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California Bookwatch

Volume 15, Number 6 June 2020 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Writing/Publishing Shelf Gaming Shelf
Self-Help Shelf Environmental Studies Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf    

Reviewer's Choice

Denied! Failing Cordelia Book Two: Pride & Legal Prejudice
Simon Cambridge
9781514488911, $39.99 Hardcover
9781514488928, $25.99 Softcover
9781514488935, $3.99 eBook

Denied! Failing Cordelia Book Two: Pride & Legal Prejudice provides the second book in a trilogy about an adoptive father's efforts to battle through the courts in a dependency case that led him to advocate for both her and his parental rights. It should be noted that this second book follows on the heels of preceding history. Readers should ideally have read the first book, The Cankered Rose and Esther's Revenge, and its extensive background before embarking on this ongoing story of court struggle, legal team efforts, and parental and child rights. Those with such a background who already know the detail and legal descriptions of its predecessor will find Pride & Legal Prejudice an outstanding continuation of the story. It is a gripping focus not just on court proceedings and legal team maneuvers, but the father/daughter relationship under question.

From Cordelia's escape and adventure as her father tries to assure her safety to Cambridge's struggles with legal propriety versus the child's ultimate best interests, this story is replete with reflections that focus on the conundrums he constantly faces which tear him in different directions: "Yes, it was technically illegal [Cordelia's flight to be with the author in Washington State], but the court had determined that reunification was the central goal of the case. Yes, Cordelia was a supervised child under the legal authority of the DCFS but she was also the victim of what her attorney had already determined was gross mismanagement by the department. After all, we had a hearing date contesting the DCFS on this very point. Yes, in the sense that she was a kiddo with RAD and her behaviors were being shaped by this reality. Her prospects would always seem better to me in the Seattle area than they ever had or would in Los Angeles. On the other hand, I would strongly advise against following suit if there is any chance at all of the legal path working as well as it should when reunification really is the goal of the case."

It should be noted that in no way does Cambridge's account purport to represent legal counsel for other adoptive parents caught in court battles. This is a memoir designed to document a particular case, set of circumstances, and the logic behind decisions which, at times, were legally conflicted. It is not intended to serve as a blueprint for others to follow. That said, Pride & Legal Prejudice outlines a series of confrontations and courses of action, along with the evolving and changing relationship between father and teen child that stemmed from this conflict and their efforts to reunify against the backdrop of a dependency case that offered few easy choices and which crushed most of them when they were made. This focus adds an extra dimension of understanding and legal savvy to a story that rests on emotional connections and conflicts.

There's a back-and-forth feel to events as Cambridge reviews the failures of court and community proceedings, missed opportunities, and misguided interventions: "I wanted the commissioner to consider the available family focused opportunities that still existed at the time for Cordelia, including the full range of Seattle-based options, and to reflect on the many missed openings that existed when my daughter was most committed to the idea of reunification."

At the same time, insights are candidly given into the circumstances which led this dependency case to evolve in the first place: "Both Maureen and Mr. O'Reilly argued that I had made insufficient progress in my completed case plan because I was refusing to accept my daughter's embellished version of the parenting mistakes that had led to our having a dependency case to begin with. The DCFS and the CLC both saw this as "denial" and even arrogant. My opponents also believed that I was incapable of following court orders and that I was more interested in defying the court's decisions for my own reunification goals. In turn, such goals - or at least my approach to them - were viewed by both Maureen and Mr. O'Reilly as 'obsessive' and 'unhealthy'."

This is especially notable because it would have been all too easy for Cambridge to build a one-sided case without equal opportunity to explore the perceptions of those opposing him. His approach lends a full-faceted feel to the legal proceedings and their underlying emotional conundrum that will enlighten and intrigue not just parents going through similar court conflicts, but members of the legal community, social services providers, and anyone involved in legal cases revolving around parental rights and parent/child relationships.

His observations of the overall process and its impact beyond his own case and experiences is particularly well done: "On the other side of the door to Room 101, it is highly unlikely that anyone enjoys what they do or feels that they have had a good day when they go home. Secondary or vicarious trauma is probably as much an issue for court commissioners as it is for the public defenders and social workers. I would see miserable parents, bored children, frustrated public defenders, harried attorneys, and a commissioner who has spent several decades working her way through a very dysfunctional caseload. Commissioner No has probably seen relieved parents and angry parents, abused children and those more than happy to be allowed to return home whether or not they were first detained for valid reasons. Yet, in this same dysfunctional and chaotic environment, decisions are made in the cool light of legal truth to 'sever and terminate' the parent-child bond. While for some parents and children this might be a matter for relief or sullen indifference, for other parents and their children it is not."

