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California Bookwatch

Volume 16, Number 6 June 2021 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

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

Reviewer's Choice

Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads
Clif Smith
John Wiley
111 River Street Hoboken NJ, 07030
9781119750765, $25.00 HC, $15.00 Kindle, 224pp

Sometimes (too rarely, these days) a book title strikes the reader with such promise that it becomes a compelling attraction without even turning the first page. This is an ideal most authors strive for; but very few achieve. Clif Smith has accomplished this with the title of his book, Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads, which promises a more pragmatic approach to the new age concept of mindfulness and its applications to daily life. He then reinforces his excellent book's appeal to professionals with a clarifying subtitle: Unlocking Exceptional Performance, Leadership, and Well-being for Working Professionals.

With the subject firmly rooted in both new age and business worlds, Smith's next task is to live up to his title's potential. This is more than achieved in a survey that adopts a reasoned series of applications of mindfulness to business theory and routines, grounding it in a manner that most new age and psychology titles don't begin to touch. Take the meditation process which is one of the foundations of mindfulness training, for example. Smith points out that "Although many mindfulness teachers and practitioners are attached to the things on the following list and other things you probably associate with meditation, you do not need any of them to authentically practice and reap the benefits of mindfulness. Furthermore, none of these will make you "better" at cultivating mindfulness."

The list includes bells, beads, special meditation equipment, a trip to India, tiny statues of Hindu deities, and other approaches which assume a tongue-in-cheek humor about the typical things some will identify as requirements for successful meditation and mindfulness development. He does note that, for some, these rituals or objects can be useful; but points out that they are not the requirements many claim are essential to the practice.

Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads' down-to-earth approach will prove particularly inviting to the audience who may need this practice the most: business professionals who typically eschew any mention of mindfulness or new age concepts as being relevant to better approaches to both business and life. Mindfulness and meditation typically involve an especially big shift for nose-to-the-grindstone personalities. Smith makes his book accessible to this audience by addressing common criticisms and barriers to achieving mindfulness.

In many ways, the practice might seem to counter common business sense. Smith acknowledges these in sections such as that on 'Shifting from Doing to Non-Doing, aka Being', pulling no punches as he confronts perception, reality, and the challenge of making such shifts. Perhaps Smith is ideally suited to write such a book because his own career has been firmly grounded in pragmatic approaches. He's a US Army veteran, a former diplomat, a CIA-trained former intelligence officer, serves as EY's Americas Mindfulness Leader and Global Mindfulness Network Leader, and teaches mindfulness to tens of thousands of corporate and government leaders across the globe.

His insights are an intrinsic part of what sets Mindfulness Without the Bells and Beads apart from any other book on the subject. The promise in the title is to reach into business minds and hearts not normally attracted to such a practice. This audience holds the best potential for taking mindful practice to a new level and applying it to business pursuits for maximum impact while preserving its positive impact on personal well-being and interpersonal connection. Now these readers have a book that speaks their especially highly recommended for business readers and library collections catering to them.

The Environmental Studies Shelf

Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes
H. Scott Butterfield, editor
T. Rodd Kelsey, editor
Abigail K. Hart, editor
Island Press
2000 M St NW Suite 650, Washington, DC 20036
9781642831269, $39.00, PB, 288pp

Synopsis: As the world population grows, so does the demand for food, putting unprecedented pressure on agricultural lands. At the same time, climate change, soil degradation, and water scarcity mean that productivity of many of these lands is deteriorating. In many desert dryland regions, drinking wells are drying up and the land above them is sinking, soil salinity is increasing, and poor air quality is contributing to health problems in farm communities.

'Rewilding' activities are conservation efforts aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and wilderness areas. This may include providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species.

'Rewilding' is a form of ecological restoration with an emphasis on humans stepping back and leaving an area to nature, as opposed to more active forms of natural resource management. Rewilding efforts can aim to create ecosystems requiring passive management. Successful long term rewilding projects can need little ongoing human attention, as successful reintroduction of keystone species creates a self-regulatory and self-sustaining stable ecosystem, possibly with near pre-human levels of biodiversity.

"Rewilding" the least productive of these cultivated landscapes offers a sensible way to reverse the damage from intensive agriculture. These ecological restoration efforts can recover natural diversity while guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of the remaining farms and the communities they support.

Collaboratively compiled and co-edited by the team of H. Scott Butterfield, T. Rodd Kelsey, and Abigail K. Hart, "Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes: A California Study in Rebalancing the Needs of People and Nature" is and accessibly written, groundbreaking contributed volume examining in detail what it would take to retire eligible farmland and restore functioning natural ecosystems.

"Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes" uses the southern Central Valley of California (which is one of the most productive and important agricultural regions in the world) as a case study for returning a balance to agricultural lands and natural ecosystems. This project (one of the largest rewilding studies of its kind in dryland ecosystems) has shown that rewilding can slow desertification and provide ecosystem services, such as recharged aquifers, cleaner air, and stabilized soils, to nearby farms and communities.

Individual chapters examine what scientists have learned about the natural history of this dryland area, how retired farmland can be successfully restored to its natural wild state, and the socioeconomic and political benefits of doing so. "Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes" then concludes with a vision of a region restored to ecological balance and equipped for inevitable climate change, allowing nature and people to prosper.

The editors position "Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes" as a case study with a programmatic approach and straightforward lessons that can be applied in similar regions around the world. The lessons in Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes will be useful to conservation leaders, policymakers, groundwater agencies, and water managers looking for inspiration and practical advice solving the complicated issues of agricultural sustainability and water management.

