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California Bookwatch

Volume 15, Number 12 December 2020 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Christmas Shelf Biography Shelf
General Fiction Shelf Historical Fiction Shelf Romantic Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Poetry Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

Growing Big Dreams
Robert Moss
New World Library
9781608687046, $17.95

Growing Big Dreams: Manifesting Your Heart's Desires Through Twelve Secrets of the Imagination provides a spiritual examination of dreams and growth that pair stories, activities, and games with admonitions on how to connect with one's inner creative force to expand ambitions and perspectives. He includes his own influences and thoughts, from his world travels before the pandemic to making exciting discovers based on others' creative imaginations and pursuit of new choices even when under stress. The result is a transformative survey highly recommended for those who would foster imagination, play, and spiritual, psychological, and social development even under duress: a much-needed survey for our times.

The Christmas Shelf

Write Christmas
Thommy Hutson
Rosewind Books
9781645480495, $14.95 Paperback, $4.99 ebook

All Abby Nicholson wanted to do in her life is get away from her small town roots. On the cusp of finally escaping, however, Abby receives an inheritance which ties her even more firmly to the town's future. Accustomed to living her life to fulfill others' dreams, Abby seems destined to never realize her own, but decides to turn the tables on fate and sell her inheritance. However, in true Christmas spirit, fate again intervenes to provide Abby with not just a future portent of what should happen if she decides to leave, but a different way of reconciling her role in the world with her personal goals and satisfaction.

Winter Glen past and present are contrasted in the course of a blend of romance, fantasy, in A Christmas Carol style of writing that provides holiday readers with a gripping saga of a young woman's revelation of what the future could be without her and the magic she brings to the small town. Thommy Hutson creates a compelling holiday story that is highly recommended reading not just because of its seasonal attractions, but because of its underlying message of empowerment and the forces affecting positivity and negative attitudes alike.

As Abby grows and comes to realize how her dreams and her reality can result in a better world for both herself and others, readers will appreciate the beacons of hope that move through her world to reignite the holiday spirit. Hutson's exploration of how not just the town but its driving forces are transformed makes for particularly thought-provoking reading. This evocative, compelling story of transformation and discovery is the perfect seasonal cup of hot chocolate to draw readers interested in both romance and self-discovery. It creates a wonderfully attractive tale reminiscent of a comforting Hallmark movie as it explores how Abby confronts forces of darkness both in this new world and in herself.

An outstanding inspirational read for the holidays, Write Christmas is highly recommended as a panacea for angst in troubled times.

The Biography Shelf

Marylee MacDonald
Grand Canyon Press
B08F7CYSNY, $4.99 Kindle

Surrender is a memoir about adoption, legacy, and repeating patterns of giving up and reconnecting with one's children. It uses the author's experience to explore these themes, from her legacy as an child who tried to justify her adoptive parents' choice to her inadvertent repeated pattern when, challenged by their divorce, she finds herself unwed, pregnant, and in the position of giving up her own child.

The story opens with a powerful revelation: "When I was sixteen and not yet wise enough to know what it meant to have a child and lose him, I surrendered my firstborn son. He was adopted. For the years of his youth, he was my ghost child." Marylee well knew what it meant to be an adopted child: " an adoptee myself, I knew firsthand the difficulties of assembling an identity without the crucial, and missing, pieces that came from DNA. From an early age, I knew I did not fit with the family that had adopted me. There was something inside me, trying to come out. I didn't know what it was, but growing up, I sensed my parents watching and waiting for the real me to emerge."

As readers follow the story of her upbringing, her own pregnancy, and the process of reconnecting with her 21-year-old child decades later, they gain a strong story of family ties, sacrifices, connections, and dysfunctional family scenarios (as well as the adoption process) which navigates psychological and social issues alike. More so than most, Surrender isn't just a singular story of one girl's experience, but includes experiences of others who are also unwed mothers and adopted children. As such, it assumes a broader investigation of the processes and the lasting impact a surrender has on both mother and child.

Footnoted chapter references, tables, and information accompany this memoir, providing backup data for anyone interested in the adoption process's social, legal, and psychological ramifications.

Surrender offers a powerful saga of family and blood bonds, and is highly recommended reading that should be in any family issues collection and on the reading list of anyone interested in the lasting impact of an adoption choice and process on everyone involved.