Anyone concerned about the ultimate impact of court proceedings and choices on a child's best interests must read this book. It's a compelling testimony of the promise, ideals, and nightmares of the court system - one which should be considered by a wide range of readers interested in child protection issues.

The Writing/Publishing Shelf

Write Through the Crisis
Samantha Shad
Axillar Books
9781733865210, $11.99 paperback, $6.99 ebook

Write Through the Crisis comes from a "veteran of living through crises" and provides a powerful approach for unprecedented times, showing readers how they, too, can use the tools of writing to stave off depression, isolation, and ennui. Samantha Shad wasn't broke or quarantined, but she did survive living with a psychopathic mother who committed infanticide and created a life that always teetered on the edge of chaos and crisis after crisis. Shad turned to writing to mitigate the damaging effects of these constant challenges, and here advocates writing as a technique any literate person can use to heal themselves. She notes: "You don't have to like living in disaster-mode, but you can use it to make your life better. I did. This book tells you how to make the best out of a crisis by using it to write yourself to a richer soul." This approach advocates finding your own healing process and writing 'voice' and demonstrates how to do so by better understanding storytelling options, writing forms, how ideas and dreams are germinated to result in positive goals, and more. Psychology, creative writing tips, and self-help healing skills are woven into an account that should be a blueprint for those facing Covid who want to see and reach towards a light at the end of a challenging tunnel of darkness. As Shad discusses the mechanics of creating characters, plots, and themes, readers will be encouraged to put pen to paper to follow their own dreams. Why not? Those under quarantine now have all the time in the world to write their way to a better perspective, and with the lively, accessible Write Through the Crisis, they now have the tools to do so.

The Gaming Shelf

Advance Chess: Extrapolative Insights of the Double Set Game
Siafa B. Neal
Cold Coffee Press
9781518655459, $35.00

Book 2, Volume 4 of Advance Chess - Extrapolative Insights of the Double Set Game (D.4.2.11) compiles drawings of board layouts and color photos of the special 3D double set board game structures, and is recommended reading for 3D chess players who have purchased the Longitudinal Star Gate 14 Model playing board, who want further insights specific to the double set game's approaches. Diagrams are one of the most valuable components of this book because they clearly document not just board layouts, but specific moves and strategies. Game objectives, game setup configurations, how chess pieces move between layers, and equations for attack movements, displacements, and horizontal and vertical plays are all covered in full color. These illustrated forms take the player step-by-step through the board and its various options. The photos and diagrams work together to teach strategy, placement, and board makeup. They are key to understanding advance chess processes, logic, and applied equations and calculations.

The result is about as close as it gets to personal one-on-one instruction, presenting a clear discussion of moves and play options that teach the makeup, approaches, and strategies particular to the 3D chess playing environment.

Those already well versed in conventional chess who seek the next level of playing will find Advance Chess - Extrapolative Insights of the Double Set Game (and Neal's set as a whole) specific to understanding the game, its possibilities, and the moves that make for successful plays.

Compilations Pertaining To Random Access To Problematic Probabilities or (R.A.P.P.), Double Set Game (D.2.50 ) - Book 2 Vol. 3
Siafa B. Neal
Cold Coffee Press
9781515309207, $39.31

Book 2, volume 3 of Compilations Pertaining To Random Access To Problematic Probabilities or (R.A.P.P.),Double Set Game (D.2.50 ) will reach computer engineers, gamers, chess players, and toy manufacturers with a very specific key to Advance 3D Chess. It is especially recommended for readers of Neal's previous volumes who are avid players of the game. Unlike most manuals about playing, even chess, Siafa Neal's book holds a specific purpose: "The essence of this book intends to synergize the Cognition Informatics thought processes of Chess Players to higher levels of mental awareness of alternatives to the game's possibilities which includes the Double Set Games. Three-Dimensional Chess offers many beneficial effects. Most prominent of these include higher levels of cognitive cognition which improves a Player's mental aptitude and capacity to absorb and to adsorb new data over time. This benefit aids to reduce the likelihood of age-related dementia which associates with the memory inability to absorb new information. In addition, another beneficial attribute is it allows Players to develop sustainable focus strategies that results from constant practice of 3-Dimensional Chess games. The effect of constant practice increases the level of synaptic electrical activity in the neuro-synaptic spheres of the brain. As a wise conjecture stipulates, "If you don't use it, you lose it." This puts the game, instructions, and promotion beyond simple leisure, making a case for a type of analytical skills development that will interest not just chess players, but those looking beyond expanding skill sets to improving mental acuity. Diagrams explaining double set games and probabilities include handwritten identifiers of board layouts and color representations to allow the eye easy access to the different board moves. These are supplemented by color photos of the playing boards which accompany step-by-step discussions of equations, logic, and different move options that change the board makeups, positions, and strategies.