Critique: A unique and seminal study that is exceptionally well written, organized and presented, "Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes: A California Study in Rebalancing the Needs of People and Nature" must be considered an essential and core addition to community, governmental, college and university library Environmental, Natural Resource Restoration, and Nature Conservation collections and supplemental studies curriculum lists. It should be noted for the personal reading lists of students, academia, environmental activists, governmental policy makers, and non-specialist general readers with an interest in the subject that "Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes: A California Study in Rebalancing the Needs of People and Nature" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $29.49).

The Biography Shelf

The Necktie and the Jaguar
Carl Greer, PhD, PsyD
Chiron Publications
9781630519032, $29.95 PB, $9.99 Kindle, 304pp

The Necktie and the Jaguar is a spiritual memoir for readers who would better understand the intersection between spiritual practice and perception and everyday living, and takes some unusual routes in the course of its discoveries. Greer holds a background in shamanistic training as well as traditional Jungian analysis and martial arts. His memoir about his self-exploration and transformation from a traditional style of success (as president of an independent oil and gas company that built him wealth) to that of a spiritual pilgrim is gripping.

Some readers might experience discomfort if the book hits too close to home with its close examination of finding value beyond monetary wealth and career. This is because The Necktie and the Jaguar embraces redefining ideas of success and achievement, moving into realms beyond that of the status quo or monetary gain. This is where Greer's background in psychology stands out, reaching ordinary readers with a story of how despite being a husband, homeowner, and successful businessman, he still lacked satisfaction. His restlessness eventually shook him out of his comfort zone and traditional definitions of value and wealth.

Ironically, these psychological and business lessons also permeate this exploration of inner worlds and spiritual paths, giving them a concrete foundation that is lacking in too many other memoirs of spiritual enlightenment. This is the very factor that makes The Necktie and the Jaguar so accessible to audiences that might not ordinarily pick up a memoir about fulfillment and enlightenment.

Greer began his life in familiar circles, but expanded his goals and perceptions in ways that produced riches beyond his imagination. These riches could not have been perceived without a redefinition of value. Readers of The Necktie and the Jaguar will find positive encouragement in many of his words: "At last, I was consciously making different choices and beginning to establish new habits that were making me feel happier, freer, and more authentic."

Writing about how his ingrained competitiveness has begun to fade, Greer is quite honest about his struggles with patterns and traits which remain to this day. He's also honest about his newfound abilities and satisfaction. The Necktie and the Jaguar will reach New Age, spirituality, and traditional business book readers alike with a story that holds a blueprint for achieving a different, ultimately more satisfying, life.

The Education Shelf

Special Needs Children
Jody Sharpe
Independently Published
9780988562011, $12.00 PR, $2.99 Kindle, 48pp

Special Needs Children: The Angels On My Shoulder is a memoir about Jody Sharpe's twenty-five years teaching special needs kids. It provides an unexpected focus on not just special needs circumstances, but the bullying which evolved from them, by other children. Sharpe's spiritual reflections on God and angels is a constant referral in this book, which speaks of 'angel teachers', the 'hearts of angels' which reside in many of these children, and their fleeting and long-term influences as they move through her life and classroom.

Sharpe's ability to see the good in circumstances and people identifies the 'special' in 'special needs' as she delineates her journey through the education system and those teaching and social encounters which changed her perspective and life.

Teachers (especially those working with special needs kids) will find this spiritual and social reflection easily accessible. It's presented in vignettes which offer small, digestible bites of insight into a world where angels and kindness are present in more than one form. Education and spirituality collections alike will find Special Needs Children details a unique viewpoint and is an uplifting read.

The General Fiction Shelf

The Weary God of Ancient Travelers
Jessica Stilling
D. X. Varos, Ltd.
9781941072950, $18.95 PB, $4.99 ebook, 348pp

The Weary God of Ancient Travelers presents the dilemma of amnesiac Lydia Warren, who struggles to regain her identity and life, then moves through a different scenario as she experiences life in Greece with a man she can't quite recall and tries to reconcile this world with a past which is shrouded in questions.

Jessica Stilling brings Greece alive from the start in an introductory paragraph that is compelling, evocative, and filled with the promise of a good mystery. Lydia knows that her current life is overlaid by a past she can't quite recall. The questions are not only what that life was and what happened to it, but at what points the two personas intersect, and how to rebuild it from a blend of new and old foundations.

When an agent from the UN arrives at her door, Lydia begins to discover that her connections to this world may not be as straightforward as the accident that caused memory loss and thwarts her recovery. She may be involved in something that involves not just present-day experiences, but past lives. This added facet of intrigue powers a story spiced with psychological inspection and mystery. As she finds out about threats to people who were her family and her role in these events through a third party agent, Lydia and Agent Rynsburger uncover evidence that much more is going on than a simple memory loss. Are her past life memories real? If not, why do they fill in so many blanks about the present?

The reports surrounding her identity don't make sense. The facts surrounding a death do not add up. And Lydia's commitment to uncovering the truth about her past and possible other lives leads her to place trust in another's ability to investigate, even though he might not prove to be acting on her best interests. The motive for her choices is especially well portrayed: "There is a comfort in his expertise and I want to push him to know the truth even if I cannot remember it. I want him to piece this together ever so carefully."

The blend of romance, mystery, the compelling-almost visceral-descriptions of Greece, and the psychological self-inspection all work together to create an absolutely compelling piece worthy of high recommendation. Who is Lydia Warren, in all this? The answer will rock not only her world, but many readers.

The Magician
Kathleen Shoop
Independently Published
9798596878127, $14.99 PB, $4.99 Kindle, 509pp

The Magician is a sweeping historical family saga that moves between 1920 and 2019, tracing the heritage, birth, and growth of a baseball legend whose achievements change the Donora household. Before Stanislaw Franciszek Musial steps into his destiny, however, a series of mishaps (both personal and social) pose seemingly insurmountable barriers to his goals.

