. He failed in his initial mission to kill Arana and, as a result, his own life is forfeit.

In Mandynth, Arana has been taken prisoner. Jard goes to find her, but at the moment of her imminent rescue, he receives a shock: she doesn’t want to be rescued. The mystery deepens when they escape into a snowy forest and encounter a being who is ages old. He reveals a startling fact: the world is now in mortal danger because of the theft of the Dragoncrystal, and only Arana can help.

This extraordinary story develops quickly and then escalates into a full-fledged saga that keeps readers guessing through endless twists. The characters are skillfully developed, with just enough flaws to make them utterly believable.

The result is a heroic quest by a new, exciting female protagonist. Arana is on a critical mission to avert a new War of the Dragons — a war that could have grave consequences for all mankind — and all the magical creatures we meet in the course of the narrative.

But what if, instead of averting the war, she starts it?

Buckle your seatbelt and cancel your appointments. You quite literally won’t want to put this book down, even to sleep. Five-plus stars to Prophecy, and a thunderous welcome to a dynamic new storyteller.

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Ribbonworld By Richard Dee

There’s something funny going on under the big dome on the planet Reevis. There’s rampant suspicion of Off-Worlders, an ex-con journalist and, oh, yes, that dead body shoved inside the bathroom of a cheap hotel.

This fast-paced book has all the necessary ingredients for a first-rate whodunit — with the added element of being set on a lonely, isolated planet where a local saying sums up the world’s inhospitable nature: “You may use it, or live on it, and even make money from it, but never forget it can snuff you out without a second thought, or even be aware of your passing.”

Miles Gorham originally came to Reevis — also known as a “ribbonworld,” due to an odd swath of barely habitable land that rings the planet — to do a travel piece on a luxury hotel. But his focus quickly shifts to survival as mysterious forces move into play against him.

Who murdered Nic Stavriedies, the local developer who built the hotel Miles has come to review? Who kidnapped Balcom Industries heiress Layla Balcom? And why are the mayor of Reevis City and the earliest planet pioneer so eager to see Miles on the next transport off the strange new world?

The author shows a fine, practiced hand at describing the stark surroundings and the extensive efforts that have been undertaken to make the overall living conditions as close to Terran as possible — right down to the waving fields of wheat growing under the adjoining farm dome.

Miles falls under direct attack while visiting the farm. He and the farm overseer are literally run off the road and are rescued by a passing prospector, a feisty, independent lady who warms up to Miles back at the hotel a bit later in a romantic side plot.

Meanwhile, the nefarious Balcom people, who control everything and just about everybody on the barren world, are busily scheming to take full command, bribing government officials and falsifying documents in partnership with an organized crime syndicate.

Miles is smuggling secret data that will nail the bad guys, but can he get off the planet without getting killed?
This sci-fi story moves quickly, and the technology that supports the domes, and the desolate yet beautiful environment, play major roles during the non-stop action. The writer is almost cinematic, describing the intricacies that keep the residents of the artificial environments alive and productive, providing even rain and gentle breezes.

In the end, justice is served, but not in a way you’ll expect. The author’s talent for storytelling ties up all the loose ends, and mystery and conspiracy buffs will be well-satisfied.

Five stars to Ribbonworld, an ambitious glimpse into a place our great-great-great grandchildren might very well see.

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The Golden Spark By John Allen Royce

Sixteen-year-old Meagan Roberts returns as a doughty groom to a fierce Spaniard in this adventurous tale of equestrian excellence, the sequel to Into the Dark. The fierce Spaniard is no less than Henry Cortes, and the battlefield upon which he rides is filled with screaming Aztec warriors.

For a time it seems the would-be conquerors will themselves be conquered by hundreds of thousands of the Aztec spearmen, who are expert at fighting hand-to-hand. Even Cortes’ superiority in weapons — his men mow down the warriors from afar with cannon and rifleshot — cannot guarantee their victory against the sheer numbers of heathen opponents.

But the tide is turned when thirteen Spaniards, mounted on high-stepping stallions, appear over the rise. The natives have never seen horses before and flee in terror before the advancing cavalry.