From physical diagonal attack movements and play forfeits to illustrations of positions, this is an astute series of compilations covering random access to problematic probabilities. It is a key acquisition for 3D players looking for study guides, examples, detailed descriptions and equations, and visual examples of the Longitudinal Star Gate 14 Model playing board. Gamers already familiar with conventional chess who seek additional challenges will find this game and book take the next step to a new level of playing.

The Self-Help Shelf

Bigger, Better, Braver
Nancy Pickard
Top Reads Publishing, LLC
9781970107128, $18.99 Paperback
9781970107135, $8.99 Ebook

Bigger, Better, Braver: Conquer Your Fears, Embrace Your Courage, and Transform Your Life is all about stepping out of one's comfort zone to embrace life, and encourages a big leap from set patterns in life to taking on new challenges. It's a top pick for readers who want to make this move, but who don't really know how to do so. The first step in the series of steps Nancy Pickard outlines actually involves examining the common barriers to taking risks. From underlying childhood messages and experiences to understanding why and how fear becomes a driving force for living life, Bigger, Better, Braver explores the process of identifying and making decisions from the heart to foster better living. Pickard asks some pointed questions that readers will want to consider: "How many times have you let yourself down? How many promises or goals got tossed by the wayside? And how often do you let yourself down when you wouldn't dream of doing that to someone else in your life? Yet, somehow, with yourself, it seems to be okay. We rarely give ourselves the reverence we give others. What would it be like to be as accountable to yourself as you are to other people?" It should be noted that Pickard's exploration involves psychological, moral, and philosophical inspection. Those who anticipate a blueprint they can follow without such self-examination will not be using this book to its best advantage. It comes with the charge to change in a better, more positive way. Exercises, examples, and workbook pages for reader fill-in offer enlightening insights into this process and its results and potential: "By owning more of who we are, we become less reactive and set ourselves up for a successful leap toward our vision. This is not about making ourselves wrong. It's about emotional education and becoming more whole." There is no singular philosophy driving this approach, which represents a synthesis of Buddhism, Law of Attraction, journaling, and insights from popular culture: "One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Heller, a 19th century businessman, who said, "Fear is excitement without the breath!" So when you're feeling fearful, remember to breathe deeply. All the other physiological responses are the same ones you feel when you're excited. Your heart races, your palms sweat, your energy is high, and you may feel fidgety or tingly. Bruce Springsteen considers these as signs that he's ready to step out on stage and perform." The result of these combined influences is a chatty, accessible, thought-provoking set of admonitions that invite and encourage change-oriented readers to take their own first steps to revising their lives and perspectives. It's a powerful exploration from a Certified Integrative Coach through The Ford Institute for Transformational Training that uses Nancy Pickard's own experiences, both personally and professionally, to build a bridge for reader transitions. Bigger, Better, Braver is a highly recommended, integrative approach that requires that its readers approach life differently.

The Environmental Studies Shelf

Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril
Rick Steiner
Cirque Press
9798625267472, $35.00 Paper, $5.00 Kindle

High-res print and e-book versions to purchase on Amazon:

Low-res FREE PDF available for download

Oasis Earth: Planet in Peril does what other books often fail to achieve - it delineates the current precarious state of the planet and mankind's contribution to its decline and looming fall, offering a game plan for redemption in the face of certain disaster. Rick Steiner maintains that humans have only ten years left to end mankind's unrelenting assaults on the biosphere. But he doesn't stop there. This approach may sound similar to other messages, but Oasis Earth does more than present a set of dire warnings. It backs up its contentions by documenting each separate piece of the interconnected whole of Earth's various ecosystems, including humanity's rise and current downward progression, then provides a second section packed with sustainable alternatives to the current trajectory. This is an immense subject...too broad for most books to properly tackle. It's too easy to become bogged down in detail and overlook the bigger picture when the topic is as historically, scientifically, and ecologically complex as this. But Rick Steiner's gift lies in the ability to synthesize the facts into easily-digested admonitions and insights: "The current trajectory of global environmental de-cline points toward a rapidly approaching dystopian future for civilization and the biosphere. As we exceed planetary boundaries, the way humans live on the Earth will change, one way or the other, very soon. Either we will adapt our life-style to a sustainable biosphere, or we will not survive." Too many discussions consist entirely of text without illustration, but Oasis Earth includes hard-hitting, artistic photos from the U.N. Environment Program's international photographic competitions, NASA, Greenpeace, and others to back the facts and provide visual embellishment. This crafts an inviting, accessible atmosphere that pairs hard-hitting footnoted references and statements with colorful food for thought. The call to action section is quite specific: "We the people have to make the environment a central issue at all levels of governance - local, regional, national, and international. Politicians need to understand that it's not just the economy that matters, but also environmental sustainability, and the two are inextricably linked. Citizens need to nominate and elect candidates who support progressive environmental policies, and need to express concerns on environment to all elected officials, proposing not just general views but specific, science-based legislative and administrative actions."

Oasis Earth is filled with admonitions for positive change at all levels of society, pointing out that competing plans for idealistic changes don't necessarily acknowledge the drive for consumer goods or the greed of not just corporations and governments, but individuals. Steiner points out that a redefinition of 'progress' itself needs to become part of humanity's toolkit for salvation, and this will involve a revision of ideals not just on a political or social level, but personal values and perspectives on life. Steiner juxtaposes scientific facts and cautionary tales from past collapses of society, pinpointing large-scale human failures and the lessons to be learned from them, creating a survey not only of past patterns of failure and redemption, but how the future might look if these fixes were undertaken and human purpose itself was transformed. Books on ecological conservation and sustainability run the gamut from dry studies to simplistic admonitions. Oasis Earth represents a much-needed middle ground in its ability to synthesize hard data into a digestible, revealing set of insights the everyday reader can readily understand. The inclusion of practical guidelines for a revision of human goals and perspectives adds an invaluable conclusion to the force of this collection: we all live in the same place. Setting up personal and political avenues for preserving the environment is key not just to human health and happiness, but our long-term continued survival.

The General Fiction Shelf

Search Heartache
Carla Malden
Rare Bird
9781644280591, $18.15 Hardcover, $11.49 Kindle

Search Heartache is a women's literary fiction piece that stands out from the crowd. It presents the life-changing revelations of Maura Fielder, who stumbles upon her husband's secret on his computer. This leads her to confront everything she's taken for granted in her approach to life.

Many similar-sounding books have tackled divorce, infidelity, and changing relationships between men and women, but what sets Search Heartache apart from these stories is Carla Malden's attention to exploring the intersection of computer lives and real-world heartache, adding an unexpected humor that permeates an often-surprising story of life, death, love, and discovery.

Another plus is that this story will reach beyond women readers and into male audiences who will find it astute and accessible, offering many insight and much food for thought. Irony and a wry sense of fun flavor Maura's observations from the start as she interacts with husband Adam in their Los Angeles milieu: "Adam didn't answer. He was watching a promo for the new Ken Burns documentary. This time out: the Dust Bowl. They were hyping it as the worst manmade ecological disaster in history. "I wonder if that's true," Adam said. "What?" "About the Dust Bowl." "People thought it meant the end of the world," I said, uninterested. "Maura, people always think everything means the end of the world." "It's blowing right on me," I said. "Would you turn off the air?"

From the nightmare she uncovers about her husband's obsession after she snoops through his secret online life to how she handles her discovery and assesses its impact on their relationship's history and values, Search Heartache excels in revealing not just the immediate problem at hand, but also capturing the types of connections that either bind a married couple or tear them apart: "My marriage was supposed to be like that Buddhist adage about hands - how we have a right hand and a left hand and they never fight or take credit. The left hand doesn't say, "I wrote that word." The right hand never says, "I turned that page." They simply help each other. When one hand is injured, the other takes over. My marriage was like those hands, intertwined so that sometimes you couldn't even tell which finger belonged to which hand. But this morning, I was the hand that stirred the oatmeal, and Adam was the hand on the mouse of the computer, and they were bodies apart."