His story is told by 92-year-old Patryk Rusek who, having been thwarted in his escape from a retirement community, decides to capture the magic of his family history for a young boy, which eventually expands to embrace other listeners. Rusek hoped that, by gathering these recollections, he would be deemed sane enough to return to his Donora, Pennsylvania home.

Donora is a real town, affected by the mills that became its lifeblood and by the peoples whose lives were changed and challenged by factory work. Kathleen Shoop consulted members of the Donora Historical Society to build authentic color into her story, which represents a fine blend of fictionalized lives and nonfiction realities and social issues. She also reviewed source materials about the legend and life of baseball player Stan Musial, injecting a background of solid history and biographical facts into the story.

Stan Musial is a baseball player deemed a "magician" by Rusek and everyone who knew him. His magic stemmed as much from his attitude towards his abilities, an equally extraordinary way of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve the impossible, and his kindness towards others as his skillful playing. As Shoop delves into his childhood, Donora history, and the events and elements that shaped Musail's life, readers receive a powerful story of the Depression, the concurrent battle Patryk faces over cancer, and the choices it brings to both his present world and connections with his family. Perhaps the greatest strength to Shoop's story lies in its evocative descriptions of not just Stan's life and relationships, but the inner logic of his thoughts.

Her ability to bring these to life to explore Stan's progression through hard work, family crises, love, and baseball dreams alike lends a powerful flavor to the book that even non-sports readers will find absolutely compelling: "...when I bat and I'm looking at the pitcher and everything just fades away, all the voices, the fielders, my doubts, and I feel the pitcher's movement like it's mine, and in the back of my mind I register the grip and see the ball come off his fingertips - but that's not even what's important; it's what comes after all that stuff that I concentrate on, and before the ball gets halfway to the plate I know where it's gonna break or curve or drop, and I know whether to swing for short left field or smack one through the center right gap. And then I do. It's not like the kind of thinking in algebra or making sure I don't stammer or deciding to try college. It's like nothing else I've ever experienced. It's like magic. It's when I'm the most happy I could ever be."

These moments of fulfillment, happiness, and walking in the shoes of destiny drive this story and makes all its characters and their choices and trials realistic and gripping. Readers who believe that a prior interest in baseball or Donora history is a requirement for enjoying The Magician will be in for a surprise. All that's required is an open mind and heart. The magic embedded in the tale will do the rest.

Robert Rubenstein
Independently Published
9798579977748, $4.99 PB, $2.99 Kindle, 174pp

The 2021 world depicted in Standees holds the rare attribute of simultaneously feeling both familiar and alien. This will delight readers of social satire and literary allusion, offering a close inspections of ironic and dark settings that provide a twist on perspectives of modern society's oddities. Take a walk into Lovee's world, where an elderly best friend has been reborn as a 'standee' - a cardboard cutout of himself who represents a wave of undead new observers in a strange half-dead/half-alive milieu. It's a pandemic setting which puts all kinds of relationships to the test. In this world, "love has run amuck," and has washed everything away. Lovee still finds plenty to fear, despite his changed condition.

Standees is no straightforward progression through the usual pandemic scenario, but a surreal romp that juxtaposes inner and outer worlds of imagination and change. Readers familiar with the usual logical progression of such a scenario may chafe at the twisting, turning, winding story line that ebbs and flows like the tide. Standees assumes not a linear progression but the mercurial staccato images of a dream, intoxicating in its romp through images, underworlds, and the dark, stark reality of newly-formed standees who are corrugated coroplasts of their former selves.

Dip into a stream of consciousness style of narration in which Lovee is buffeted, abused, changed; the observer of a society transformed by pandemic and its own implosion of values: "Rui'an was being brainwashed. How else to explain the rage? He was being programmed to kill, or to suicide by over-ingesting milk chocolatey frosted donuts. There were many ways to kill Americans those days." It brings to mind One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; but Lovee is too often the participant as well as the observer of revised survival tactics and choices in this dreadfully altered world.

Prepare to be amazed and confused and delighted, all in one. Standees is no light read, but carries its readers into the dissolution of society and self which seems both all too familiar and hauntingly surrealistic. Literature readers well used to the devices of satire and dark humor are in for a treat, as well as sci-fi or pandemic fiction audiences looking for a far more thought provoking twist on the subject.

The Literary Fiction Shelf

Glass Souvenir
Michael Tuberdyke
Shoplifters Publishing
9780578762906, $10.00

The short stories in Glass Souvenir center on an unusual focal point: a vacant store front in a changing town, where everyone who comes in contact with the place is changed or leaves their imprint on its future. There is a wistful certainty about the meaning and future of these disparate lives which are joined by a sense of place more than a sense of purpose. As the characters' psyches weave into the fate of the shop, their fates coalesce to bring life to empty spaces both physical and psychological.

Take 'The Jacket', the opening piece in this collection. A mother forced to take her child along on a date with Frank, her latest love interest, when the babysitter cancels turns into a struggle over a jacket from the past which brings with it memories of a vanished father and what has been outgrown, discarded, or perhaps never fit in the first place. Each chapter opens with a reference to the shop and its history ("The old man left the keys along with the deed to the tenant next door. This tenant once acted as the old man's protege for he assisted in the daily operations of the deceased's woodshop."). Each circumstance weaves into the story that follows, both setting the scene and creating an unusual juxtaposition of worlds that, at times, feels at once surreal and yet achingly familiar.

'The Party' portrays Robert Morgan, an attendee who works the room but "has nothing to say to anyone." It's a familiar scenario that questions what such a loner is doing at a social event as he probes his one interaction for clues about its failure: "Drowning in a pool of reflection he carefully went over the night's only human interaction. He felt he said the wrong thing. That was probably it. He just could not figure out the correct way to act and said the wrong thing to a friend who did all the right things." Dejection and isolation lead to anger and the one choice he had avoided making: a scene.