Meagan, for her part, simply hides and wishes for a chance to climb aboard El Morzillo — Cortes’ favorite mount and, in all likelihood, a Great Horse capable of transporting her through time.

She goes to sleep in 14th century Mexico and wakes up in a stables stall in 15th century England — mysteriously having slept through the time travel — and soon finds herself the ward of a red-faced, heavyset cook with a rich English accent and an overbearing manner — think Mrs. Patmore on Downton Abbey.

“The cook pushed past Meagan and shuttered the window, snapping the latch closed. The woman’s eye fell on the pot, half-submerged (in dishwater). ‘Not enough to keep you busy, is that the trouble? Start on the stove when you’re finished with the washing.’ Meagan nodded, swallowing at the forbidding black monstrosity being called a stove.”

Meagan, mercifully, winds up in the stables again, then is “adopted” by gypsies after being turned out by the staff of the British manor house. She discovers her Great Horse Nero there, but he is woefully underfed. No time to worry about that, however. She barely has time to get her bearings with the gypsies before she goes to sleep again — and finds herself in Versailles, recovering from ague. She finds Nero in the palace stables, then is invited to ride with the King.

Later, she is “dragooned” into giving the royal court riding lessons, just in time for the St. Valentine’s Hunt. At times, Meagan can barely restrain her exasperation with her dandied clientele.

“In the hothouse of Court life, Henrietta had blossomed into highly obnoxious fruit. ‘Very well, Henrietta. Please stand closer, next to the horse. I can’t throw you up,'” Meagan says crossly.

I won’t spoil the ending by revealing whether or not Meagan gets any closer to her true home in the present day, but suffice to say, there’s still plenty of adventure for her before the end of The Golden Spark.

These stories are so well-written, and expertly edited, they are a pleasure to read. Obviously, the author is himself an experienced horseman, and that intricate knowledge of horses, their habits, and the great love he has for them shines through on every page.

Five stars for The Golden Spark, and eager anticipation for the third book in the Great Horse Trilogy.

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the Split: Part 1 By Noel Thomas Fiems

Aurik hears voices. They’re in his head all the time. It’s weird, but not as weird as when his father can hear his innermost thoughts. He’s got The Change — a worldwide condition of the young, brought on by a thoughtless scientific experiment years earlier.

This is the premise that drives the story of what happens when the earth is kicked back almost a century in technology, forced to live once again by the barter system and constantly on the lookout for the warning signs that signal the DNA resequencing unique to The Change.

Author Noel Thomas Fiems brings a complicated quantum theory backstory to life as we follow a driven, yet kindly, scientist father and his only surviving son, at work in the Adirondack Mountains repairing broken items for neighbors after The Split — the cataclysmic event that is bringing about The Change.

Nineteen-year-old Aurik heads out through the dense forest to The Island, where doctors and clinicians have gathered to perform operations on those who aren’t yet fully consumed by The Change. But will such an operation make Aurik’s voices go away?

While Aurik seeks a way through the mountains, federal forces are trying to collect him for “special” study. It seems his DNA results are worthy of much closer scrutiny, and they’ll do anything to capture him.

Meanwhile, Aurik picks up a couple of traveling companions on the trail, and they all go in search of a guide who can get them through a mysterious forest that stands between Aurik and his destination. Among other dangers, it harbors vicious packs of virulently mutated wolves.

The author turns a good phrase now and then amidst the adventure. He describes the uneasy yet peaceful quiet of the forest that lies ahead of them:

“The sun’s rays sliced through the tops of the trees in the back of the clearing, casting thousands of individual beams. Before hitting the forest floor, they reflected off floating pollen and dust; the air was on fire. The quiet reminded Aurik of the Notre Dame in Paris.”

Why are the wolves hunting Aurik? Their dark secret harbors fierce thoughts of revenge. “The beast landed on the ground quietly. The size of a steer, its tail flicked out behind it. . .”

And what of The Island? Will Aurik and his friends arrive safely? And what will they find there?

Five stars to this diligently-researched, well-written novel that will appeal to YA readers, post-apocalyptic fans, and science fiction aficionados as well.



Britain at War 1939 to 1945 By James Lingard

“Who cares about Poland? Where is it, anyway? What is to become of us?”