As new revelations, connections, and choices drive Maura into another life entirely, fraught with both challenges and promise, readers of women's literature will find this story a powerfully drawn psychological drama that is compellingly realistic. This authenticity is powered by Carla Malden's ability to juxtapose real life backdrops and events with an acknowledgement of the lasting impact of these choices: "Adam may have lit the fuse, but I was the bomb who exploded."

Search Heartache is a gripping first-person story that does an outstanding job of probing the evolution of love, change, and choice. It reveals many mercurial points of view before coming full circle in an unexpected and satisfying way, and will delight fans of women's fiction and literature who will find in Maura a powerful character whose dilemmas are at once challenging and, in an ironic manner, fun. Whether Search Heartache is chosen as a beach read or a more thought-provoking work of literature, it's a tale that will linger in the mind long after its final revelations.

Lake of Urine: A Love Story
Guillermo Stitch
Sagging Meniscus Press
9781944697945, $21.00 Paper
9781944697969, $6.99 Kindle

Lake of Urine: A Love Story focuses, for much of the time, on Willem Seiler, who is slightly insane and obsessed with measuring everything in his world in a compulsive habit that envelopes everyone around him. It considers what happens when he falls in love with a member of the family he 'holes up with' for the winter. For the rest of its 214 pages, it charts the quiet progression of that family member, Noranbole, and the fates of her mother and sister.

Seiler's fixation is evident in the very first paragraph of his chatty first-person reflection: "What a winter! It was the deepest we had ever known, and I am uniquely qualified to say this because I know exactly how deep it was - I measured it with a piece of string and there hasn't been as deep a winter since...This is the piece of string, and if you were to stand on the Wakelings' back porch and hold it while I took the other end and walked, I would be able to touch the Flemings' front door and go no further. It would have to be you on the porch as I am no longer welcome there.

Interestingly, there are no other landmarks of any kind along the circumference that the string's tip describes around the Wakeling house which correspond exactly with its length. So the Fleming house is a very exact measurement." From this introductory passage, it's quickly evident that the character harbors not just a distinctive, analytical perspective about the world, but cultivates a unique voice as he expresses his experience. Readers will find Willem Seiler a dichotomy - at once an OCD madman and a lucid observer of the oddities and incongruities of the world around him.

As he measures the depths of lies and life, Willem finds that although his miraculous string can plumb the depths of a lake nobody has been able to gauge, it can't adequately cope with matters of the heart. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that, although Seiler would have us believe he is the protagonist, Noranbole truly is, in the classic sense of the word.

At once hilarious, ironic, and a psychologically astute piece of literature, Lake of Urine: A Love Story presents a series of astounding, gleeful scenarios that excel in a sense of surprise as characters make choices and present personas in public and private that are spiced with some big words and broader ideas. This is no light read, despite the prevalent sense of humor in its consideration of unusual connections between disparate personalities. It requires an attention to detail, language, and psychological development. However, it pays back this investment with a vivid, unique story that keeps readers entertained, guessing, often perplexed, sometimes disgusted, and regularly delighted.

Always intricate in his atmospheric descriptions, Guillermo Stitch excels in juxtaposing a sense of place with the psychological developments, contrasts, and clashes between characters: "Oh, happy lark! Sleepy cows loll about in their pasture, their big brown eyes on the travelers, seeming to wish them well as they go. Horses, happy-tired from a day's labor, peer over gates and flick their ears in greeting. Delightful sights, scents and sounds abound in the air about them; here the summery buzzing of bumble bees, borne on the breeze that blows round the wheelwright's shed, there a troop of tiny blue birds that swoop and perch on the mule's rump."

Readers seeking a literary work akin to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but set in the outside world and a microcosm of family dynamics and changing relationships, will find the language, scenarios, and unexpected developments in Lake of Urine: A Love Story fits the bill perfectly for a funny, thought-provoking frolic through sanity, insanity, and social and family life changes. It's thoroughly recommended for lovers of the transgressive, and is not for the faint-hearted.

Jefferson Wept
Frank Muskeni
Independently Published
978732674660, $19.99 for libraries; $4.99 for personal purchases

Jefferson Wept should be on the reading lists of anyone who wants to absorb the political background and insights of this still-blossoming American system. Readers who want to learn more about Jefferson's political evolution, his impact on America, and the basic tenets of his democratic vision will find Jefferson Wept the perfect item of choice for understanding these principles. It weaves fiction with fact to make American political heritage and processes compelling, understandable, and intriguingly accessible to modern readers who may lack this background.