Each story seems to head towards a particular goal, than changes with a satisfying twist, at the end. Each is a snapshot of life in which characters examine their psyches and choices, taking actions that at times seem out of character but, upon contemplation, are actually logical outcomes to their circumstances. From a fifty-seven-year-old boxer who "believed he could distinguish the difference between the ones who were for him, from the ones who were against him," who finds his life a study in indifference with no ultimate meaning, to a diner conversation that connects loners who live their lives "Heaving away when the world is getting ready to fall asleep and sleeping when the rest of the world is going,"

Glass Souvenir offers studies of lives of quiet desperation, thwarted and realized purposes, and the gentrification of the soul. Literary readers seeking vignettes that offer slice-of-life inspections of aging and change will find no striking transformations here - just a quiet interweaving of youth and old age which joins together worlds, changing rhythms, and emptying storefronts of the mind. It's an evocative read that will leave readers thinking.

Tempest in a Teacup
D.R. Bell
Independently Published
ASIN: B08WF79YWJ, $3.99 Kindle

Tempest in a Teacup: My Homage to Milan Kundera and Leonard Cohen pays tribute to author Milan Kundera and musician Leonard Cohen, crafting a series of character vignettes and weaving in a romance theme to produce philosophical and psychological reflections on life. It's a literary work that belongs in any collection serious about exploring the foundations of how characters are built and contrasted.

D.R. Bell uses six disparate individuals as metaphorical examples of differing approaches to life. Each holds different ways of perceiving and understanding the world and its choices, and each has a different experience with dating, romance, and life goals.

Readers of Tempest in a Teacup (especially those already familiar with Milan Kundera's approach to writing and literature and Cohen's substantial musical contributions) will find these vignettes absorbing as they traverse ordinary lives and the mechanics of navigating them to embrace different dreams, values, and approaches to interpersonal relationships: "It's your dream." Veda laughed. "You saw in it what you wanted to see."

While the changing viewpoints and lives do take some time to absorb, the manner in which they entwine and are both similar and different is intriguing and creatively portrayed.

Literature students interested in the mercurial foundations of philosophical and psychological influences on choice and consequence will find these to be stimulating studies of character which don't always come across as three-dimensional figures, but which do successfully represent the ebb, flow, and convergences of life.

The disparate explorations of how love and life purpose evolve are well done. They will prove especially appealing and enlightening for students considering how characters are created and evolve by coming together, drifting apart, and growing.

A Twilight Reel: Stories
Michael Amos Cody
Pisgah Press, LLC
9781942016663, $17.95

A Twilight Reel: Stories provides a collection of literary works that take place in the small North Carolina town of Runion. These capture the surreal intersection of night and day and periods of time and life in which the characters experience sea changes both in their Appalachian mountain seasons and in themselves. While the community portrayed is imaginary, it's not too big a leap of faith to presume that one knows or has known some of the character types that inhabit its environs.

These stories are diverse not only in their character dilemmas, but in their sense of time, place, and shifting relationships. For example, 'The Loves of Misty Sprinkle' presents the dilemma faced by a hairdresser and mother of two who faces February's seasonal vengeance and the reappearance of a man who "kept charging into and retreating from their lives." Is Jimmy back for romance, or something more? And what kind of a love brings beer, over chocolates, for Valentine's Day? Jimmy's return brings to mind other lovers she's had, other opportunities and options that went awry, and leads her, at her preacher's suggestion in his oration at church that week, to rethink love, loss, and what makes her life feel rich.

Quite different is the equally quiet dilemma in 'A Poster of Marilyn Monroe', in which Troy Pate has arranged to go to Greenville, where nobody has a chance of knowing him, to get a coveted Marilyn Monroe poster. Unfortunately, Marilyn manages to make her escape on the ride home, leaving him once again home alone with his obsession, old fantasies, and unrealized ambitions. As the old man finds his heart's desire mirrored in an unexpected place and legacy, readers receive a fine story of love, family, and change.

These literary works each hold a punch, are firmly rooted in the sights, smells, and sounds of Runion life. They explore a wide range of characters' diverse lives and pivot points that lead them to validate, re-examine, or achieve long-held goals and perceptions about what enriches them. Its survey of twilight times operates on more than one level and will engross and delight literature readers seeking small-town backdrops and stories of quiet desperation and change.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

You Might Feel a Little Prick
Reuben Leder
9781525573095, $22.99 HC, $14.99 PB, 402pp

You Might Feel a Little Prick injects satirical examination into a medical thriller format to provide readers with an unusual blend of intrigue and humor. From its introductory sentence, it's evident that the story is filled with startling descriptions that are compellingly original in their representation: "The keening wind blowing off Lake Erie weaponized the snow, turned it horizontal - a Christmas Eve more appropriate for balaclavas or burkas than reindeer sweaters. Or better yet, to stay inside. Unless inside meant Cleveland Mercy Hospital; then all bets were off."

Nick and Julie were high school sweethearts who both worked for the same medical company, EZ Care. They find themselves unexpectedly in trouble in different ways, threatened by the health system they once believed in. Nick has an accident that results in a series of botched procedures that he comes to believe are benefitting his employer, while Julie is framed by her sexist supervisor for the loss of a patient and is fired. The couple joins forces to seek justice -- and that's where You Might Feel a Little Prick becomes complicated and especially intriguing.

Questions of moral and ethical judgment (and actions on all sides -- including a too-savvy police detective who connects the dots of their actions and is rapidly closing in) combined with a range of obstacles, from dangerous doctors to corporate shenanigans and threats, to complete a romp through the pages of an engrossing saga.