So exclaims author James Lingard’s mother at the beginning of the murderous world conflict that would ultimately claim millions of lives on both sides of the Atlantic — and indeed, from both allies and foes alike.

As a young boy in Britain during the critical war years of 1939 through 1945, Lingard and his mother and father endured many hardships and constantly lived in peril, as did all of the U.K.’s citizenry. This is his excellent story, well-researched for historical accuracy, but highly personalized to maintain the interest of even the most casual reader.

Recalling his first air raid, Lingard tells us the first words of an air raid warden, who had been looking for them while they huddled in a nearby wood — survivors of a picnic dangerously interrupted:

“I was about to say you should have been in your shelter. But the shelter received a direct hit. There’s no trace of it. Just a huge crater. You’d all have been blown to smithereens.”

It is war’s capriciousness in dealing out life and death that the author documents so eloquently in this book. Bombs fall in regular and terrifying numbers. The nation’s leaders come dangerously close to making disastrous decisions. And the stalwart British people do what they must to survive yet another day.

On a trip to the shore, Lingard waves happily to a low-flying airplane. Its German pilot waves back. And the small boy narrowly escapes arrest as a spy.

Lingard’s mother frequently listens to the wireless for war news, but is often more captivated by music such as “Run Rabbit Run,” played at a fast tempo to speed up production in the factories.

“We still had no effective answer to the German might. Hitler’s bombers continued to harass us, and he tried his utmost to starve us into submission. In the period May to December, 1940, the enemy sank 745 merchant vessels with a gross tonnage of over three million tons. On 17th to 19th October, German U-boats sank 33 ships, twenty of which were in one convoy . . .”

It is this very attention to detail — combined with the book’s inherent human interest — that elevates it above so many books about World War Two. For me personally, it put a very real face on a dark period in civilized history — a period which I, like so many others of my Baby Boomer generation, only experience through watching dry documentaries on The History Channel.

How refreshing, then, to have this warm and intimate look inside a great nation’s stalwart struggle against almost insurmountable odds — and to rejoice with the author at its ultimate survival.

Five stars to Britain at War, and a hearty recommendation to librarians everywhere to acquire a copy so future generations can become enlightened.

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Young Marian A Viper in the Forest By Mandy Webster

In this excellent YA tale, a teen-aged Maid Marian shows that she is far from the winsome and demure young lady who captures the heart of Robin Hood in later life. In fact, this compelling book gives us an extraordinary look at what might have been the genesis of their relationship — and it’s a story that will capture the hearts and minds of adult readers, too.

We first meet Robin, Marian and Midge as they are scampering to their secret treehouse with goodies they’ve liberated from the castle’s kitchen. Soon, however, things take a much more serious turn as Robin is about to be horsewhipped for interfering with the punishment of a local carpenter.

Luckily, Marian’s father, the Sheriff of Nottingham, intervenes just in time, and the tale takes off from there, with Marian firmly in the lead. She makes a strong female protagonist, and it is refreshing to see this courageous young woman portrayed as something radically different from the passive maiden we’re used to seeing.

Deprived of her mother since birth, she quickly grew into a tomboy — despite the best efforts of Robin’s mother to slow her down:

“The mistress of Loxley took the child under her wing and schooled her in the ways of a lady. (But) Marian knew she would never handle a needle and thread with the proficiency with which she wielded a sword.”

Still, there’s a strong protective streak in Marian when it comes to fourteen-year-old Robin, whose headstrong ways lead him into all sorts of peril. One night she gets wind of his adolescent plot to burgle the home of a neighboring nobleman. She sets off after him, riding in man’s clothing through the night. The author’s description draws the reader into the moment with practiced ease:

“Poppy’s hoofbeats echoed through the lonely laneways. The quiet was briefly broken by the shouts and laughter of the drunken clientele as they passed the brightly lit tavern outside the walls of the castle. Then the sounds faded into nothingness as Marian and her mount sped toward the forest.”

It’s not all midnight rides and swordfights, however. There’s a hint of romance as Marian can’t seem to get the thought of one young man out of her mind — even though she’s been betrothed since birth to Robin. Her conflicting feelings confuse and bebother her.