The saga opens with a review of Jefferson's history and interactions: "Nearly two centuries would have to pass before Jefferson's words of the ideals of Liberty were finally realized. He was deliberately kept from contributing to the very Constitution upon which all his concepts of freedom and citizen governance were to be implemented. The Federalists wanted no democratic voice in the architecture of the document, especially his. So, they sent Jefferson as far away from the Constitutional Convention as they could. He was to go to France so as not to tinker with inclusions of democratic sentiment such as a bill of citizen's rights. And there he stayed until the Federalist deed was done."

Lest readers think that this will be the focus of the story, it should be pointed out that the introductory segment concludes with reference to a time travel machine that leads Jefferson to travel to the future (our time) to see just how his political ideals and involvement have been enacted, here to either excel or die a cruel death on the doorstep of true democracy. There's a satisfying ebb and flow to the structure of the story that takes its time to create a fantastic scenario, then inject into it lessons about Jefferson's influences, beliefs, and how they are represented in modern American society.

From Jefferson's early evolution, involvement with the teleportation device, and determination to travel to the future to the political changes he finds there (especially the contrast between his initial ideals and their political incarnation in modern times) readers are treated to a hard-hitting intersection of fiction and nonfiction which succeeds in drawing out the origins and concepts of political principle against the backdrop of a fictional ride through time.

Historical facts, from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Jefferson's inquiry over what became of the first amendment and why and how the original principles became warped over time, provide readers with thought-provoking background history that sets precedents and the stage for discussions beyond the fictional overlay of a traditional time-travel piece.

Dialogue and questions between characters strengthen these political concepts and debates: "I am sure that you have read that a politician thinks of the next election and a Statesman thinks of the next generation. It may be difficult to ever change that aspect of human nature; that so few among politicians have; that piety and altruism to think past their own careers, but there is another way. Make the People educated and involved and they, because they love their children, will become a nation of Statesmen as they take charge and put an end to the layers of bureaucracies that constitute your present-day governance."

Where other authors might have chosen a nonfiction format and thus lost the general-interest reader without a background or special interest in Jefferson, American political evolution, or Federalist history, Frank Muskeni has successfully created a powerful intersection between story and political history.

Brown Soda
Robert Rubenstein
B0863S3LYN, $7.70

The narrator of this story, Mark Mangosteen, has many fears which he's held all his life. To him, imagination often reflects reality and it is difficult to discern between them. Brown Soda focuses on the evolving life of a man whose imagination, vulnerability, and sense of alienation led him to become an advocate for special needs children as an adult.

As Mangosteen describes romance and new people in his life which "result in a chain reaction that would change my life," readers are treated to a survey of the observations and life of a man on the autism spectrum who tries to help children until he is indicted for his actions ("The serious ashen faces of the society I represented had come for me.")

Accused of rape and taken away from the life and job he's so carefully cultivated, Mangosteen faces his own demons and those of society, which judges him and forces him to rip apart the family he's built. Robert Rubenstein's descriptions are emotionally compelling and hard to forget: "Shackled, I signed the declaration as Socrates screamed. He knew something was about to happen - to him, to his brother, his mother and me. Life had come hard and stark to claim him. To rip apart his memories. His family was broken - Humpty Dumpty on the floor.

He went into his bedroom and beat the Messiah drum. To see my face then, one might be reminded of a painting. The horror on a footbridge in a cloud of blood. It was a nuclear bomb imploding without a classroom desk under which to crawl. The shards of glass had pierced my soul. My face conveyed a silent scream."

As Mangosteen embarks on a dangerous journey that changes the adulthood he's carefully built from the uncertainties life choices, readers are treated to a novel replete with moral, ethical, and psychological challenges and changes. As he confronts Remy's lies and impact and struggles to maintain his relationship with the special children he has adopted, Mangosteen becomes a whirlwind of controversy involved in a socially unsupported effort while trying to protect his own children from their mother's wrath and her delusions of flight (she wants to go skydiving without a parachute.)

Repeatedly accused of molestation by Remy and others which stems from how he interacts with them, Mangosteen considers the court's perspective and definition of molestation (which can be as pervasive as providing the children information to help prevent the very deed he's being accused of) as he struggles to maintain everything he's built and believed in. Brown Soda is about survival, moral behavior, and love.

Rubenstein excels in capturing these conflicts and conundrums and paints a vivid story of a man's struggle to retain control of his world: "In real time, nobody knows the reasons why we act the way we do. Human behavior is not explained by the rational - the choices made, the things we do. And what we see is often suspect - a reflection of our fears or destiny."