Even arrest processes are hilariously depicted: "...according to the AMA, you're not licensed to practice anywhere in the United States." "You lie!" said Demidova. "Dr. Trout arrange all my licenses! Everything is in order!" "Then I'd say killing him was a helluva of a way to say thanks." Oohs and aahs from the crowd as Demidova wailed, "Akhineya! How could I kill the man I love?" Demidova's white-hot glare would have made the sun cower, had it been out. "Save it for the jury, Doc," said Sikorski. "Along with the reason your fingerprints were all over his French doors to oblivion." "He ask me to open!" That begat woofing from the bystanders, who'd taken on the singularity of a reality show audience."

Expect the unexpected, whether it's in interpersonal interactions, special interests, changing points of view, or images of perps and police alike. The descriptions, language, and progression of You Might Feel a Little Prick are simply outstanding. The story will especially appeal, as a spoof, to medical thriller readers who will recognize many tongue-in-cheek comments on more serious medical thriller components.

From remarkable personal transformations as Julie turns away from the person Nick loved and manages to find her way back on the path home to issues of medical system special interests, along with a serving of revenge and redemption, You Might Feel a Little Prick is delightful in its dilemmas. It will intrigue a wide audience, from medical thriller fans (who receive something very different with the added value of satirical inspection) to those who enjoy black humor, corporate shenanigans, and stories of idealistic worldviews gone awry.

The Last of the Swindlers
Peter Loewer
Pisgah Press, LLC
9781942016557, $17.95

The Last of the Swindlers sets its murder mystery scene in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina in Fernglade in 1978, where politics and a double murder rock a small town unused to threat and the specter of big-stakes struggles. Here, The Leader is on a mission that has arrived at a success-or-fail pivot point. Portents and signs may signal success, but there are small-town forces at work to thwart The Leader's path to growth. A crisis brings with it slaughter, and tragic circumstances bring disparate individuals together in a struggle that reflects the underlying transformation of this once-bucolic (on the surface, anyway) town as its course clashes with modern times and special interests. "There's a sense of responsibility that's part of living in a small town."

As a host of characters absorb their revised roles and edge away from comfort and familiarity into new territory, the story reflects the intersection of small-town perspectives with the forces that emerge when big-city interests seek to find a place within it. Rich folk are seeking refuge, but bring the ills of their world with them. Ordinary folk just want a familiar place that stays the same. Fernglade native Oliver Swindler, unhappy with life in the big city, just wants a quiet place to call home and a garden to cultivate, but is charged with solving a mystery in a process that will change all the things he's come to value in his community.

Peter Loewer excels at bringing this small town to life. Yes, this is a murder mystery; but beyond that, it's an excellent inspection of the social and political currents that affect the town's citizen's lives and Oliver's choices, placing the backdrop of the murder in as important a position as the social conflict itself. Readers who enjoy full-bodied reads about small town characters, big city interests in rural environments and opportunities, and lives out of control will relish Peter Loewer's ability to produce a story that rests on the choices of many memorable characters.

The Last of the Swindlers is a vivid story of not just investigations, but shifting interpersonal relationships. It will prove thoroughly absorbing and satisfyingly complex to the end.

Nerve Attack
S. Lee Manning
Independently Published
9781645991953, $28.99 HC, $18.99 PB, $4.99 Kindle, 370pp

In Trojan Horse, S. Lee Manning outlined the efforts of American operative Kolya Petrov to track a deadly terrorist involved in planning nuclear plant meltdowns around the globe. A key to playing this game involved planting a 'Trojan horse' virus in a computer. But a necessary sacrifice in the plan was Kolya Petrov, a loner and Russian Jewish immigrant.

Nerve Attack outlines Kolya Petrov's revised life of intrigue and deception, which continues here with reverberations from an undercover project in Moscow. Petrov has long believed the Russian message about being prepared for anything, and has absorbed its motto: "Moscow rules. Trust no one. Trust nothing." This doesn't help him in his new life. In fact, it combines with PTSD to create different dilemmas that affect his role as a former undercover intelligence operative facing a different challenge. As his fate becomes entwined with the actions of former Mossad agent Tehila Melaku, Petrov gambles on his fiancee Alex's life in a new confrontation with high-stakes forces.

Readers receive an engrossing story of intrigue filled not just with suspense, but psychological insights into how a loner ex-agent is drawn back into past habits. His inability to adjust to his new life is very nicely presented. Petrov finds himself meeting with a smuggler, and embarks on another clandestine operation that pits his personal life against his professional abilities. Readers receive moving moments not just from his changing perspective, but those of people whose lives intersect with his. As Alex, Tehila, and CIA operative Stephen Kowolsky barrel towards a confrontation, nightmares and love coalesce with violence and threats. These forces change and challenge all that Petrov has built from the ruins of his career.

The result is a heady rush of intrigue and psychological inspection that weaves a cat-and-mouse game into an evolving new life. It's a story designed to attract prior readers and newcomers alike, placing Petrov, once again, in a position far from his familiar routines or the coping mechanisms that worked for him in the past. Readers of Trojan Horse, in particular, will find this sequel thoroughly engrossing.

A Restaurant in Jaffa
Mark E. Sorenson
DartFrog Books
9781953910042, $16.99 PB, $8.99 Kindle, 410pp

Readers of cyberthrillers and international espionage will relish the fast-paced tension and action in A Restaurant in Jaffa. The story opens with Ryan Thompson's attendance at a BlackHat Convention of computer hackers and geeks, whose hobbies are locating and exploiting computer system vulnerabilities. Ryan may be a computer prodigy, but he's not a hacker. He's founded a computer company, and is there to meet with a potential reseller to save his failing business. A group of Palestinian revolutionaries have hacked into and are using his brilliant system for their nefarious purposes, leaving Ryan's reputation sullied, and so he embarks on an effort to clear his name.