But a new mystery throws these thoughts aside as the countryside is roused in search of a bold robber, who strikes wealthy homeowners in the dead of night while they sleep peacefully upstairs.

Robin swears it’s not him. But, then, who could it be? Marian decides to find out. But events take an unexpected turn and Marian’s curiosity leads her into a situation for which she is totally unprepared.

This is an imaginative tale with good guys and bad guys, medieval merrymaking and sinister plot twists that will keep you guessing until the very last page. Don’t miss this five-star gem. Download today!

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The Betrayal of Ka By Shea Oliver

Kadamba is a typical teen. He’s about to graduate high school and claim the love of the girl he adores when suddenly his world implodes. One moment he’s selling the interplanetary drug rath to a ten-year-old, the next he’s awaiting sentencing for the boy’s death.

This is the dramatic start to The Betrayal of Ka, and this science fiction thriller doesn’t let up from there to its surprise ending. In between, there is darkness and light, corruption and redemption — and, in all fairness, the reader should know this is NOT a typical, breezy YA novel.

The two planets of Koranth and Zoranth have survived the Exorthium Colonial Wars and have emerged as the primary worlds in this epic tale, connected by interplanetary portals and ruled by ruthless and dominant Corporations.

Tomar Donovackia is head of one of these powerful galactic firms — and he is also a TransProphetic, born with extraordinary mental and physical abilities. “He could move from one place to another in the blink of an eye, including through the smallest of holes, such as a keyhole.”

Celestina Wiroviana is Minister of Interplanetary Corporate Relations — the most powerful woman in a hundred solar systems — and also Tomar’s lover. Together, they are making plans for domination of the universe — including Earth, where Dylan and his younger brother Bjorn live with their mother in the teeming town of Denver, Colorado.

What do all these characters have in common? They are central to the intertwining plot of this fascinating story, which moves from one scene to the next with the speed of a space shuttle.

We find Ka being prepared for transport to the penal colony where he will spend the next twenty-five years at hard labor. It’s painful to visualize the process, which is just the first of many horrific and futuristic scenarios laid out vividly in the book:

“Again he watched as the box began to move backwards out of the stacks of cells. As it had before, the box that he was in began changing and shrinking to become shaped exactly like a coffin, forcing Kadamba into a prone position. The transparent end of the box disappeared, and Kadamba simply lay there, accepting his fate.”

Meanwhile, Celestina Wiroviana has consolidated her military might and become the dominant force on both worlds, stopping many wars and vowing planetary peace. But it’s the beginning of a much larger betrayal — and now Ka is part of it, identified as good soldier material and transferred from prison to a mandatory ten-year tour of duty in the Elite Special Forces.

And what of Dylan and his family? At fifteen he’s found his first love. Adelita, with dark, wavy hair and a timidity that tugs at his heart.

The book rolls on. Celestina discovers a mysterious sword with a storied past, and Ka visits London, Washington, D.C., and Bangkok, searching for TransProphetics — the key to establishing an interplanetary portal and the imminent rape of planet Earth.

What finally happens in this finely told tale? Does Ka continue in his role as elite soldier? Does Celestina find a way to use the fabled sword to strengthen her hold on the planets? And do Dylan and Adelita have even the remotest chance at a happily-ever-after ending to their part in this sweeping narrative?

Five stars for The Betrayal of Ka, and a warning that, as the saying goes, “once you start this book you won’t want to put it down.’

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After Dad By Ralph Cohen

It is 1966 and Frank Kovacek has died of a heart attack, leaving his family to grieve for him — each in his or her own unique way. This is the overarching event that drives this excellent debut novel by Ralph Cohen.

Jenny seems to glimpse her father everywhere, and even feels his hand ruffling the top of her head from time to time. Margot recalls vividly the trip she and her siblings took with her dad to the fishing barge — it left her traumatized for months afterward. And Toby, for his part, feels compelled to visit his dead father’s workshop one day, hoping for a hint of Old Spice, but instead nearly severing his hand with a power saw.