The Wolves of Helmand
Frank "Gus" Biggio
Forefront Books
9781948677646, $28.00 Hardcover, $13.99 Kindle

The Wolves of Helmand: A View from Inside the Den of Modern War charts the brotherhood of military service experienced by author and U.S. Marine Captain Frank "Gus" Biggio as he services his country, retires from military service into law and builds a family, then re-enlists ten years later, to serve in war-torn Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

There, he and fellow Marines discovered they were on the front lines of instigating a new military offensive strategy that involved the local population in restoring government, ousting the Taliban, and changing the lives of the Afghan people. Readers who turn to this story expecting a chronicle of military engagement alone will find it much more multifaceted than the usual military memoir. Biggio brings to the table a powerful inspection of not just military battles, but interactions with local people (destitute, in this case) and how they build within these people the power and vested interest to take control of their own destinies. It's a story of struggle, courage, and diplomatic efforts that one doesn't usually associate with Marine stories. Biggio adds footnoted research to support his reports and insights about Afghanistan and its struggles.

To call this a military autobiography alone would be to do The Wolves of Helmand the grave disservice of oversimplification. It takes a step back from party line politics and military processes to add cultural, historical, and social influences on battles, strategies, and approaches to fighting. It describes not just events in Afghanistan on the author's watch, but precedents for military conduct in other nations. The result is a hard-hitting, analytical, powerful story that was written years after Biggio's return from his mission. This hindsight adds strength to a story that assesses the hearts, minds, motivations, and effectiveness of a close group of soldiers who strove to make a difference and understand their unique role in the military.

Very, very highly recommended reading, The Wolves of Helmand is a 'must' for anyone who would learn about Afghanistan history, culture, conflict, and Marine operations in the new arena of world war.

The General Fiction Shelf

Stockboy Nation
Thomas Duffy
Independently Published
9798650072775, $10.99 Paper, $7.99 Kindle

In Stockboy Nation, Phillip Doherty has made many big changes in his life, from moving cross-country to marry his long-time girlfriend to returning to a job he once loved years ago. His career is at a crossroads and his future as a writer is questionable when his novel fails to sell, so these changes seem to be appropriate moves for creating a better life. The fact that he's in his 40s is a minor obstacle to his dreams of success on many levels, but Phillip faces a series of challenges to his dreams, from his own approach to life to the addition of new possibilities which conflict with his set course. As old relationships and goals end and new ones appear to be uncertain, Phillip comes to many realizations about his objectives and approach to life and love. This brings readers into a world of uncertainty and change that holds both promise and frustration.

Thomas Duffy does a fine job of portraying the angst, twists and turns of fate and purpose, and changing world of a middle-aged man whose decisions aren't always productive, despite his long-term goals. His character is believable, the life encounters realistic, and the choices and options tumultuous. When the pandemic changes everything in an instant, his world turns upside down in a way that will feel more than familiar to all.

As Phillip finds his life completely transformed suddenly and in unexpected ways, readers will relate to his evolving relationships, changing reactions, and survival tactics. Duffy also paints his romantic relationships with emotionally charged questions about opportunity to ultimate life goals.

Phillip's perceptions of personal and social challenge are nicely contrasted in encounters and dialogues which bring these issues to life. Phillip's crisis is more than that of middle age - it's of life perspective and a future suddenly transformed by crisis. This bigger-picture story, which begins as a midlife crisis and moves into pandemic territory, is highly recommended reading. Where is the purpose in a life substantially revised? Duffy provides a moving story that closely examines breaking hearts, new opportunities, and changed lives. It's just the ticket for pandemic times.

Real Enough
Jeffrey W. Tenney
Independently Published
9798681381174, $12.99 Paper, $2.99 Kindle

Real Enough is a dystopian survival story revolving around four teams dropped into the Canadian wilderness and charged with a survival mission like none other, for a reality show that suddenly becomes too real. As if their task wasn't difficult enough, interpersonal relationships quickly come into play, even though it's been less than two weeks since drop-off. The story reads like a script, complete with introductory show premise, a cast of characters, and chapters that coincide with changing days and viewpoints. This approach both adds drama and ensures that readers don't lose their way in the wilderness of encounters and perceptions as each character finds their skills and ideals tested in different ways. Ironic self-realizations form one of the threads that runs through these encounters as the reality of trying to survive collides with the notion that they can be rescued at any time. When civilized backup vanishes and death visits their efforts, the teams begin to realize that not only has something greater than a reality show happened to the world, but that they may truly be the last survivors, charged with eking out a life in an alien environment they are ill-equipped to handle long-term.

Other novels have explored the idea of the world changing after a group or individual is isolated from it, but Jeffrey W. Tenney adds dimensions that place his story more on the level of the intriguing TV series Lost, where a series of puzzles keeps the characters guessing over not just the world's sudden absence, but an underlying plot or plan that may be influencing their moves and struggles. Real Enough will keep readers guessing about this and other circumstances as each individual finds their abilities and future tested in an unexpected way. The result is a gripping story that moves from the anticipated wilderness survival tale to something more engrossing and unexpected. It's a tale of real survival on a psychological and physical level that tests the humanity of the survivors and their ultimate choices. Fans of Lord of the Flies, The Last One, and other dystopian survival pieces are in for a treat with a tale that includes some elements of these classics (group dynamics and individual pursuits), but probes the unexpected until a conclusion satisfyingly wraps up all the possibilities and ironies of the group's newfound isolation.

