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California Bookwatch

Volume 17, Number 12 December 2022 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Biography Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Romantic Fiction Shelf Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf
Literary Studies Shelf    

Reviewer's Choice

California Land Use & Planning Law, 38th edition
Cecily Talbert Barclay, author
Matthew S. Gray, author
Solano Press Books
9781938166389, $130.00, PB, 693pp

Synopsis: For more than 30 years, "California Land Use & Planning Law" has provided a succinct and definitive summary of the major provisions of California's land use and planning laws and has been cited by the California Supreme Court and numerous appellate courts as an authoritative source. Now in a fully updated and expanded 38th Edition, "California Land Use & Planning Law" by Cecily Talbert Barclay, Matthew S. Gray, and seven other contributors, continues to be the essential reference on the subject and a critically essential addition to professional, community, governmental, and academic library Land Use/Urban Planning judicial and strategic collections.

Critique: Comprehensive, authoritative, exceptionally well organized and presented, this 38th edition of "California Land Use & Planning Law" from Solano Press Books is an essential and core addition to California land use reference collections both public and private.

The Biography Shelf

Family Matters
Lance Lee
LWL Books
9798218025397, $34.99 Hardcover/$14.99 Kindle

"Family Matters: Dreams I Couldn't Share - And How A Dysfunctional Family Became America's Darling" covers several generations of Addams family dysfunction and ties from 1865 to 1971, surveying interlaced dreams, failures, and transformations.

The vast stretch under examination allows for a focus that departs from the usual family memoir by considering the myths handed down between generations and how these perceptions were not only transmitted, but broken. More so than most, Lance Lee pinpoints how myth and falsifications "found a permanent place in our collective psyche" and transmitted damage from past to future until its grasp was finally identified and the trajectory altered.

Many words of philosophical and psychological wisdom permeate this account: "Truth can't be taken for granted; it can be overexposed. It can require nurturing. Yet at other times it can strike with the force of revelation and we realize it was always there, only waiting for the right time. But there aren't any guarantees about there being a right time, are there?"

The appearance of "Family Matters" proves there is a right time, represented by its very incarnation beyond family boundaries and into book form for the reading public to absorb and learn from. What begins as a singular family experience evolves into precise descriptions of dysfunction, myths, and magical thinking that centers on the author's parents and siblings that reflect on how these traits and perceptions were handed down and incarnated between generations.

Illustrative material that might have made the book too weighty or expensive are provided through an online link that further enhances the story's impact. As readers absorb Lee's family dreams and disparate myths, they will be prompted to consider broader questions about public and private personas, the promise and lure of new beginnings, and opportunities tinged by past experience.

Lee takes the time to produce bright, flowing descriptions that attract readers to this world and its evolutionary process. From emotional black holes of disconnection and their involvement in the popular TV show The Adams Family to how the show reflected some of the family's dysfunctional operations, the swings between private anguish and public representation are especially well done.

Of particular fascination to psychology readers who are interested in both family dynamics and media representations are the astute comments and connections Lee makes in this area. While the result will attract libraries strong in psychological profiles of family dysfunction, it also is very highly recommended for media studies students and libraries interested in the psychological entanglements between creative representation and dysfunction. It took a traumatic break to shake the roots of this family tree.

"Family Matters" will ideally earn debate and discussion in book clubs and psychology groups devoted to family issues and popular culture movie and film analysis alike.

The General Fiction Shelf

Holy Parrot
Angel A
Angel's Leap
9780987622259, $5.99 Kindle

In Holy Parrot, Maria is a pregnant teen virgin and the possible future mother of a legend. Angel A sweeps readers into this multifaceted story with a plethora of insights that reveal just how special Maria is, opening with Maria's pregnancy and thwarted attempt to marry in order to preserve her reputation and name.

As events unfold in Buritaca, a small fishing village in Columbia, they are narrated from the point of view of Leonard Lumiere, an undergrad science student who meets Maria and comes to adore her. Leo's job is to "to discover something special in the region," but he had no clue that this special discovery would involve both genetic research and a possible religious second coming event. Leo's initial mission is clear: he's to find out why the people of this particular village live so long.

The answer is not the science-based reality he's come to embrace, but offers powerful insights into life, death, and spirituality as Leo probes this "blue zone" for its secrets (blue zones are defined here as "regions where the resident population appeared to live long, healthy lives beyond the normal expectations of other world territories.").

As Leo's involvement with Maria challenges his science, his perceptions of God, and his other relationships, Holy Parrot embraces a myriad of thought-provoking themes that weave an intense story of closely-held secrets, truths and lies, social and cultural changes, and one young girl's world-changing mystery. Maria's evolving mystique captivates a growing, wide audience as Leo learns from her, supports her, and takes bigger risks than he's ever made before in his life.

Angel A creates a compelling story replete with life-changing moments and revelations. The tension is as well-developed as the captivating aura surrounding Leo and Maria and the paths they forge that change belief systems and values alike. Spiritual readers who enjoy stories of beacons of hope, paradigm-changing experiences, and social and personal transformation will find Holy Parrot vivid and involving.