The characters are believable, achingly vulnerable, and the writing in the book is often lyrical — all hallmarks of great writing. For example, Margot’s father explains that July fourth fireworks are to honor fallen soldiers, who have gone up into the heavens to become stars.

“I turned the idea over in my head, and after awhile I could almost picture it — a million sparks flying up into the night, each one a soul that the War had snuffed out.”

And so the months and years go by. Ruth, Frank’s widow, whimpers and cries softly in another man’s bed — it’s too soon, too soon. And Jenny, who has been afraid of boys and men since an unfortunate experience soon after the funeral, finally gets a date, but it ends badly. Margot winds up in a failed marriage, and Toby acts out his anger and frustration by engaging in a round of petty home burglaries.

The loss of Frank continues to leave emotional ripples long after he’s been buried. After going through a particularly rough patch trying to graduate high school, Margot and her mother have a verbal confrontation that escalates rapidly to a painful conclusion for Margot.

“The slap wasn’t so terrible — it only stung for a moment. What hurt was the look in her eyes. It was the same look she used to give Dad at his most shiftless moments.”

The reader follows each of the family members as they stumble and cope their way through life, and we see the profound effect the loss of a flawed but desperately needed man can have on those he leaves behind. This is their story, after all — Frank Kovacek only makes a cameo appearance at the beginning of this hauntingly beautiful, carefully connected series of vignettes.

And, in the end, there is resolution for some, inescapable consequences for others. Trust me, you will remember these players long after they’ve exited the stage and you’ve turned the book’s last page.

I give five stars unequivocally to this fine first effort by Cohen and look forward to more of his high caliber fiction in the future.



The Traveling Man By Michael P. King

Not since The Sting paired Redford and Newman has there been a more perfect con artist story than Traveling Man. It’s got everything: high-stakes swindles, smooth-talking operators, clueless marks, corrupt county officials, plenty of sex — The Sting didn’t have that, unfortunately — and a mobster ready to make everyone go away if need be.

Who could ask for more in the plot of a first-rate thriller? Oh, I forgot to mention the doublecrosses — plenty of those are on tap, too, in this well-written debut novel by Michael P. King.

Tom and Patty Brown partner up with fellow con artist Buddy Ray to construct a land development deal that should net them big bucks, even after giving the current landowners, kindly old Mr. and Mrs. Yost, their share, which, according to the original deal, is half the proceeds from sale of the lakefront property to a big developer.

Problem is, the U.S. Air Force, which leased the land a decade earlier, supposedly left it contaminated, thus making it unsalable without a blue ribbon rating from the county. How do the Browns make that happen? Old story. County official videotaped with his pants down. He’s bought and paid for, and the 40 core samples drilled on the land suddenly are Grade A.

Are you with me so far?

Things are proceeding nicely. Local down-on-her-luck real estate agent Marcie Tolliver is roped in to give the deal legitimacy, but she succumbs to Buddy Ray’s charms — she’s married, by the way — and suddenly a commission prospect becomes an ultimatum to play along.

Wait. There’s more. Patty, not content with her share of the prospective pie, sets up the first of several doublecrosses with Buddy, who is thinking he’s got it pretty sweet, sampling the favors of two lovely ladies and turning a drug deal on the side. Only problem is, he failed to check to see who was behind the adjoining motel room door when the money was dragged out of the duffel bag.

OK. If I tell you much more, I’ll have to kill you, as the old saying goes. But, really, I haven’t given everything away. What I’ve described just takes up the first 23 percent of this fast-moving tale. Trust me, there’s plenty more and it’s not all G-rated highjinks.

To find out the rest of the story — as Paul Harvey used to say — you’re going to have to download the ebook and find out just how twisted a plot can get.

You’ll get more than your money’s worth and find out if these cool, calculating characters get their comeuppance. Stay tuned!

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Mondo Bohemiano By Quentin J. Parker

Nigel Q. Bunnytail is moving to Spokane, and the event has precipitated a national day of mourning at the cafe peopled by the characters he loves most: Kymber “K.C.” Cuccinatta, Bogdana “Bogey” Pahlanovich, Styles Parkwater — all will miss him terribly.