Its twists and turns will keep readers guessing and delighted in the tests that keep the group members reassessing their ultimate survival skills and the lengths they will go to when the world changes.

Dead of Winter
Sam Hooker,
Black Spot Books
c/o Vesuvian Media Group
9781645480594, $16.95 paper, $7.49 Kindle

Horror fans of short fiction are in for a treat with the eight stories presented in Dead of Winter, an anthology that gathers experiences set in the dark months of winter when anything can and does happen...and not just holiday celebrations.

Many of the tales begin with the holiday spirit (in more ways than one), such as Daniel Buell's 'The Face Inside the Christmas Ball', which opens with a child's musing about what actually lies inside holiday decorations. A box of ornaments kept in the family for generations serves as a portal of deadly discovery as Joey considers their magic, promise, and perils. This year, Joey's intention to prove Santa's reality to his sister Sammy results in a confrontation with the supernatural as his grandmother's warnings about the magic in the ornaments proves frighteningly true.

Laura Morrison's 'Jolly Old Saint Ryan' is another macabre twist on the holiday season as it follows an odd Santa's encounter with death in a chimney and the unexpected legacy he inherits with the job. As the tale unfolds, his discovery leads to a dark place even seasonal magic can't cure.

For yet a different example of the variety in approaches to this holiday horror theme, take Sam Hooker's introduction to the collection, 'The Watchful Crow'. Here, Orville's role as head of a murder of thieving crows turns unexpectedly deadly when a young girl confronts an old codger and his only friends with a modern magic of her own.

The stories are diverse, unexpected, and solid in their characterization, plots, and evolution. While the pairing of 'holiday' with 'horror' in the short story field is indeed unusual, horror fans will relish the creative results in a collection that delights with its original, thought-provoking creations and twists on holiday themes.

Dead of Winter is very highly recommended reading for fans of horror short stories and seasonal themes.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

When Cities Sink Howling in Ruin
K. Partridge
Argive Press
9780578767895 $TBA

When Cities Sink Howling in Ruin is set in the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age (around 1191 B.C.), when civilizations in the area collapsed over a relatively brief period of time. Troy wasn't the only city that fell in this era, and the story offers a vivid impression of the times, its title promising a flair of language and description that creates thoroughly engrossing events.

K. Partridge uses strong dialogue to open the story, bringing readers into striking, emotionally compelling scenarios from the first paragraphs of the saga: "Heading east, our shabby cargo ship was a cradle rocked by lazy waves. Somewhere else those same waves were bearing sleek warships to glory. My cousin Eurylochos scowled. "Quit staring at the damn water and pay attention, Iakos. You want to become a mariner or don't you?" "Not really." "Well you better start wanting to, or that ballocks-cruncher of an uncle of yours is going to kick your ass off the ship and send you back to the counting house. This is the last time I'm going to show you, so watch and listen."

Local lingo is presented so nicely that terminology such as 'gigglestick' is immediately understandable; the flavor of the times an enhancement and not a barrier to understanding the psyches and observations of characters who become caught up in world-changing events much larger than anything they've ever known.

The main crux of the adventure lies in how the ordinary individual finds himself at in the maelstrom of social, political, and personal change, bringing him to uncharted waters and the potential of a strange new, revised world. How he gets there and what his choices and consequences are when he arrives contributes to a compelling story that weaves historical facts and interpersonal relationships in a uniquely satisfying, powerful manner.

Partridge excels in bringing pre-Homeric times to life in a way that belays the usual historical novel's reliance on dry facts and figures. While known history of these ancient times is woven deftly into the story line, it's the attention to detail that brings this world to life, from the treatments of healers who handle arrow wounds and greater afflictions caused by the clash of men to the struggles faced by Aithon's heir when 18-year-old Lakos of Pylos's uncle's secret threatens to go to the grave with him. As he confronts his true heritage, the young lord faces newfound revelations that introduce choices outside his experience and expectations. Through his eyes, vivid descriptions drive a story line that is powerfully laced with emotion.

More so than most other stories of the times, Partridge's attention to emotional connections and details drives a story hard to put down...a tale of revenge, heritage, cross-cultural interactions, slaves and lords, and what happens when the entire Mediterranean world falls apart simultaneously.