While libraries strong in spiritual novels will be the ideal audience for Holy Parrot, it should also assume an active role in any book club or reader group interested in the intersection between science and faith, the resulting drive for a better life, and the miracles that can power such convictions.

Lying Eyes
A.K. Kulshreshth
Balestier Press
9781913891374, $13.99 USD/$11.99 GPB

It's easy to see why Lying Eyes was longlisted for the Epigram Fiction Prize 2022. It represents the intersection between past and present worlds which brings narrator Ah Ding into new possibilities at a pivot point which may portend the end of life. The culture, atmosphere, and backdrop of Singapore permeate this story with a sense of place and purpose that draws even those unfamiliar with the region into the fold of realization and understanding.

As the past returns to suffocate Ah Ding, an uncertain future looms, negating the thought that he will simply "glide into a peaceful death." The process of his self-inspection moves between first-person observation and third-person description. As Ah Ding moves through past and present and negotiates revised perceptions of his love, life connections, and life's meaning, readers are brought into a milieu of festering secrets and evolving conundrums.

Lying Eyes cultivates the ability to inspect one man's life trajectory through various intersections of experience. It is especially strong in its representations of different characters and cultures that interconnect and grow, from Ah Ding to the Chengs, Colonel Oishi, and others who confront and influence the changing face of Asia from the 1940s to the 1970s.

From inequality and racism to relations between men and women and the perspective of hindsight provided by an elderly narrator, A.K. Kulshreshth provides a vivid inspection of a region buffeted by the tides of change.

Readers of Asian fiction and culture will find the emotional, cultural, and political tides of the region are astutely represented as the novel traces the changes characters experience as their world vacillates flux: "Singapore in those years was no place for kind men." The mirror Ah Ding looks into is one that affects not just his perception, but proves to be a looking glass that also reflects a changing world.

Libraries who choose Lying Eyes for its astute historical journey through Singapore and Asia's changing socio-political milieu will find this story a literary achievement of social inspection that provides enlightening, thought-provoking, and hard to put down.

Ten Thousand Rocks
Ndirangu Githaiga
Bon Esprit Books
9781735041728, $12.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook/$19.95 audio

Ten Thousand Rocks opens with a thought-provoking prologue in which Will and Laura comment on the logic of a man convinced the ocean is evaporating because the earth is heating up. Additionally, he believes that dropping a rock into the ocean daily can save these vanishing seas, empowering his belief with a special flavor of wild explanation that pairs brilliance with illogic.

This peculiar form of life inspection is also what drives the characters in Ten Thousand Rocks with a unique transformation that takes place when Will and Laura move to his hometown to confront in-laws who didn't even know he'd been married for eight years, much less to a white woman. The sounds of pebbles and rocks striking the wider oceans and undercurrents of change continue as an accident both brings together and threatens to separate an already-divided family and couple teetering on the brink of emotional disaster.

As Ndirangu Githaiga pursues this saga of lives under siege, readers receive an intensely emotional and reflective story of divisions, reunification efforts, and unexpected changes in life that continue to resonate with challenge. Pushed to extend their strengths and abilities beyond their comfort zones, each character finds a way of coping with life's adversity. As recovery on a physical and emotional level evolves, readers are treated to an absorbing story of transformation that operates on psychological, philosophical, and creative levels, bringing each character full circle into a different way of viewing and interacting with one another.

These psychological observations are nicely presented, with the growing tension between Will and Laura illustrated in realistic detail that draws readers into their thoughts and dilemmas. Disability heightens dangerous undercurrents of anger and resentment, and is portrayed with a sensitive and enlightening hand that keeps readers immersed in the various life changes that force the characters to adapt. As the tides of a threatened ocean move through these experiences, readers will appreciate the literary reflections that supplement these psychological conundrums.

On its surface, Ten Thousand Rocks would seem to be about a couple's tempestuous transformation. But, look beneath these stormy waters to find a summary of life encounters that is compellingly presented and thought-provokingly analyzed. Libraries looking for inviting stories of cross-cultural encounters and family ties will find Ten Thousand Rocks a winning acquisition.

The Prodigal Daughter
Maria Ereni Dampman
Lickenpoodle Press
9781737177029, $19.95 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

Book 2 of the Daughters of the New American Revolution series, The Prodigal Daughter, opens with a potent first-person sense of place and purpose that will draw prior fans who have read The Governor's Daughter to Emma's new dilemma: "I'm face-down in slimy, putrid mud with the thick sole of a soldier's boot lodged between my shoulders. A dozen or so sweating, panting servicemen surround me, their weapons aimed and ready to fire. Judging by their muttered oaths and eager taunts they can't wait to pull their triggers and reduce me to a wet stain on an already sloppy and water-logged mountainside. Part of me understands their fury. They believed us to be easy pickings. They thought we would just politely give ourselves up without a fight. They never expected us to run. They never dreamed I'd give myself up to save the men I was with."