But it’s not just the quirky names and outrageous characters that will capture your heart in this excellent novel. It’s the author’s flawless and masterful command of the English language that you will remember most.

“Like a mercy killing, sleep claimed Nigel before despair did, and he dreamt that he was a monarch being showered with countless precious gems and coins.”

It’s not that Nigel’s friends don’t understand and fully commiserate with his decision to put distance between himself and a critically flawed relationship. Indeed, they wish him well in his new/old pursuit of white-haired therapist Sigrid Andersen.

But the task of severing the ties with Millicent O’Laughlin may yet prove to be his undoing.

“He was convinced that the pinnacle of human evolution was embodied in their bouncing off each other’s sweaty nakedness. They agreed that they were both built for comfort and speed, like plush luxury sedans propelled by advanced alien rocketry. But that was where their compatibility ended.”

The occasion of Nigel’s imminent departure spawns a Bacchalian party of epic proportions that brings in most of his female conquests from the past, and all of his off-the-beam friends — but no sign of the girl with the fiery red hair. Bunnytail is bummed.

At his new job in Spokane his work companions have names like Fiona Buxton and Tisha Fisha. But compared to his Philadelphia cast of comrades they are as tame as — well, the hutch of fluffy bunnies that Sigrid keeps as pets in her apartment. She’s glad to see him — too glad by half.

What’s in store for the big bohemian? You’ll just need to read this erudite excursion into the thoughts and actions of a memorable cast of characters.

Five stars for first-time author Quentin J. Parker. I hope to see more soon!

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The Mine By John A. Heldt

The Mine, by John A. Heldt, is a triumph in storytelling — truly a book you don’t want to put down. This unassuming tale of a brash young man who goes into an abandoned mine in the year 2000 and comes out in prewar 1941 is a classic — a love story combined with outstanding science fiction.

Twenty-one year-old Joel Smith leaves behind a girlfriend, a best friend and an unfinished life that, for him, was just beginning at the start of the new millennium. He arrives in Seattle, his former hometown, straight from the railyards. He has added rail-riding hobo lore to his ever-growing list of new skills.

It is an unlikely place for a love story to have its genesis. He’s drowsing on a park bench — dirty, unshaven, but still apparently irresistible to twenty-one year-old Grace Vandenberg, newly engaged, but nevertheless attracted to the figure reposing in the park.

Joel rescues Tom Carter from a back alley beating and the two become good friends. Tom’s family adopts Joel and even skeptically buys his story about being the wayward runaway son of a Montana rancher.

Things get even more interesting when Joel meets his up-and-coming journalist grandmother, Ginny Gillette, who pins him down one afternoon for the real story. Joel, however, doesn’t stray from his cover and the time-space continuum remains in place — for now.

The author’s easygoing narrative style is flawless. When Ginny suggests an evening at the ballpark where Joel will escort Grace instead of another young woman, a frantic conversation is triggered in Joel’s head:

“He felt as genuine as Eddie Haskell in a heartfelt conversation with Mrs. Cleaver — ‘I’m sorry Theodore can’t join me and Wallace for the game’ — but he did not care. He’d give his left steely for an evening with Blondie.”

Needless to say, the plot thickens as Joel must carefully negotiate his way through his mostly-made-up life story and his strong urge to alter — or at least mitigate — the future. Late in the book, as he contemplates whether he should enlist in America’s desperate fight, he considers a possible future in the Forties:

“He could do what Patrick Smith had done on December 8, 1941, and enlist. But how strange would that be, serving in his grandfather’s war? Would he storm the same beach in 1944 and take a bullet meant for someone else?” The questions leave him breathless, as they will you, the reader, as you follow Joel through the most difficult decision he’ll ever make.

In the end, the author ties the story up with a Hallmark movie ending that you won’t see coming. Suffice to say, it brought tears to my eyes.

I only wish I had more than five stars to award to such a finely crafted piece of writing. Take my advice and download this book today. You’ll be glad you did.

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Walk In the Flesh By Peter Bailey

Neil is the perfect soldier. Especially in those moments when he becomes a psychotic, ruthless killer with preprogrammed nanobots running wild inside his head. This is what makes him truly scary. That, of course, and the fact that he can come back from the dead to kill all over again.