Arab and Israeli forces and interactions are represented in the quirky little restaurant of Al Hadyag, where disparate groups of individuals gather to blow off steam and socialize. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict comes to life in both a personal and a political manner through the restaurant, which also sets this story apart from general thrillers that too often don't take the time to focus on social and cultural interactions.

The descriptions that emerge from the kitchen and surrounding environment of Al Hadyag are particularly well done. These bring to life the atmosphere of the Middle East, adding personal touches that imbibe the story's suspense components with a solid sense of place and peoples: "The large round table in the corner of Al Hadyag was strewn with the remains of the meal Hassan had served his friends and Jamal and Ahmad's Uncle Kasim. The restaurant's mountainous dishes of couscous, lamb, fish and potatoes were far superior than anything Kasim could find in his home in Gaza." The notes on how this restaurant fields local political struggles and discretely offers special dishes to special guests helps solidify its role in the community and its appeal to a diverse clientele.

Mark E. Sorenson does an excellent job of crafting a creative, globe-trotting yarn that sweeps the main characters and readers off their feet. Its political interactions, terrorist threats, technological challenges, and interactions are intriguing and unpredictable. Fans of cyberthrillers won't be disappointed in the world-changing arena of A Restaurant in Jaffa, which is gripping and hard to put down.

Decoy 17
Robert Vallier
Jaguar Publishing Inc

Decoy 17 is a sequel to the thriller Spider 2-3 and returns hero Jim (JP) Peregrine to the spotlight of the spy story community with another adventure. Here, JP faces the prospect of a month's respite on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia in a mansion provided by his uncle. Stephanie Raughton and Anna Kepling join him in this idyllic journey, which is a far cry from the tense events that challenged his heart and soul during the events of Spider 2-3. Predictably, JP's long-overdue respite is not to be. Satisfyingly unpredictable is a sequence of events that involve a murder, a plot, and a new brand of terrorism that makes the Spider 2-3 scenario look like a walk in the park. Ironically, Spider 2-3 has prepared him for Decoy 17's undercover efforts; for having fostered the persona of the mysterious hero The Falcon (who operated surprisingly efficiently in thwarting a worldwide disaster in the previous confrontation) he is armed, efficient, and just waiting for what evolves next.

Readers who enjoy international intrigue, espionage, and a catchy blend of James Bond-like action and confrontation will find these devices appear in droves in Decoy 17 as JP foregoes his vacation for a new task and challenge. With operative Dave Tilson's murder comes JP's realization that Spider 2-3 is not the only game in town. It served as a preface for what is about to transpire during this second scheme, a sequel to the first. Readers who liked Spider 2-3 (and, there should be many) will find the saga continues in much the same spirit. Same approach, but different characters, purposes, and challenges that continue to expand JP's identity both as The Falcon and in his own staid world as an ordinary citizen. JP needs to come back to work, and as a target, he might prove even more invaluable to his superiors for drawing out the plot and perps involved in Decoy 17. As he heads a team and tries to assume control of a virtually uncontrollable scenario, JP moves from the Caribbean to Europe to South America, seemingly a step behind, too much of the time. He tries to catch up fast.

Readers who know aviation or technical engineering details will relish the real facts built into this story of disasters, as well as the interplay of romance between JP and Stephanie, the future Mrs. Peregrine. Newcomers will find Decoy 17 surprisingly easy to access, requiring no prior familiarity with JP's character, motivations, or abilities in order to prove immediately understandable. Prior fans receive a puzzler just as adept at surprising twists and turns as its predecessor. Both audiences will find the action concludes neatly, but in a manner that more than leaves the door open for more books to follow in The Falcon series. With its powerful central character, a host of special interests which swirl around him, and JP's struggle to maintain his grasp on his personal life while immersed in a political and international spy conundrum, Decoy 17 proves a powerful story. It's highly recommended for thriller readers who enjoy stories of espionage, terrorism, disaster, and one man who stands between the life and death of millions. Decoy 17 is a riveting read that is hard to put down, packed with satisfying twists and turns that keep readers engaged and wondering to the end.

Susan Fleet
Music and Mayhem Press
ASIN: B08XKJY5ZQ, $2.99 Kindle
9781732130128, $15.00 PB, $2.99 Kindle, 297pp

Foulshot provides prior fans with another Frank Renzi crime thriller that introduces a special puzzler to the NOPD homicide detective. This comes in the form of three different murders, a jailed suspect who is not talking, and leads that indicate that an intricate web of lies may lie at the heart of a threat that is not cut-and-dried, defying his problem-solving prowess.

As Frank and equally talented detective and lover Kelly share theories and investigate, a host of characters and potential perps come to light that all intersect on the larger playing field of NBA gamblers involved in a big-stakes game. From enemy ambushes to a dangerous game which threatens children and adults alike,

Foulshot takes many intriguing twists and turns as Frank and Kelly embark on their most challenging investigation yet. Kidnappings, vanished bodies, journeys between New Orleans, Chicago, and Memphis, and a personal threat to Frank, who finds the tables turned as the investigator threatens to become another victim, create a fast-paced story.

It's accessible to newcomers to Frank Renzi's special brand of intriguing cases, but will especially delight prior fans more than familiar with his approaches to solving crime. Book 10 in the series proves every bit as complex and compelling as its predecessors. It achieves the goal of expanding Frank's world as he encounters Russian interests, powerful men, and the complex underworld of sports betting and its connections to violence and criminal special interests.

From the Mind of a Witch
Bruce M. Perrin
Mind Sleuth Publications
9781955114011, $10.99 PB, $0.99 Kindle, 262pp

Once an FBI agent, Rebecca Marte has now become a PI. Her first job is the unusual case of a witch charged with killing a man during a coven ritual...seemingly cut-and-dried, because a group of people witnessed the murder. Or, did they?