Readers will welcome the ongoing mix of dystopian setting and the political and social struggles that have led Emma to sacrifice herself to allow her brother and husband to escape. Emma is realistic about her prospects for survival. But, within the tumultuous world of this dystopian future lays the lure and cross-connections of political purpose that offers new promises, possibilities, and different anguish to a prodigal daughter. Even one who resists her heritage and the efforts of her angry father, Interim Supreme Archon Edward James Bellamy, to draw her back into the fold of an increasingly repressive regime.

Readers of The Governor's Daughter will find this sequel thoroughly engrossing, expanding Emma's character, intentions, and the choices and consequences that bind her to her father. The question of whether she will cave in and sacrifice an entire community to save those she loves injects moral and ethical conundrums into a plot that is nicely entwined with many surprises readers won't see coming. As Emma's courses of action changes lives and hearts, readers will be drawn to a world replete in not just adversity, but love. Steamy sexual scenes, graphic battles, and psychological twists mark a tale that grips strongly on different levels.

Readers of The Governor's Daughter who appreciated its special delivery of a dystopian power struggle will find The Prodigal Daughter marked by the same attention to juxtaposing strong characters and political processes as its predecessor. Libraries strong in dystopian political fiction who look for engaging and powerful female characters will welcome The Prodigal Daughter's opportunity to involve a wide audience in new dilemmas, action, and love.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Make Me Whole
Angelina Disano
Disano Dreams
9781737761235, $14.95 paperback/$4.99 ebook

Make Me Whole is a romance story that probes Grace O'Leary's close-held secret, which is the reason why she doesn't pursue romantic entanglements or relationships. Even with attractive, perfect men like Joe Mura, who has also been avoiding commitment - until he meets Grace.

Together, the two represent a fire of contention and possibility that flames high. Their deadly combination of attributes creates an attraction that defies either secret-keeping or closely held notions of safety and achievement.

Angelina Disano shifts the viewpoints between these two disparate characters to balance their psyches, perceptions, and lives. As their trajectories continue to dovetail in unexpected ways, the layers of defense each have built over their expectations, desires, and personal strengths (which represent walls as well as bridges) begin to fall.

Grace finds herself wanting to reveal her lifelong secret to Joe, unburdening herself and making herself especially vulnerable for the first time. But she is better at evasion than confession, and she suspects that if she does come clean, Joe will be out of her life forever. As much as she doesn't want him close enough to discover the secret that cloaks her life, she also doesn't want him to leave.

Disano's ability to contrast two seemingly disparate lives to bring forth the similar concerns, limitations, and the objectives that power them lends to a story of coming together, immersion, and discovery. Romance readers will find the relationship's currents and changes contrast nicely with the concerned friends who want to contribute solutions to an impossible dilemma.

As Grace's fear that she will be treated differently if her secret is known seems to come true, readers will find themselves mesmerized by the process of Grace's growth and self-realizations about not only her own life, but her choices and involvements with others.

Disano creates a story of revelation and love that tugs on the heartstrings. Make Me Whole's ability to resolve dilemmas between two characters that are equally powerful and resolute makes for an appealing tale of coming together and breaking apart. This makes it a strong attraction for libraries catering to romance readers. This audience will find the concurrent story of growth experienced by both characters to be particularly powerful and revealing.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Christmas in Newfoundland 2: Memories and Mysteries
Mike Martin
Ottawa Press and Publishing
9781990896033, $19.00

Christmas in Newfoundland 2: Memories and Mysteries blends the cozy mystery with seasonal holiday celebrations in another Sgt. Windflower collection that builds on the first Christmas in Newfoundland book, offering more experiences. These will prove especially inviting to both prior Windflower mystery readers and newcomers unused to finding a seasonal theme blending mystery with holiday backdrops.

Here, the magic of Christmases past and present mingle with a sense of place and purpose to capture the season not just through Windflower's eyes and experiences, but from the perspectives of his two little daughters. This lends a special flavor to the collection which represents more than mystery alone -- and more than seasonal reflections, as well.

From Winston Windflower's very first Christmas as part of a couple and his wife Sheila's passion about the season to the process of creating new Christmas traditions, Mike Martin juxtaposes warm memories and relationship-building with the standard Windflower penchant for investigating trouble. These create an intriguing and satisfying juxtaposition between acts of kindness and relationships that grow new connections over the holiday season.

These traditions and memories are personal, and embed their own special brand of holiday warmth into their descriptions: "There were toasts to dear departed Dad and to Mom for an excellent turkey. To the turkey for being a willing and tasty participant. To Linda and her mother for accommodating our Christmas cooking crisis. And cheers when the Christmas pudding was set alight at the end of the meal." The result is a series of vignettes that celebrate the season while expanding Windflower's personality, approaches to life, family connections and experiences, and the Christmas season's ability to introduce new opportunities.

Libraries will find an excellent choice in Christmas in Newfoundland 2: Memories and Mysteries. It's a collection in which the mystery takes second place to the memories and connections. And, after all, that's what Christmas is all about: "Christmas taught us a few things. First, don't take things for granted. Things that you rely on may not always be there when you need them. Secondly, that you really don't need much to have a good time or a great Christmas. Finally, never underestimate the power of friends at Christmastime. Or maybe all year, for that matter."