An engaging philosophical story of social inspection and strife, Brown Soda crafts a compelling read packed with metaphor and psychological description alike. It is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in custody issues, child protection, and evolving relationships against all odds.

The Assassin and the Pianist
David Nees
Independently Published
B084ZWT3FN, $1.99 Kindle

The Assassin and the Pianist explores two very different worlds that unexpectedly clash when an isolated, talented classical pianist rescues an assassin who has lost his memory. Christina uses her country cottage refuge as a place to experience peace, quiet, and uninterrupted practice on the piano as she prepares for world concerts and acclaim. Taking in a stranger during a storm wasn't part of her agenda. Nor was falling in love. But she does both, and not only does her life change, but a new spark is added to her musical efforts that promises to make her exceptional pianist - if heartbreak doesn't kill her inspiration.

For his part, assassin Dan Stone wasn't looking for anything but escape and survival from an assignment gone awry. Having lost his memory, all he knows is that bad people are looking for him, and Christina's isolated cottage proves a good place to recover and try to regain a sense of his past. Romance wasn't on their agenda, but as it evolves, questions of past worlds, new threats, and a future together draws readers into an exceptional story of survival and achievement.

David Nees does an excellent job of crafting a stand-alone story that requires no prior familiarity with the other four thrillers in the Dan Stone series in order to prove compelling to newcomers. More than most series titles, this is a complete story that focuses more on unwinding events than recreating past history, and this makes The Assassin and the Pianist immediately compelling. Equally inviting is the contrast between two very different lives and worlds, how they come together, and the different forces beyond outside menaces that threaten to tear them apart.

It's rare to see a thriller/romance that works so well on so many levels, but The Assassin and the Pianist achieves its goal of providing a multifaceted read that will satisfy audiences who look for both love and bigger-picture confrontations and action.

The Assassin and the Pianist will be welcomed by readers who look for stories with strong emotional ties, which follow the growth experiences of characters and conclude with realistic approaches to expanding the possibilities of all the characters. It's an involving thriller about making choices and living one's life, and how both are reconsidered when new opportunities emerge to challenge established patterns.

Thriller and romance fans alike will find it a gripping tale.

BLACK CYANIDE / white pill
Greg Hoetker
Foreword by Ken Calvin
TRANS(form)ed Press
9781734107944, $20.00 Paper $5.00 PDF

BLACK CYANIDE / white pill is a novella that moves through the decades from 1920 to 2020, presenting an unusual structure of one-page vignettes for every year to present its story in a succinct, digestible manner.

It stands at the crossroads between fiction and memoir, being neither one nor the other but a conglomeration of both as it tells of a narrator whose mother was born a slave, giving birth to a mulatto son at age 60 whose skin was so pale, he could 'pass'. That son grew up initially nameless in Chicago. From early spiritual and social inspection to the cementing of values and goals that both refute common sentiment and return to his roots, these vignettes follow the struggles of not just black and white America, but those whose lives lie somewhere within an uncertain ethnicity.

BLACK CYANIDE / white pill is narrated in the first person and so excels in following matters of the heart; dreams formulated, interrupted, and revised; and the experiences of contrasting, clashing black and white societies from the perspective of one who lives on both sides. As the now-named Amos Sideways tends the garden he chooses over violence and interacts with Cady Flake, who observes that he will sooner or later "explode" due to dreams deferred and emotions set aside, readers receive a stark, thought-provoking survey of social challenges and racial strife from an unusual perspective. From fishing and gardening to growing violence in America from 9/11 to Oklahoma, Amos faces the fallout of black and white relationships from a special vantage point, experiencing time's "relentless march" and a body which is aging and changing. "Everything dies. But not everyone lives." This note from his friend is only one of the influences that keep Amos increasingly engaged in new relationships, friendships, love, and an evolving focus on American social and political changes.

As Amos reaches his nineties and past and present begin to coalesce in his mind, readers remain immersed in a progressive journey that follows his transformations, influences, and the racial and political sentiments that have rocked a nation and sparked ongoing change. The author is especially adept, at this juncture, at summing up such personal and political transition points, comparing ideals with realities: "I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents." "We have never discriminated, and never would." "That idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists." "You don't want to live with them either." "That spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice." "No blind people are going to live in this building." "That creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon." "Bring Back the Death Penalty! Bring Back the Police!" "A creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written." "They don't look like Indians to me."