In From the Mind of a Witch, Rebecca's client wants her to clear the name of the High Priestess, Della Bergeron. It sounds like an impossible task, given the circumstances. But as Rebecca delves deeper into the coven, its politics, and special interests, she comes to realize that her client's unusual defense of being possessed may be only one piece of an evolving puzzle. Rebecca finds herself increasingly drawn into a deadly supernatural game. Is Della an untouchable pagan leader, a shrewd businesswoman, or something more?

As Mateo Sanchez, a company CFO, becomes involved in the probe, facts emerge that pit Rebecca against many forces; not the least of which is the power of psychological suggestion and spiritual possibilities that may contribute to supporting her client's wild contention. But, will it hold up in court against a murder charge?

Bruce M. Perrin deftly weaves a murder investigation into a story replete with supernatural forces, special business interests, and the progressive foray into danger as a savvy PI finds herself operating in a milieu where she is over her head. These devices contribute to a thoroughly engrossing story.

To add to the already considerable suspense, Perrin adds a life-and-death struggle as an extended side-story. Faced with her nearly impossible task, Rebecca turns to an old friend, psychologist Sam "Doc" Price to help her bridge the gap between the supernatural and a reality she can embrace. He, however, has become fixated, perhaps dangerously so, with the hunt for his kidnapped fiancee as she fights for her life. Can he break free of his obsession even for a moment to help? Should he?

The blend of PI investigation, supernatural influences, and psychological probe is especially inviting because the characters are so solidly represented and nicely drawn, with the mystery ever-changing. Perrin's probe into memory's fallacies and possibilities is particularly intriguing as the story evolves.

As lies and murderous hatred escalate into confrontations, Rebecca walks a fine line between psychological understanding and supernatural revelations. Her story is filled with satisfying twists and turns, and is certain to delight those who like supernatural influences cemented with murder mystery intrigue.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Oh the Humanity
Daniel R Scott
Clipper Implants Press
9781734050745, $5.50 PB, $.99 Kindle, 159pp

Readers who want to begin Daniel R Scott's Humanity Transformed series with a fitting introduction will find the prequel novella Oh the Humanity an excellent starting point, even though it's the fourth book in the series. It fills in details about the three main characters and smoothes out any confusion over events sparked by the Days of Trouble and the Great Dieback, surveying how humanity recovered from and was influenced by events which sent them on a course documented in the three Humanity Transformed books in this sci-fi series.

This story follows how the genius Cameron twins featured in Scott's other books first fostered the bioengineering promise that transformed humanity, tracing the birth of Singularity and intelligent AIs that interact with key human players to change the course of the world. As these artificial intelligences and human purposes evolve, readers are treated to a succinct overview of the world in the 2060s that provides a closer inspection of this transformative process.

As with the other books, a host of characters are presented, as well as changing world locales from Illinois to Australia. Young people such as Darby and Daiyu are involved in the latest cutting-edge research, and stand poised to make changes to daily life that humanity has never seen before. But, is society ready for such a move?

This near-future history of survival and change should ideally be read first. It's a fitting stage-setting introduction to the series and its characters, which is especially important given the worldwide scope and the wide-ranging personalities that develop from these roots. It should be advised that this is no light series read. It entertains, but involves a level of complexity with a wide cast of characters, changing international settings, and political and technological conundrums that keep readers on their toes. Those who enjoy well-detailed reads will be especially delighted by the level of inspection offered in this story and its companions.

Readers interested in post-apocalyptic singularity stories will find this sweeping series and its introductory title to be absolutely riveting.

The Last Crucible of Humanity
Daniel R Scott
Clipper Implants Press
9781734050738, $16.99 PB, $7.99 Kindle, 376pp

The Last Crucible of Humanity is the third volume in the Humanity Transformed series, and is highly recommended reading for prior series fans because this pinnacle of action concludes the events set forth in prior books.

Flooding has driven the Chinese over the Russian border to invade the Morizov family's land and their country, in 2068. As if this wasn't danger enough, the West's nuclear attack has devastated other parts of Russia. The Morizov family hatches a plan that could help survivors begin a new life -- not in Russia or lands nearby, but first from Antarctica and then away from Earth. It's a plan that relies on high technology, the goodwill gained from other peoples and nations, and allies who grow in leadership skills and survival tactics alike.

The story opens in 2068, but moves into 2073 and beyond as the technologically savvy Yasmeen and Vik face prejudice, confront class systems, and move through much-changed countries. The story doesn't remain rooted in China, Russia, or the Middle East. Characters and special interests embrace the world, from Couderay, Wisconsin (where a Middle West Confederation is home to enhancement clinics for the general population, performing bioengineering miracles) to Borlange, Sweden (where the Scandinavian Commonwealth faces oligarchs, attacks, and reconstituted forces that have changed and are changing the face of Europe).

Daniel R Scott's story is a sweeping sci-fi epic of humanity changed by social, political, and technological struggles. Without prior familiarity with the other books, the large cast of characters, special interests, and interactions might initially stymie newcomers. Those who have enjoyed the evolutionary process of Scott's prior books will find a satisfyingly complex crescendo of action and crisis in a conclusion where humanity faces its final search for meaning beyond the foundations of its physical origins.

The Russian family Morizov stands at the crossroads of humanity. Their choices reflect a transformation in social and military processes and human interaction that will truly change the world.

Hard sci-fi readers of apocalyptic and dystopian worlds will find the intense focus on these community and political structures to be especially pleasing. Scott juxtaposes technological and social challenges, cementing all with a host of strong characters who each contribute their own vision and purpose of this revised humanity to the story's surprising outcome. It's highly recommended reading for sci-fi fans of post-apocalyptic epic sagas, in particular.