When Cities Sink Howling in Ruin offers a lesson in anarchy and a world in flames that provides thought-provoking reflections for modern times. More than just a historical novel of Troy's downfall (as is usually presented from this time stream), When Cities Sink Howling in Ruin points out the survival instincts, warrior drive, and struggles to ultimately prevail that embraced a number of cities and both civilization and ruin. Presented from the first-person experiences of Lakos, son of Gaphnos, this world could not receive better inspection.

Historical novel readers as well as those with little familiarity with the times or its peoples will find the account drive by battle, honor, and a brand of ethical and moral perceptions of struggle that imparts much food for thought.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Talulah's Pie
Eric Redmon & Felicia Gros
Eric Redmon - Felicia Gros, Publishers
9780578720395, $3.99 Kindle, $14.99 Print

In Talulah's Pie, the prologue states that Marie and Paul lived for eighteen years without each other. This story examines the years that follow, when they do find each other, love, and new lives together. Is it chance, destiny, or determination that creates this foray into romance and relationships? That's what Talulah's Pie is all about.

Paul is in college, pursuing an English major. Marie has her sights set on art. Neither is wild about the fast-paced required course they find themselves forced to take, which lies far from their goals. Both approach the challenging course from very different angles that bring them together in an unexpected manner.

As the story evolves, Marie and Paul find unusual connections as well as major differences in their approaches to life. Paul also comes to appreciate his family and roots more as he faces Marie's angry father and her very different family. As they build a relationship, then a home, and Marie explores her painting abilities, readers are absorbed by the ups, downs, revelations, and choices that confront each character at different stages of their lives.

Eric Redmon and Felicia Gros don't just represent a one-dimensional romance, but devote time to exploring how love evolves and how each individual is changed by the attitudes and pursuits of the other. Redmon and Gros also take the time to explore the overall atmosphere of the South. Cooking plays a big part in many of these descriptions, adding mouth-watering food to the bigger recipe of life encounters and changes.

At the heart of these descriptions is Aunt Talulah's reputation for producing pies that "Kings and Queens come from thousands of miles away to taste." Those are not the only things that Talulah does for the couple, however. Even as her pies permeate their lives and influence their direction, their visits to her establishment change her, as well. It takes only one bite of her pie to addict them.

As Paul's writing and Marie's art winds into the joy and presentations of Talulah's particular talents, readers gain a rich story of interactions on different levels that change all the characters in unexpected ways.

Romance and food are at the heart of this story, as is Louisiana culture - but so is an evolutionary process of love and transitions that touch all the characters to encourage their underlying abilities and blossoming talents. When the winds of change begin pushing Marie away from Paul, Talulah's pies could ultimately save the day. New lives, big possibilities, and Talulah's homestyle manner enhance a Southern-rooted romance story that is highly recommended for fiction readers who like their characters steeped in personal discovery and change, both between each other and within themselves.

Open Heart
Gregory D. Williams
Grand Canyon Press
B08GYCFR9N, $9.99

Open Heart is a romance novel centered in Arizona in the 1970s. It focuses on the love and career aspirations of Gene Hull, who is on the cusp of success as he heads for college and falls in love with a beautiful girl. Juggling romance with a career not even begun is hard enough, but when both fail, disaster strikes. Gene begins to question his motivations, trajectory in life, and the waning opportunities he sees for heading in a different direction than his parents. From his physician father's ability to save the day, which turns into an impossible legacy for his son to fulfill, to the career and love choices that create turbulence and complications in a son's life, Gregory D. Williams does a fine job of capturing the changing options and challenges facing a young man who breaks others' hearts because his own is being wrung by life circumstances and family ties.

Gene takes stock of his future, compares loves present and lost, and tackles the failures in both which seem to plague his life and muddy his purposes, carrying readers into a story that moves between career and romance. Gene's ability to contrast different options and possibilities is particularly well done. As the naked human heart is exposed in more ways than one, readers will appreciate a survey that traverses different circumstances of heart failure and successful survival tactics.

There are no easy answers concluding Open Heart. Gene's world is complicated, whether it's his relationship with a successful father and his expectations or the women he encounters during his evolutionary process. Readers who appreciate stories of young men coming of age against social and family expectations and challenges will relish Open Heart's gentle survey of growth.

Though it's billed a 'historical novel', its primary attraction lies not in history, but in social and love connections which fuel a young man's desire to achieve success on more than one level. Those who seek complex, evocative stories will find Open Heart a powerfully written, evocative journey.