BLACK CYANIDE / white pill's focus on mercurial racial relationships, social and personal change, political awareness and more, as narrated over the decades by an observer who becomes a participant in America's transformation, creates a thought-provoking and astute examination replete with struggle, insight, revelation, and growth. Readers seeking a literary survey of changing racial relationships will find BLACK CYANIDE / white pill absorbing, thought-provoking, and hard to put down.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The Mystery at Mount Forest Island
Pat Camalliere
Amika Press
9781937484729, $17.95 Paper, $5.95 Kindle

The Mystery at Mount Forest Island is the third contribution to the Cora Tozzi Historical Mystery series and remains firmly rooted in a real-world setting and history. Blinded in an auto accident, Valerie Pawlik longs for the life and independence she once had as she learns to navigate a dark and dangerous new world. But there's much more to her story than adjusting to a new disability as she embarks on a mission to find the mother who abandoned her and solve the mystery of her beloved uncle's murder. Questions of family loyalty in Al Capone's circle and the Chicago mob scene draw generations of interconnected peoples with an injection of paranormal encounters and the evolution of a new Valerie who is fully cognizant that her quest could result in difficult answers ("It's been so long. Maybe I won't like what we find. Maybe we'll make things worse. Maybe this isn't a good idea.").

As tension in The Mystery at Mount Forest Island mounts, so does a delightfully intricate series of encounters that challenges Valerie's new missions and ability to fulfill them. One doesn't anticipate the injection of gay love between friends, mobster connections and secrets, and a romp through family history that become key themes in a story filled with exposed secrets and revelations, but The Mystery at Mount Forest Island excels at weaving personal lives with bigger-picture historical and political entanglements. As the cast of characters interacts over time, a fine story evolves that combines historical mystery elements with psychological insights.

Pat Camalliere's tale doesn't require prior familiarity with its predecessors in the series, although this will provide a solid foundation for further exploring the Cora and Cisco Tozzi family's connections and encounters. What it does require is a mystery reader able to appreciate historical settings, family genealogy, and a quest story that is delightfully complex and filled with many characters whose lives and goals become interconnected on more than one level. Such a reader will relish this story's layers of detail and Chicago lore and will find The Mystery at Mount Forest Island a compelling twist on the historical fiction genre. It takes a mystery and runs with it through generations of family entanglements, the lasting impact of life choices, and the consequences of love.

The Mystery at Mount Forest Island is highly recommended for both mystery and historical fiction readers searching for something different.

Black Camel
Ed Mitchell
California Coast Publishing
9781734206524, $9.95 eBook
9781734206517, $15.99 Trade Paperback

The Black Camel is an undercover political assassin with a reputation for always hitting her target. That's why Al-Qaeda hires her to spread terror attacks across the USA in an effort to force the U.S. out of the Middle East. And that's why it will take a crack team of counter terrorists to stop the Black Camel...a team that includes a FBI Special Agent and a jaded Israeli Mossad Field Officer. While it may seem like a newcomer beginning with Volume 5 in The Gold Lust series would be at a disadvantage, it should be emphasized that each book is a stand-alone production.

Black Camel opens with a list of characters and their jobs, a short but intriguing prologue that establishes setting and background, and then moves to a captivating question at a Virginia wedding that immediately gains the reader's attention: "Why do I want to marry a man who's a magnet for danger?"With the prologue and first sentence, readers are off and running as it becomes evident that the bride is right to worry. An unwelcome visitor, a Muslim watcher with a camera, is stalking the wedding from afar - and the threat is just beginning. While urban firebombs, a connection between an air show and a murdered farmer, and Allah's Avengers in America test the FBI-team, readers are treated to a fast-paced story of intrigue and action that punctuates explosions and confrontations with dangerous decisions on both sides of the War on Terror.

Ed Mitchell's military background again lends realistic action and description to a story that is powerfully compelling as readers romp through close encounters, near misses, and the evolution of terrorist attacks on American soil. America needs her defenders...but the price of participating in defense may tear apart love, family, and normal life on many different levels. It should be noted at this point that female operatives play important roles as the story evolves, proving just as assertive and savvy as their male agent counterparts. A subplot involving two women's relationship and the complicated challenge a man's love inserts into it adds further depth and dimension to the thriller.

The result is a heady romp through a much-changed, threatened America that moves from personal lives and challenges to political intrigue. Readers of Black Camel are in for a treat!

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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