Lee Chappel
Bleau Press
9781951796143, $12.99 Paper/$3.99 ebook

Beth Sullivan has the life she's always wanted. She has love, a new marriage to David Cheshon, a beautiful new home, and is awaiting their first child. The last thing she expected was to become a murder suspect.

"Trust" explores this event when she is thrust into a world of danger and deception which is apparently being fueled by her biggest decisions. Her best friend Abbie Barnes believes her, doesn't quite trust David, but is facing big changes of her own, in the romance department. Her problem? Adam Foy is not only the prosecutor in Beth's case, but appears to harbor his own ties to the Cheshon family.

Adam can't afford to have questions sullying his reputation, so he taps Sargent Tara Williams to help him keep the case out of the public eye and on track. The last thing Abbie wants is to see her friend wrongly accused, her life in shambles. The last thing Beth imagined for her future was a stint in jail. The last thing Tara wanted was a high-profile murder case, replete with special interests and influences, shoved into her lap in her first months of a new job. But all three find their lives in shambles and challenged as events unfold from different perspectives.

Adam always thinks things through. But, perhaps he hasn't thought about this case enough, because as the problems escalate, he finds himself caught in the middle between several impossible situations that hold no clear avenue of resolution. Did Beth kill her sister? Could this have been predicted? Would Beth's death resolve matters and close the case? A host of characters, from David's mom Gail to Larry, Janet, and Zack, find their lives are also caught up the drama that spills from Beth and David's union and lives.

Trust between friends, lovers, and family members lies at the heart of a story that tests connections between all kinds of people as the saga unfolds. The strong characters interact with one another logically and emotionally, driving the story and supporting the mounting intrigue surrounding Beth's involvement, choices, and her conundrums.

Lee Chappel presents an engrossing analysis of truths, lies, and the murky waters that lie between them. The mystery that unfolds in Trust is high recommended for its psychological, legal, and interpersonal intrigue, which asks important and thought-provoking questions of not just its major players, but its readers. Libraries looking for strong novels of love, heartache, loss, guilt, and redemption will find all these elements make Trust a thoroughly engrossing read filled with satisfyingly unpredictable twists and turns.

Pilot Who Knows the Waters
N.L. Holmes
WayBack Press
9781735291673, $5.99 ebook, $14.99 pbk

Pilot Who Knows the Waters is Book 6 of The Lord Hani Mysteries series, providing a historical mystery and suspense piece that will attract newcomers as well as prior fans of Lord Hani's uncanny ability to get into (and out of) trouble. Here, Egyptian diplomat and investigator Hani faces a political conundrum. He's charged with secretly obtaining a Hittite bridegroom for Queen Meryet-amen despite the opposition of forces who would do anything to prevent this.

Family, politics, and ambitious murderers collide in this Egyptian mystery, set in 1335 BC. An introduction of historical notes offers newcomers and mystery fans background information about the times and its symbols of power, while a list of characters and glossary of terms eliminates any possibility of confusion over the many influences affecting Hani's decisions and world.

While these introductory segments may feel daunting to casual mystery readers looking for immediate immersion in action, they prove essential to understanding the plot, which is both satisfyingly complex and inviting for its foundations in historical facts. Hani's world opens in the spring. He reflects that all seems well in his life: "Despite Hani's misgivings about the politics of the kingdom, he had to confess life was good. The harvest would be rich that year. His granaries would be full. He might even have to build another one."

This neatly segues into a sense of dread and doom as political pressures and events lead Hani into an unexpected series of challenges that pose Egypt on the brink of war. Only his efforts to solve the mystery can keep his nation and loved ones from chaos. The juxtaposition of mystery and history is nicely balanced in Pilot Who Knows the Waters. Readers of both genres will find their intersection in Hani's investigations and involvements to be particularly well done. The flavor of the times and its political and social changes is steeped in Hani's efforts in a way that both educates and entertains.

The result is another Lord Hani novel that stands nicely on its own, while adding to the series as a whole. Libraries looking for powerful intersections between mystery and history need look no further than Pilot Who Knows the Waters to satisfy this need.

A Diet of Death
Jinny Alexander
Creative James Media
9781956183863, $4.99 Kindle

A Diet of Death is a cozy animal mystery set in the small Irish village of Ballyfortnum that revolves around dieting, death, and dogs. It also revolves around (and opens with) food, as Jess helps herself to food at a wake and listens to Kate complain that three of her students have already dropped dead. Fletcher, Snowflake, and other pets are as involved in matters as the diet focus of the local slimming group which is seeing its members succumb unexpectedly.

Jess suspects a murderer is at large, but she has her hands full trying to convince authorities that this peaceful small village may harbor a threat. Jinny Alexander embeds her murder mystery with the satisfying atmosphere of rural Ireland. This comes to life as Jess navigates murder and the village's culture, with precise descriptions permeating the story of a growing threat.