Harvest Moon
Jenny Knipfer
Independently Published
B08H41S8HB, $2.99 Kindle

Harvest Moon is the fourth book in the 'By the Light of the Moon' romance story set in 19th century Ontario, and follows the legacy inherited by Ojibwe Maang-ikwe and her forbidden love. Niin-mawin, also facing condemnation for his decisions, has been raised in the white man's community, separated from his family and his traditions. When the two get together, past and present collide in an encounter with choices and consequences which could either reconcile their hearts or inject further heartbreak into their lives. An opening guide to Ojibwe pronunciation provides a solid foundation for successfully navigating the language peppered within, while the prologue (set in 1862 on a reservation) provides a poignant first-person survey of loss, grief, and pain, drawing readers into events that unfolded ten years prior to this point.

From a carefree wanderer who steals Wiigwass-ikwe's heart with kindness, with unexpected consequences, to a fifteen-year-old's observation of a mission school's construction in 1861, the timeline moves back and forth like a pendulum, making important connections between individuals and community forces. This tactic reinforces the sequence of events that change cultures and lives. As in her prior books, Jenny Knipfer does an outstanding job of cementing place, time, and culture against the backdrop of evolving relationships. These approaches lend a solid feel of authenticity and attraction to her plot to keep readers both educated and engrossed, as spiritual and social matters evolve. From Ontario to Michigan and beyond, characters change, legacies solidify, and the story winds through many experiences as Knipfer builds a progressive saga of heritage's lasting impact on future generations.

Readers seeking a Native-based blend of romance, social inspection, and Christian-based concepts will find the fictional format and inspections form a strong spiritual bond between characters and choices that impart much food for thought. The author's own Native heritage contributes nicely to these elements. This familiarity makes for a story rich in strong characters who struggle with issues of being together, staying true to their beliefs and cultures, and viewing the world - and God's place in it - from powerfully different angles. Harvest Moon is especially highly recommended for prior fans of the series, who will find it an outstanding addition expanding their themes, characters, and spiritual revelations.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The Grassy Knoll: The Other Assassin
E.J. Andrews
Independently Published
9798678660954, $4.95 Kindle

The Grassy Knoll: The Other Assassin takes place in a pivotal ten-year period between 1954 and Kennedy's assassination in 1964, and follows one Ranny Lebeaux's run from the law in a Louisiana swamp and his next ten years, during which he becomes involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's a fast-paced, fictional history of what could have been, opening with an engrossing first-person prologue: "I'm the other guy - the guy on the knoll. That's right, the shooter. I'm 83 years old now...I wanted to be somebody. But that became too dangerous." In setting up this narrator with a series of personal reflections tied to questions about who he is, what he did, and what plot evolved that wanted him dead and led him to a new life, this conspiracy story reaches out and grabs readers from the beginning.

Chapters hold a timeline of dates for easy understanding as the third-person story revolves around Larry Crawford's involvement with Carlos Marcello. Larry (who changes his name to Billy) finds himself delving deeper into politics, illegal actions, and international influences involving payoffs and narcotic activities thwarted by the Kennedys. He's been accepted as part of an organization that will ultimately test his loyalty and skills, leaving behind romance possibilities and a staid life.

The countdown to the climax of events with Kennedy's shooting is nicely done as Larry, Carlos, and others interact with Jack Ruby, Oswald, and well-known historical figures. E.J. Andrews does an outstanding job of blending fictional and real characters into a story that delves into political choices, a cat-and-mouse game between the CIA and other players on the international field, and the motivations of agents and agencies assigned to protect the President and his staff on many different levels.

The intrigue and different conspiracy theory approach is realistic, gripping, and cemented by characters whose ambitions and reactions are realistic and engrossing. The Mob's involvement in the assassination is one of the real possibilities surrounding events, and part of what lends The Grassy Knoll such an aura of reality.

There have been many fictional and nonfiction accounts written about Kennedy's assassination, but Andrews takes the time to craft not just a believable plot, but a close examination of the motivations and special interests on all sides. The result is a thriller made all the more engrossing by its roots in facts. It's a read that historical novel readers and conspiracy theorists won't want to miss.

Michael Craft
Questover Press
9780578721439, $24.95, Hardcover
9780578721620, $14.95, Paperback
B08H43QQV5, $4.95, Kindle

HomeComing is another Mister Puss mystery that revolves around Brody's chatty Abyssinian sidekick, who has a nose for tuna and trouble. It's the third book in the series, but like the others, it stands nicely alone as Mister Puss finds himself tooth and claw in another mystery revolving around fame and sleuthing. The timing seems bad. Architect Brody Norris and his husband, Marson Miles, are about to move into a new house they have been building in the idyllic small Wisconsin town of Dumont. A filmmaker plans a location shoot in town, and that's when Brody and Mister Puss become caught up in something more than cinematic opportunities. Part of the delight of Michael Craft's Mister Puss adventures lies in his ongoing ability to capture the nuances of Brody's life, those he encounters, and small-town living. As a woman's death, an out-of-control kid, and photo shoots clash, the town begins to reel and change as Mister Puss appears to assume a leading role in the production.