Tim Rayborn
Thousand Acres Press
9781736298817, $14.99 PB, $9.49 Kindle, 358pp

Qwyrk's blend of magical realism, urban fantasy, and wry humor will appeal to fantasy readers who look for more elements in their reading than action and adventure alone. It will prove just the ticket for fans of British satire and social inspection.

Qwyrk opens in Jimmy Eckleson's bedroom, where the stuff of nightmares has come alive, resulting in his sleepless inspection of a room filled with threat. An avid fan of video games, Jimmy chalks up these visions to too much screen time fantasy, but as the third night unfolds much the some despite his self-limit on video watching, Jimmy faces the fact that he may be observing something both otherworldly and all too real. His initial reaction is to call for help. Even as he runs from his visions, the humor of a frustrated apparition comes forth.

The dialogue, too, is filled with irony and fun: "Oh, nice one, Qwyrk!" snapped one of the other shadows. "Bring us all the way up here, and as soon as we arrive, we've got a flippin' screamin' kid to greet us. That's just spot on, that is!" "Look, it's not my fault he's got insomnia, or dyspepsia, or Black Death, or whatever, is it? His parents'll be back in here any second, so we need to hide, all right?"

As Qwyrk, Blip, Star Tao, and others confront murderers, gods, and each other, it becomes evident that, despite the youth of the initial character, Qwyrk should not be a read confined to young adult audiences alone. It's a quest; it's a lark that romps through human and magical worlds alike; and it's a whimsical, delightful saga set in Northern England. The story is steeped in not just folklore, but the connections between a rosebush, evil magic, and Jimmy's house, which serves as a focal point for unfolding events.

From castles and intersecting time periods to abductions via Croakbeak and knights who let a murdering psychopath get away, Qwyrk is engaging, endearing, and unpredictable in its human and magical relationships and conundrums. Fans of fantasy who enjoy magical realism injected into the everyday milieu of British life will relish the nature of Qwyrk, first in a projected series of stories about misfits and the sometimes-hilarious mishaps that evolve from seemingly good intentions.

The Triskelion
Victoria Lehrer
Evolved Publishing
9781622533718, $16.95 PB, $4.95 Kindle, 324pp

The Triskelion represents the second book in the New Earth Chronicles and continues a journey through a post-apocalyptic world introduced in The Augur's View. The story opens in 2037, setting the tone for events with an 'Arrivals and Departures' chapter that takes place on an airfield where the royal Dora d'Arc is about to enter married life. Hopefully, the world will change. She's seen her share of controversy. But married bliss is not to be her lot as aliens conspire to inject the population with docility-inducing nanites; Caellum plots a coup and escapes from jail; and forest dweller Adair creates a sanctuary of replenishment and earth-based approaches to life that city people rarely see, as an alternative to Techno City's familiar approaches to life.

These contrasts in lifestyles and approaches run the gamut from pagan earth mothers to aliens and high-tech. They make The Triskelion especially intriguing as Dora and her objectives and changing environment come to life. Relationships are as fluid as the world and introduce complexity beyond the usual cut-and-dried love/hate scenarios, as in the mercurial connection between Dora and Caellum. This brings a delightful complexity to the story, in which shades of gray create ever-changing, absorbing interplays between characters, politics, social evolution, and the world's uncertain progression.

Unlike many series titles, no prior familiarity with its predecessor is required in order for newcomers to neatly and quickly absorb the setting, characters, and themes of The Triskelion. Readers who enjoy series titles that operate as both strong stand-alone reads and supportive parts of the series as a whole will especially appreciate the engaging blend of sci-fi, suspense, mystery, romance, in the story of this changing society's reconnections to the earth.

Invasion of the Undead
Dan Coglan
L'Oste Vineyard Press
9781735389677, $14.99 PB, $7.99 Kindle, 214pp

Fantasy horror fans and thriller readers alike will find Invasion of the Undead cultivates a special brand of tension designed to raise the hackles and intrigue the mind. It centers on the domestic dilemma faced by ex-Marine commander Chase Brooks when he returns home from a stint in Afghanistan only to find that the enemy (the undead) is unalive and well, operating on American soil.

The difference between this scenario and other zombie novels is that nobody else is acknowledging their existence in America. It's difficult to effectively fight a war that nobody will admit to. Chase has experienced enough traumas overseas, from fighting enemies who will not die. Now he has to take his work to the streets. And not every living person will appreciate either his efforts or his unusual contentions.

Invasion of the Undead employs Chase's gritty first-person observations to bring to life (pardon the pun) the confrontations and dilemmas that surround his missions. His initial choice (to blow up himself and the zombies he faces in a stone temple in Afghanistan) would seem to end the story before it begins. Actually, it introduces a scenario in which Chase is an unlikely sole survivor, returned to his home injured, but in one piece -- which is more than can be said about his entire unit. His brain injury would seem to explain the fantasy surrounding the zombie apocalypse which is his last memory. The trouble is that events keep happening which indicate not just a zombie issue, but a supernatural cover-up. And so the mystery portion solidifies as Chase struggles to recover and reconcile his memories and the certainty of his experience with the altered reality unfolding around him.

Dan Coglan is adept at tracing the roots of these convictions and their effect on Chase and those who believe in him. As he delves ever deeper into a scenario that moves beyond the battlefield and PTSD and into a very real threats, the thriller elements simmer with puzzles and dilemmas to draw readers in like quicksand. Once immersed, it's hard to stop reading. It's equally difficult for Chase to reconcile his experience and reality with a probe into who (or what) lies at the heart of this uprising and his involvement in it. Readers looking for a very different blend of military confrontation, thriller, and supernatural intrigue will relish the original, sometimes quirky perspective of a story that is as grippingly unrelenting as a zombie's grasp.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
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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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