From Jess's absent love life to a series of lively older characters who are meeting their maker too early, Alexander cultivates a wry observational style that brings not only the dilemma, but the small town to life: "You can't lock yourself away in a dead-end street full of old ones for the rest of your life." With cat captures to dogs and a trail of treats and intrigue, Alexander builds a warm story based on not just murder and mystery, but personalities who have formed connections and habits that lead to satisfying lives.

The result is a cozy mystery packed with animals and intrigue that, most of all, excels in a warm sense of place and purpose lending to the underlying conundrums. Cozy mystery readers who enjoy stories of friendships and murder possibilities will find A Diet of Death unusually strong in its atmosphere, which does equal justice to both the murder mystery component and the entwined lives of a small village which provides a satisfying backdrop for retirement and friendships.

Dead Winner
Kevin G. Chapman
Independently Published
9781958339053, $4.99 ebook/$14.99 Paper

Dead Winner's mystery opens with a call that involves Rory McEntyre in a suicide. Tom was his old law school classmate, and Rory was a groomsman at Tom's wedding to Monica Bettger eight years earlier. The couple was just in his office three days ago. Suicide was the last thing on anybody's mind - or so he thought. Now it's the first thing he thinks about daily as he embarks on a mission to solve a death whose cause feels impossible on too many levels.

Complicating matters is a winning lottery ticket that seems to place Monica in the crosshairs of suspicion. But, Monica was his old flame - she couldn't have committed murder. Or, did she? As he is forced to probe deeper into their relationship to uncover facts about Tom's questionable business practices while the winning ticket disappears, too many possibilities arise that swirl around Monica and Tom. These place Rory in uncomfortable, changing positions as he defends Monica on several levels but begins to feel that he is being pulled into a puzzle beyond his ability to solve.

Kevin G. Chapman's story is as much about entangled relationships and perceptions as it is about solving a crime. The attention to revealing personal details, motives, and relationships makes for an involving murder mystery that engages its readers on many problem-solving levels. As loner, Rory finds himself more connected to his former flame's life than he ever could have imagined, while readers gain a sense of his proactive attitude not just towards crime, but life: "...the more we prepare for different situations, the better we'll be able to deal with whatever does happen."

Rory excels in anticipating many scenarios. But perhaps his great challenge lies in preparing to revise his relationship with client and past love Monica and his ideas of who she is and her relationship with Tom. As Rory becomes more deeply involved with Monica's dilemmas over money management, vanished lottery tickets, and a huge sum of money, he finds himself inadvertently taking charge on a level beyond the usual attorney-client relationship.

Chapman's story features many satisfying twists and turns that seasoned crime readers might anticipate, but most won't see coming. Rory has back-up help, and their interactions prove essential to solving the surprise that places Rory in a life-threatening position. Mystery readers who look for more than whodunit elements will find Dead Winner compelling. It takes the time to build relationship puzzles into its overlying mystery; creates a strong, likeable, but flawed character in Rory McEntyre; and develops realistic atmospheres to support its action and inquiries.

Libraries seeking stand-alone investigative stories that excel in interpersonal action as well as crime-busting events will find in Dead Winner a winning ticket.

Azabu Getaway
Michael Pronko
Raked Gravel Press
9781942410287, $18.99 Paper/$7.99 Kindle

Prior fans of Michael Pronko's Detective Hiroshi Shimizu series and the four books chronicling his adventures as well as newcomers (especially those who harbor a special affection for Japanese backdrops) will find this fifth adventure mystery, Azabu Getaway, a compelling new story.

An introductory list of characters enlightens newcomers to the major players in these events, which open with a break-in: "Patrick Walsh waited outside, tired of the cold, of the dark, thinking it through, worried that the key wouldn't work. In case it didn't, he'd brought along a mini cordless drill, three sizes of drill bits, a screwdriver, a pick, and needle-nose pliers packed into a drawstring bag. He'd watched a few online videos on how to ream out a lock."

Michael Pronko slips the atmosphere of urban Tokyo into subtle observations which educate those unfamiliar with the city's culture, setting the stage for the challenging mystery that evolves as Detective Hiroshi investigates the disappearance of two girls from the home of a financial manager, and the murder of a wealth management executive. Tracking the trail of financial clues leads to Hiroshi's better understanding of Tokyo's undercurrents of money and mayhem, drawing him into murky waters that seem to lead away from his investigative strengths and into financial circles he navigates with increasing alarm.

Pronko's juxtaposition of the investigative mystery and Tokyo's atmosphere is as delicately wrought as in his other stories. This means that readers receive wonderful interludes of description that embrace not just Tokyo's atmosphere, but relationships and work conducted in that city. From physically diminutive but effective female new detective Ishii to new complications that Hiroshi experiences with his girlfriend Ayana, Pronko creates a multifaceted mystery. It draws readers on many different levels, icing the cake with Tokyo's social and political atmosphere to make its financial circles feel realistic, lively, and fraught with danger.