Relationship descriptions and interludes provide realistic, loving insights as Brody and Marson prepare for one of the biggest moves of their lives. When missing links fall into place over revelations about the murder, Brody, Mister Puss, and Marson find their lives altered and sometimes threatened by the changes their bucolic town and lives are experiencing. The result is a fine mystery that successfully integrates the evolving relationship and lives of a gay couple, a talking cat, and the conundrums they face in trying to reconcile past, present, and future worlds. Readers of LGBT fiction who love cozy mystery styles with a bit of supernatural cat action tossed in for additional atmosphere will relish the setting, approach, and delightful twists and turns of HomeComing, where Mister Puss truly shines.

Sorcerers' Prayer: Precious Blood
Luigi N. Spring
Independently Published
9798683552237, $9.99

Fans of the first book in the Sorcerers' Prayer series, will find its sequel, Precious Blood, just as captivating; if not just as complex. This is no light read for the cursory thriller fan looking for entertainment, but a walk through Hawaiian culture, legal processes and systems, and the rise of a congregation of true believers whose actions threaten everything. Familiarity with the premise of the first book will lend quick understanding for those who pick up its sequel, allowing for a seamless segue into the lingo, culture, and world of Hawaii, which is an integral part of the mystery and story line.

From Judge Keoni's confrontations with new possibilities to the intrigue and danger that plague his choices and revised life, readers will find just as much to delight in this story's progression as in the introductory piece, which stays true to its complex explorations of Hawaiian history and myths. There's also an unexpected stream of humor often injected into the story that changes reader expectations, providing comic relief and cultural insights, as well. There is laughter and jest even between the Judge and supporting characters, from Jimmy to Uncle Gabe. This sense of community adds to the story, giving it a personal touch that belies the usual procedural approach to mystery, thriller, and cultural explorations.

The story is at once playful, childish, sexually charged, culturally revealing, and intriguing at different points of the story. All these facets might confuse those who anticipate and look for linear thinking and stories; but anyone who has visited Hawaii and is familiar with its culture, language, and the inherent playfulness of many of its peoples will find this story holds satisfyingly realistic elements, for all its complexity. Precious Blood is an inviting follow-up tale that expands the role and purposes of the Judge and his Hawaiian community. Its wealth of characters, Hawaiian words, and mercurial scenarios makes it a highly recommended pick for those with some background in Hawaiian customs, who will find it a delightful blend of intrigue, mystery, and social examination.

Ways to Be Wicked
Jim Christ
Joseph & Associates, Publisher
97808692970133, $12.99 Paper, $4.99 Kindle

A beautiful 17-year-old girl, Usare Garcia, has slipped away from her high school dance, only to be found murdered at another part of campus in a spicy mystery that unfolds against a backdrop of street gangs, race relations, and the special investigative approach of a multiracial school administrator, Enrique Tavish, who himself becomes entangled in the intricate web of deception and debauchery that surrounds the crime. Suspense readers will relish Ways to Be Wicked's interconnected plots as Tavish pursues his own brand of justice, even as he strives to keep his dark personal secrets hidden from those around him. There's a fine mix of plot twists and intriguing characters in this story, which elevates it above and beyond mere mystery-solving.

Tavish suspects a gang called the Levantes as the perps in the Garcia girl's death, and in return, the Lavantes target Tavish and his family for revenge in a fast-paced story that brings Southern Arizona's urban environment to life.

Tavish is not your ordinary hero. He's a flawed character whose relationships with teachers, students and detectives alike are not always in sync with their perspectives or objectives - not just about the murder, but about life itself.

Tavish's determination to solve the crime gets him in trouble every bit as deadly as that of the victim and the murderer. He investigates with a sometimes-amateurish directness, and at first he primarily succeeds in attracting only more trouble, raising issues that the school, the neighborhood, and the community would prefer remain hidden. Just as his own objectives and secret motivations remain in flux, so events affected by revenge and retribution keep pushing him towards an inevitable showdown. Or, is it an inevitable death? One reason the plot, characters, and atmosphere feel so realistic is that author Jim Christ was himself a teacher and high school principal in the region that forms the setting of his story. His ability to capture realistic political, ethnic, and social atmosphere in the course of exploring Tavish's Hispanic heritage, conundrums, and uncertain relationships with authorities at various levels adds a dimension of reality and social commentary to events in the plot. This keeps the story both action-packed and thought-provoking.