Peter Bailey has done a superb job of creating a thriller sci-fi classic that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the books in this genre. And it’s the added zest of grimly detailed horror that permeates the entire story which, in my opinion, does the trick of giving the novel its uniquely creepy quality.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has seen a nuclear strike on London — which kills Neil’s wife, incidentally — Walk In the Flesh examines just how wrong things could go if overzealous scientists have their way.

There are many reasons to love this gritty read — the author’s unique gift with words and phrases chief among them:

“The slow flow of arterial blood began to spurt as the heart pumped its ten pints over the guests. Soon they would begin to scream and panic would flow through the room like a hot wind. But that did not concern Neil. By then, he would be dead. Again.”

Over and over, Neil’s handlers place him in new hosts whose sole purpose is to get near enough to a world leader to kill him — with extreme and unthinkable violence. Neil, however, retains his personal memories from one host to the next and gradually begins to go rogue.

Meanwhile, Ariana, an Iranian pathologist, is getting closer and closer to uncovering the truth behind these coldly calculated murders But, since she is a single woman in the morbidly male-dominated city of Tabriz, there’s only so much credibility she can hope to muster.

The story takes a series of wildly unpredictable turns as Neil cycles through his murderous roles, and the people he works for start trying to figure out ways to rein him in. Neil surprises everyone when he unites with an unexpected ally, however, and the race to the book’s satisfying conclusion is on.
This is not a story for the faint-hearted. Indeed, some of the clinical autopsy and murder scene descriptions are very well-researched, lending a macabre air of authenticity to many parts of the tale. And Bailey doesn’t hold back when it comes to suspenseful scenes that will leave you gasping for breath.

All in all, I give Walk In the Flesh five stars and look forward to more work from this imaginative writer.

And by the way, this must now be a fully edited and revised edition. I didn’t find any run-on sentences or bad grammar, as some previous reviewers had noted. Just saying that early criticisms can be unwarranted as the author refines his or her work according to feedback.

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Warrior Lore By Ian Cumpstey

Ian Cumpstey’s masterful translation of ten Scandinavian folk ballads will amuse, entertain, and delight you if you are at all into this sort of mythological storytelling.

He has done a wonderful job of bringing these ballads — many of them centuries old — into popular verse form, so even readers like me (I have an English degree, but never got much past Beowulf) can easily appreciate them.

He has even written a brief introduction prior to each one, giving it valuable context and a glimpse into the role each played during the times they were being told in their native languages (around a blazing hearth deep in the Scandinavian woods, one imagines).

I particularly liked the one involving the currently big-screen popular God Thor cross-dressing to retrieve Mjolnir. I can just imagine how movie audiences today would react to seeing their superhero dressed up in a woman’s frock.

The rest of the ballads ranged from cheerful and sunny, to melancholy and tragic, clearly showing that Scandinavian audiences — like those today — appreciated a well-told tale, full of human (and mythological God) triumphs and tragedies.

I give Warrior Lore five stars and recommend it as good reading material to be shared around a roaring fire — now as way back then.

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The Opener By John Triptych

Don Rouse has had his fill of dead-end jobs and failed relationships. Now, if he can only score that easy money that he knows is out there, just waiting for him, he’ll be set. This is the well-written story of Don’s search for that financial windfall, set against the exotic backdrops of China, The Philippines, and a corruption-ridden Thailand.

The narrative, which is terse but compelling, begins with Don and his brother escaping a dysfunctional, hard-luck life in Kansas. Don, with the moral support of a long-time girlfriend, eventually bootstraps himself into a four-year degree, just as the U.S. economy tanks. Desperate for a change of scenery and a new start, he heads to Shanghai to teach English as a Second Language.

For awhile, things go well enough for him to get by, but the seedy accommodations he’s forced to endure lead him to a crossroads in his young life: where is he going, and how will he get there? At loose ends, he travels to Thailand for a brief holiday with his coworkers.

Enter ex-pat Otis and a hulking Brit named Finny, who talk Don into staying in Bankok when his friends — including yet another long-term girlfriend — are returning to their ESL jobs in Shanghai. This is where he learns to be an Opener — someone who spends his days in a vast warren of cubicles, phoning people all over the world and trying to sell bogus stocks and options.