As Hiroshi's homicide team confronts the outcome of greed and deception in different circles, readers receive a story that embraces many layers of discovery as Hiroshi moves through his private life and professional worlds with a growing sense of dread. While mystery libraries and readers will choose Azabu Getaway for its strong trail of revelation and financial misconduct, it also should attract readers not normally drawn to mysteries, who harbor a special affection for Japanese culture and urban backdrops. This audience will find much to appreciate in Pronko's exquisite rendition of Hiroshi's latest investigations in matters of money, mind, and heart.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

The Shadow of War
Timothy S. Johnston
Fitzhenry and Whiteside
9781554556007, $21.95

The Shadow of War opens somewhere in the Pacific Ocean in January, 2131; but the timeline that begins in 2020 (with the note that global warming is rising, but nothing is being done to combat it) sets the stage with notes about the strife that has evolved since.

People have begun living on the ocean floor after markets crashed and the land dynamic radically changed both physically and politically. What remains a constant are the rising national tensions that evolve as the oceans are claimed in a new way and borders bump up against one another. War is in the air. Or, more specifically, under the waters, which simmer with the frustrations, dreams, and the usual trappings of mankind that include ambition, murder, and new weaponry.

From entwined underwater colonies that face rising disparate interests from struggling surface nations to operatives on all sides that vie for a new underwater weapon that will prove as deadly as any nuclear force, Timothy S. Johnston injects the same special blend of nonstop action and techno-thriller elements into this story as in his previous writings.

From submerged military bases and tsunami studies that are increasingly pertinent to this new world to covert actions that affect humanity's ability to employ technology to survive rather than to kill, Johnston weaves an engrossing tale that opens with third-person description of an Indian Ocean setting and history, then moves to the more personal observation of the first person usage and a Gulf of Mexico backdrop. From the start, Johnston's ability to capture high drama and emotion offer captivating scenarios.

The story unfolds from the perspective of Truman "Mac" McClusky, a young mayor of the underwater city of Trieste who's also secretly a Director of Intelligence charged with staying one step ahead of enemy nations. The shadow of war also holds the same shadow of death that affected his early life. It's a mission he's lived with as a family inheritance as the world seethes in and responds to climate change and reinvents its cities and lifestyles. As his relationship with sibling Meg becomes embroiled over issues of who to trust and who might betray their cause, personal and political struggles come to light that pressure each of the characters to betray their own special interests.

Johnston masterfully weaves these conundrums into bigger-picture national and international thinking, setting all struggles against the specter of new world orders that seek not just to define humanity's future, but direct it. As interpersonal promises collide with political maneuvering, the story evolves a thought-provoking progression whereby the individuals who trust and rely upon one another find their ethics and morals challenged by conflicting loyalties.

With such strong social, political, and technological undercurrents set against the backdrop of cat-and-mouse games that challenge psyches, relationships, and perceptions, it's easy to highly recommend The Shadow of War as an outstanding and gripping sci-fi techno-thriller. Driven by the ambitions and ideals of characters who sacrifice personal values for greater purposes, The Shadow of War draws a precise, involving futuristic scenario that relies as much on family ties and different ways of handling past trauma as it does on how these translate into political choices and maneuvers.

Libraries seeking a stand-alone story that adds to the Oceania series, yet requires no prior familiarity with the previous books, will find The Shadow of War a powerful survey of what it means to be a leader whose personal and political values seem to diverge.

Michael J. Farlow
Wolf Press
9781732730663, $12.95 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Retribution, Book 2 of the Records of the Argos series, follows Crucible and continues the quest for justice as the crew of the Argos and Captain Nick Hall receive orders to undertake an intelligence mission to assess the planet Azel and its possible threat to the Consortium. One ship cannot do much, other than observe (or, it's not supposed to). But, as in the previous book, the captain and his team assume a more active role in matters than their assignment requires. Thus, Nick's mission to observe and watch for an Arkon Red and a Blue, to capture them and return them for trial, takes on an expanded life and purpose of its own.

Michael J. Farlow creates a fine story based on strong characters, first-person presentations, and encounters that neatly juxtapose action and intrigue. An AI, a negotiator, and a doctor join Nick in preliminary ground investigations that quickly grow to involve Arkon warrior Sif, while other crew members are charged with keeping an eye on the away team and monitoring the planet. As individual crew members step up to expanded roles of importance to the team effort, readers receive a series of encounters and challenges that demonstrate flexibility and new abilities and reactions from them all.

Farlow is especially adept at capturing the moments that challenge both Commander Nick's prowess and the nature and composition of his diverse crew. An innocuous space rock begins to change the ship's AI, introducing advantages and conundrums into the mission as a search for justice turns into a cat-and-mouse game of discovery. As Nick buys time by spreading rumors about the rebels and pursues his own interests, readers receive the lively story of an assignment that changes focus and direction through its encounters with a diverse set of special interests. The characterization and dialogue are particularly notable, with humor adding value and comic relief.

As emotional manipulation comes into play, readers receive a thought-provoking story about subterfuge, ploys, and plots that keep the events fast-paced and the interpersonal revelations in line with not only past events, but with the development of Nick's crew. While Retribution could be read as a stand-alone story, it will best be enjoyed by prior fans of Nick Hall and his crew.