Another reason for the powerful result in Ways to Be Wicked lies in Christ's ability to portray his protagonist as a man filled not just with motivation and confidence, but also deep uncertainties. This, too, adds an authentic aura to the murder mystery, giving it an extra edge over traditional genre approaches and reads. Readers who like their mysteries informed by community and ethnic issues, and struggles that depict the fine line between heroes and heretics will welcome the multifaceted complexity that places Ways to Be Wicked on a different level than an ordinary whodunit.

A. Wilson Steele
Mouse Hole Farm Press
9780578758688, $22.95

William ("Zen") operates in two worlds: as a champion horse rider who has found a steed that may propel him into the Olympics, and as an investigator whose team works closely with him to solve mysteries. When their bid on a seemingly invaluable art piece turns into full-fledged danger and intrigue, Zen is called upon to solve an international smuggling mystery even as he faces a crisis on the show jumping circuit that melds both worlds into one big puzzle.

Zen's ability to operate in these two very different arenas, juxtaposing horse showing experiences with the fast pace of an investigation that turns deadly, may initially stymie those who look for a hastier, more casual pace, but Andrea Steele takes the time to carefully craft both worlds. This pays off big, with a sense of place, authenticity, and purpose that would have been lacking in a more cursory coverage of either atmosphere.

Readers receive a fine inspection of choices, purposes, and clashes of personalities, from Val and Trudie's involvement in schemes that ultimately thwart their own best interests to Zen's struggle to keep his meditative personality on track with his ability to both win in competition and solve puzzles that challenge those around him. The steady progression of these special interests and their disparate milieus creates a full-bodied read that is delightfully mercurial and intriguing. Perhaps the story's greatest strength is to pull together the seemingly unrelated threads that wind through the hearts, minds, and motives of not just Zen, but those around him.

Thriller fans seeking a story that operates on many different levels, from career and life fulfillment to love and moral and ethical questions, will relish Zen's special ability to draw its reader into a series of events that solve and create problems simultaneously. It's an excellent probe into the world of art smuggling that adds just enough history to be thoroughly absorbing without requiring any background in the art world. Likewise, no knowledge of horses is needed to appreciate the exciting world of international show jumping - the plot is grounded in an absorbing mystery that will captivate a broad audience. With characters that are at once strong and vulnerable, wise and clueless, and mercurial in their purposes and perspectives, Zen offers a taste of something different.

It will especially appeal to fans of Dick Francis, with its horse-related brand of intrigue.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Tales of Dharma
Jonathan Michael Erickson
Gold Dragon Books
1948746077, $12 Paperback, $3.99 ebook

Tales of Dharma is a prequel to the Song of Ancients series, providing a fine introduction for newcomers and prior fans alike as it expands on events covered in previous books. In the Andromeda Galaxy, early colonists of the planet Dharma have their hands full. The story opens with the planet's discovery, presenting an entry from the logbook of UIG Scout Nathan Vasilevsky in 2425 CE: "I FOUND HER. THE ONE I've been looking for. A true beauty. A gem glimmering in the darkness. It's crazy that I get to name her."

The planet's initial discovery leads to its colonization, but unlike most sci-fi stories of space colonies, Jonathan Erickson adopts a unique format that presents short stories from each colonist's perspective. This both enhance Dharma's revelations and reveals their own choices, motivations, and perceptions for embarking on a cross-galaxy trip. There's the introductory story by a scout who has left behind love and a life as a father and husband to venture into the unknown, for one example. He writes about his feelings to Jade, whom he will never see again. Was his choice worth it? His self-revelations are an important piece of the puzzle of discovery as he realizes that his many preparations can't address all possibilities. Despite his mother being a Buddhist, the only concept which he readily recalls is that of dharma. And so the planet earns a name and, with it, Nathan embraces new realizations about why he left and where he is destined to travel.

The strong first-person usage makes for a perfect introduction, but in true keeping with the changing experiences of the characters, each short story assumes a different perspective and presentation that contributes to a satisfying whole.

Take 'Deanna'. Her story opens in the Dharmic wasteland, where Deanna McCadin and her younger (but aging) husband Tamroh appreciate both the beauty of their outdoors effort and the promise of a relic which has spoken to others in the past. When it begins to speak to her, Deanna thinks she is prepared and is properly cautious. It turns out that she is not.

Each story contributes another piece of the puzzle and background that enhances the other series stories about relics, fate, and survival. The mind-whispering revelations change each character in different ways and adds engrossing adventures and insights that expose the purpose of the relics and their difficult containment.

Deanna and others weave their lives into each other's objectives and experiences as the stories expand the concepts of these mind-talking relics and probe both human and extraterrestrial influences on Dharma. This contributes an involving, evolving probe of belief, technology, and secrets that affect social development and organization alike.