Things go well, and Don is just starting to really get the hang of it when the shop’s owner misses his scheduled payoff to Thai police and they arrive one day like storm troopers to close the place down. Don escapes through a window, drifts around a bit, then jets off to Manila, where he once again tries a fresh start — this time with a woman he has met by chance in a bazaar. Her name is Jessica.

Events begin to unfold in rapid-fire fashion once Don lands in the Philippines. For one, he discovers some very rough customers are looking for him, with the idea that he set up the raid on the Bangkok office. Then, he gets an even bigger surprise — one that completely turns the plot upside down and sideways.

I won’t give away what happens the rest of the way. Suffice to say that this book was written by someone with very intimate knowledge — or great research — of how these “boiler room” operations work, bilking money from people all over the world by phone. They justify their actions by saying that if the poor saps they contact aren’t giving their money to them, they would be giving it to someone else.

The main character, Don, generates a fair amount of sympathetic vibes, so the reader begins to care what happens to him — and plenty does, not all of it good. But by the time the book is over, you’ll never trust a telemarketer again.

I give The Opener five stars as a real page-turner — particularly toward the end as plotlines converge and a mystery is solved satisfactorily. Kudos to the author for writing a convincing who-dun-it, wrapped as the memoir of a self-serving con artist. May I never have to work as an Opener — in this life or the next.

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Roads and Circuses By Tom Mazzone

“If what you want and what you get meet half way, consider yourself a lucky person.” So advises Bernard O’Malley, of the West Dubliner O’Malleys, in this free-ranging, hilarious commentary on life in general, Irish politics in particular, and the goings-on of the O’Malley clan in passing.

Well, really, it’s mainly about eldest son Marcus O’Malley, who slogs his way through boarding school, then law school, with single-minded adherence to another motto of the family: “Inaction will lead to being run over, so keep moving.”

Marcus becomes a celebrated barrister with many calls upon his time and attention. Unlikely events and a colorful cast of supporting characters keep him well occupied. When he’s not roundly defending his bald head against unwarranted attacks by boorish ex-classmates, he’s complimenting his future wife Ciara: “You look nice with clothes on,” he tells her one drunken night at a party.

Eventually, he’s talked into running for political office by a kindly, white-haired gentleman who paradoxically has the pull to make an axe murderer — a persistent would-be client of Marcus — mysteriously go away in handcuffs. For Marcus, life is good in his new role as defender of the downtrodden. He fills every pothole in West Dublin, then sets his sights on higher aspirations.

“The fastest way to a destination in Ireland (is) via a crooked and wide line,” he pontificates, and, after spending years in his first term being a do-gooder, he sets about to drastically change tacks. One whisky-soaked evening he’s watching a documentary on Adolph Hitler and decides the man had the right idea — at least in the beginning. Visions of national pride engendered by fiery rhetoric and an iron fist begin to resonate in Marcus’s befogged brain cells.

But how to go about it and still be adored? He partners with a wide variety of businessmen and real estate developers to substantially remake West Dublin, but his ambitions now include becoming the youngest P.M. in the nation’s history. He can’t do that with nickel-and-dime resolutions and revolutionary land developments. He’s got to have a Cabinet position.

This he achieves smoothly by becoming Minister for Justice and Equality. One of his first actions is to get his sister, Therese, a job in the Passport Office. “This didn’t raise any eyebrows, since nepotism in Ireland was as common as moaning at the rain.”

On and on it goes, as the political intrigue becomes ever more outrageous, and Marcus moves ahead with his plans to assume dictatorial rule by the time he reaches his mid-forties. Among the many new measures he plans to put in place: a Passing Wind / Excessive Gas Tax — twelve cents a fart, levied when outside one’s residence.

The author shows a masterful hand at painting the tomfoolery that oftentimes accompanies political maneuvering not just in Ireland but around the world. His characters are finely drawn and the story never lags — right up to the unexpected conclusion.

Five stars to Roads and Circuses, and to its talented author, Tom Mazzone. I look forward to the next installment of this series.