This audience will find Michael J. Farlow's attention to expanding the personalities, objectives, and political influences of this universe enhance both books with new developments that keep readers guessing. Fans of military sci-fi and space opera seeking strong stories that excel in universe-building description, and libraries catering to them, will find Retribution an excellent saga of justice, redemption, and intrigue that paves the way for yet another in the series.

Only Afraid of Nothing
Willem Indigo
Atmosphere Press
9781639884117, $17.99

Only Afraid of Nothing tells of Dave Von Wolfgang, who has survived his suicide attempt only to steal his therapist's car, rejecting his diagnosis and threatening to once again wind up in the psych ward of the hospital. There's more going on than a story of psychological struggle, however, because Wolfgang's frolic with death and imprisonment is only the beginning of his romp with an alien girl who lures him into an adventure that is literally out of this world.

It's unusual to find a story which opens with the allure and trappings of a novel, only to segue into a sci-fi world-hopping adventure that leaves the insane asylum for an equally hazardous trip embracing both mystery and the possibility of higher-level encounters with life. Willem Indigo juxtaposes humor, philosophical reflection, and wry observation in his tale. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- if the inmates were loosed upon the universe.

The psychological insights are every bit as intriguing as the adventure that unfolds. Is it an escape attempt, a venture into unknown universes, or a descent into insanity? Wolfgang's choices and associations broaden with a cast of characters that each makes their own mark on his perceptions and objectives. Indigo is especially adept at winding this world-hopping caper into bigger picture thinking about anti-social moves, job opportunities, and responsibilities to others.

Readers who choose Only Afraid of Nothing for its sci-fi components will find much more going on than another human-alien encounter. Also reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Wolfgang's frolic represents an ironic journey through fate and absurdity that piques the mind and invites an intellectual discourse. Subjects include the nature of nefarious intentions, status quo, and one man's ability to move through kidnappings, mysteries, and compromises that are otherworldly in nature.

Libraries looking for sci-fi that operates on a different intellectual level than most will appreciate the opportunity to acquire a multifaceted first contact story that injects suspense and wry humor into its alien invasion tale.

Embracing the Darkness
Cassie Sanchez
Silver Labs Press
9798986822419, $14.95

There's a reason why Cassie Sanchez's opening fantasy series title Chasing the Darkness was a finalist in the 2021 American Fiction Awards for Fantasy. That reason continues to power events in Book 2, Embracing the Darkness, which relies on the same conjoined brand of fantasy and romance that made her first book so notable.

Four years after the Vastane War, Jasce Farone and his younger sister Jaida are escaping an enraged father's wrath, moving into the forest where their mother guides them. She tells them a story about magic, manipulation, and a bit of crystal that belongs to the Empower Stone of the Heart. The four Stones of the Heart affect magic differently.

Fourteen years later, Jasce is a commander searching for his missing sister. His need for revenge has earned her hatred, and his failures are mounting as he struggles with the aftermath of Drexus Zoldac's influence and his own inadequacies.

Prior fans of Chasing the Darkness well know the adventure that set Jasce on this path, alienating him from his sister and creating dilemmas to test his heart and soul. They will be the best audience for this continuation of the saga, which focuses on his warrior status and his draw to spend time with the Baltens, learning about their ancestors and magic while searching for his sister. He needs his magic now, more than ever. So why would he willingly suppress his powers? Because he also needs his sister.

Cassie Sanchez displays creative prowess as she weaves a complicated, compelling story of a leader who comes to question his decisions and path through life. She builds not just a believable, but an emotionally convincing, flawed character in Jasce, placing him in key positions and moments of anguish and adventure that will keep her prior fans thoroughly engrossed in Jasce's life and world. Even more importantly, the tale is replete with satisfying twists and moral, ethical, and social inspections that keep readers on their toes and wondering about various outcomes. These include Azrael, who plots revenge once his magic is freed; the cruel Queen Siryn, who overtakes Jasce's mentor (blacksmith Amycus) and tortures him; and Drexus's forceful presence as a world-changing figurehead.

As the struggle involves the Heart of Pandaren and threatens the main characters with death and change, readers will find many cliff-hanging moments throughout to keep them thoroughly engaged in (and often surprised by) the turns of events. Forced to confront his own inner darkness, Jasce finds his relationship with his sister once again on the line, powering his strength and discoveries.

Readers and libraries anticipating a powerful compliment to the story begun in Chasing the Darkness will find the fantasy and romance components in Embracing the Darkness continue to drive a powerful saga of change, redemption, and transformation.

The Bane of Yoto
Joshua Viola, Mario Acevedo, and Nicholas Karpuk
Hex Publishers, LLC
9798986219431, $19.99

The Bane of Yoto represents an awakening force in which one deemed a coward for his interest in timidity and not making waves falls into a role of newfound power which accompanies the courage to confront his world's oppressors.

On the face of it, Yoto has moved from a minion to a monster. But The Bane of Yoto imparts much more to its transformation than a tale of a mild-mannered youth turned superhero, because it also embraces the dilemmas faced by repressed levels of society that hold the chance and power to become the beasts they defy.