Tales of Dharma is a sci-fi story that is compelling and evolutionary in content. It presents a series of interlinked tales that both contribute to the series and help this book stand alone as a powerful testimony to human endeavors and survival efforts. Tales of Dharma is very highly recommended reading, both for prior fans of the series and newcomers looking for philosophical, psychological, and spiritual depth to their sci-fi choices.

The Further Labors of Nick
Amy Wolf
Lone Wolf Press Ltd.

Book 2 of the Mythos Series is recommended for young adult fantasy and mythology readers, especially those who enjoyed the prior The Twelve Labors of Nick, and continues the saga of the nerdy son of immortal centaur Chiron. Nick is tasked with tackling further Labors when he is transported to the world of Mythos and immediately angers Zeus and Hera, who send him on an impossible quest. Too late, he finds he shouldn't mess with Zeus. He pays the price with an assignment which not only thwarts his attempts to rely on his missing father, but sends him deeper into a world in which his half-horse heritage proves a dubious asset. Finding Helen takes a back burner to completing these added tasks as Nick finds himself not only battling too many mythological creatures, but on the front lines of an effort to save the centaurs, as a race.

Nick's heritage as a half-centaur isn't the only incongruity he brings into this world. His human half is equally at odds with the events that unfold, and nowhere is this as nicely depicted as in the dialogue and thought processes Nick employs to handle all the trials and creatures that he encounters. Hera's unrelenting determination not to forgive Nick's transgressions adds a note of irony and whimsical humor to the story of his trials and tribulations. This will delight teens expecting a predictable story of heroism and achievement. Comic relief combines with a quest atmosphere to attract teen fantasy readers looking for something different - especially those already familiar with Nick's persona and prior quest - who receive another adventure fully in keeping with the prior events while standing nicely on its own for newcomers to Nick's changing world.

Baen Books

These fine new arrivals are top picks for discriminating sci-fi readers. Wil McCarthy's The Wellstone (9781982124779, $16.00) is set in a future world where humanity has eliminated death and conquered the Solar System. Even so, being a child of an immortal parent holds its challenges, especially since the concept of inheritance or loss is gone. Bascal is a prince tired of his dead-end future and world. He's been sent to a summer camp to be away from his parents, but he longs for the kind of adventure an immortal soul doesn't get in this world. When he builds a spaceship and leaves, Bascal and his friends form a force that inadvertently threatens much of the status quo surrounding immortality itself. An engrossing story follows which presents a quest for not just freedom and purpose, but personal identity. Tom Kratman's Days of Burning, Days of Wrath (9781982124762, $25.00) provides the powerful story of politics, father/son relationships, and terrorism's impact as Patricio Carrera's family is murdered, creating a dangerous enemy by not finishing the job to include him. Decades later, war threatens everything as various forces and fleets prepare for war that involves Hamilcar, Carrera's young son, in a mission of revenge and confrontation. The intergenerational impacts and conflicts contribute to a military sci-fi battle encounter that is fast paced and thoroughly absorbing reading.

The Poetry Shelf

Haiku Journal
Trisha Sugarek
Writer at Play
9798674705857, $9.95

Haiku Journal acts as both an inspirational collection of diverse haiku by master writers such as Matsuo Basho and Masaoka Shiki and an encouragement for readers to fill in their own blank books with haiku creativity. It pairs lovely black and white drawings with examples of the diversity that can be incorporated into the traditional haiku form.

Where creative writing books might focus on the three-line stanza approach of its poetic structure, Trisha Sugarek provides a deeper interpretation of what makes a haiku piece stand out: "A haiku is a way of looking at the physical world and seeing something deeper, like the very nature of existence. It should leave the reader with a strong feeling or impression. Traditionally the natural world is mentioned." She also includes works by master poets which didn't always strictly adhere to the 5/7/5 haiku foundation because "They were too beautiful to ignore and not be included." This note advises readers that there is an attention to excellence, here, that goes beyond strict regimentation.

Any poem that is uplifting, beautiful, and an example of unique expression is included, such as this: "Well, what must we think of it?/From the sky we came./Now we may go back again./That's at least one point of view." --Hojo Ujimasa. These works appear alongside lined blank pages that encourage readers to become writers through example.

The poems are juxtaposed with tips on how Sugarek chooses to write, including creative writing and history information that supports various approaches (i.e. producing a complete poem in three sets of three lines, known as Renku). Sugarek's own poetry is juxtaposed with verse and free verse from others, adding just the right blend of encouragement and a flavor of diversity to a haiku journal that serves as both an encouragement and an example.

Wannabe haiku writers looking for inspiration could not find a better wellspring of support than in Haiku Journal. Its format and presentation lend to not just inspiration, but creative effort.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
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phone: 1-608-835-7937

Diane C. Donovan, Editor & Senior Reviewer
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phone: 1-707-795-4629

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