The foundations of Yoto's transformation are explored from the beginning as the stage of his peoples' imprisonment is described. Boundaries never appealed to Yoto, so this is a special form of hell, where witches and magic have consigned people to work in the mines in thrall to oppressors who seemingly cannot be defeated. Nurturing dreams and the hope of a world without boundaries, limitations, or oppressors feels both impossible and necessary under these conditions.

As violence and tangled plots on both sides come to light, readers receive a gripping story graphic in its gory confrontations, psychologically gripping in its unexpected twists and turns, and philosophically thought-provoking. The previously-diminutive Yoto becomes a force to reckon with, assuming a mantle of responsibility for his new powers and actions that threatens his potential heroic actions.

Joshua Viola, Mario Acevedo, and Nicholas Karpuk have created more than an epic fantasy as they capture Yoto's world and transformation. They have evolved a plot that is steeped in violence, action, and change that ultimately becomes the first book in an epic story of courage, hope, and despair. Its gripping and thought-provoking action makes it a real standout.

Libraries will find that The Bane of Yoto crosses genres to appeal to sci-fi and fantasy and horror readers alike, promising high-octane adventure mixed with a series of revelations about social and individual barriers, responsibilities, and potentials for becoming greater than anyone originally envisioned.

And Heavenly Things
Kim Cousins
Resource Publications
c/o Wipf and Stock Publishers
9781666742688, $44.00 Hardcover/$29.00 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

And Heavenly Things adds the Christian theme of a spiritual battle between heaven and earth to a sci-fi story of apocalypse and redemption as it adds a second book to the Clashing Kingdoms series. Christian audiences will find the injections of scripture from Zondervan's New International Version (NIV) Study Bible add to and reinforce the story's spiritual components, making them accessible to readers through a minimum of paraphrasing and a heady injection of Biblical references.

An opening list of characters identifies family ties (from Army veterans to animals) and leads into the first week of events, which opens with Beth's being bitten by a rattlesnake while picking blueberries in the Comstock Mountains. At the same time, teen TJ is also facing life-threatening circumstances, as evil demons drag him into Hell. These two events present a riveting contrast in worlds as TJ realizes that his future is now set in stone. As disparate spirits enter kingdoms of heaven and hell, events on Earth evolve, as well.

The contrast between these playing fields and the forces that influence them create an unusual interplay between good and evil that will enlighten and attract Christian readers. Thought-provoking passages comment on modern culture and trends. While Heaven and Hell introduce the story, it by no means resides in these places, but rises to the occasion of juxtaposing the interests of man with the higher-level promises, opportunities, and conundrums introduced by spiritual conflicts in all realms.

The story embeds these spiritual reflections in all kinds of situations, prompting Christian readers to think about their beliefs and actions. The faith-centric foundations of this apocalyptic struggle will find a fine home in Christian sci-fi circles and collections catering to them, offering food for thought that also can become part of Christian discussion groups about life purposes and Biblical meaning.

The Literary Studies Shelf

Unquiet Spirits
Lee Murray and Angela Yuriko Smith, editors
Black Spot Books
9781645481294, $22.95 Hardcover/$18.95 Paper/$6.99 Kindle

Unquiet Spirits: Essays by Asian Women in Horror is a study in cultural influences on the concept and presentation of horror. It should be considered a mainstay not just for libraries strong in horror literature, but those interested in Asian or women's history and cultural influences, and folklore. These collections will especially appreciate essays that explore connections between Asian heritage and women's perceptions and depictions of horror which explore the boundaries and connections between culture, gender, and horror representations.

From editor Lee Murray's introductory discussion of the Asian diaspora and her memories of her "ghost whisperer" mother (whose perceptions of ancestors maintained ties to family long beyond the grave) to Nadia Bulkin's powerful Indonesian examination "Becoming Ungovernable: Latah, Amok, And Disorder In Indonesia," which explores the connections between social and political rebels and perceptions of such women as monsters, the diversity of subject and cultural roots that tie these works together will surprise and delight readers who anticipated a singular progression or subject.

Each essay is a powerhouse of cultural revelation that examines not just the perception and presence of horror in Asian culture, but how these elements are transformed by women's experiences, through women's eyes, and by feminist thought that would make monsters out of ordinary progressive thinkers.

Readers who look for ghostly encounters won't be disappointed by such pieces as Benebell Wen's "Ghost Month in Taiwan." They will just be surprised by the literary, social, and political inspections that blend these horror elements into bigger-picture thinking. Perhaps most notable of all is the ability of each and every one of these twenty-two essays to share, from different Asian cultures and perspectives, the foundations of what it means to reside alongside the unquiet spirits (ghosts, demons, witches and vampires) common in the Asian experience and tempered by the female eye.

Unquiet Spirits is a literary social inspection that should be in the libraries of a diverse range of collections, from those featuring horror literature to libraries looking for expanded insights into women's history, Asian women's experiences, and the power of supernatural forces in cultural representations.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

Diane C. Donovan, Editor & Senior Reviewer
12424 Mill Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
phone: 1-707-795-4629

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