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California Bookwatch

Volume 17, Number 6 June 2022 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

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

Reviewer's Choice

Caught with My Pants Down and Other Tales from a Life in Hollywood
Jim Piddock
DartFrog Books
4697 Main Street, Manchester Center, VT 05255
9781953910981, $17.99 Paper/$5.99 Kindle/$27.99 Hardcover/$26.95 Audio

Caught with My Pants Down and Other Tales from a Life in Hollywood is a memoir packed with colorful description, outrageous adventures, and entertaining observations. In short, it's the perfect encapsulation of a Hollywood and Broadway life as a writer, actor, and insider, dosing its autobiographical inspections with a very large amount of humor that will have its reader laughing and thinking at the same time.

Friend and fellow British actor Eric Idle provides an introduction that celebrates friendship and years in the industry, paving the way for an appreciation of Jim Piddock and his life that will especially intrigue readers interested in both British and American acting milieus.

Serendipity played a part in the production of this book. Piddock never intended to be an author, or to craft a memoir of his experiences. Luckily for the world, he did. A ninety-minute interview onstage with a Wall Street Journal reporter broke a long theatrical hiatus and led Piddock ultimately to chronicling his Hollywood experiences.

From the start, there is a fresh air of introspection that brings Piddock and this world to life, especially in its contrasting descriptions of British perspectives and sitcoms, as well as American producers and actors. From evolving friendships and professional relationships to interviews, castings, ironic and successful encounters on and off the stage, and political and social clashes between British and American actors, Caught with My Pants Down depicts a lively culture while educating audiences about the trials and tests British actors face when operating in Hollywood and on Broadway. The result blends the revealing atmosphere of a gossip piece with the professional inspections of an industry insider who evolved with his career and friendships.

The challenging roles that expanded Piddock's capabilities and creativity will particularly intrigue aspiring actors. Readers interested in memoirs, Hollywood, British and American interactions, a wide range of professional acting pursuits, and one man's growth through it all will find this an attractive, involving read.

The Biography Shelf

Bravery Becomes You
Sandra Travis Bildahl
Worthwords Publishing
9781736685105, $14.99 Paper/$2.99 Kindle

Bravery Becomes You: On the Road to Fearless and Free poses the question "what if you were brave?" and envisions different possibilities based on the answer, encouraging readers to embrace a new, empowering mindset. While readers might expect a series of admonitions from such an opening, it's also a memoir that charts Sandra Travis Bildahl's life as she stands at a crossroads: "...there I stood at the crossroads of bloom or fade knowing that I wasn't done growing, having fun, or wanting my life to have meaning, purpose, and a sense of adventure. And I knew I'd better do something about it soon because... reality check... time was no longer on my side. I had arrived at a new stage of life where my old reliable answers about who I am weren't resonating. And yet, I couldn't figure out what to do about it."

Bildahl goes on to say that the very impulse to embrace something new and different translates to opportunity. Her story is about mustering the courage and impulse to make those dreams happen, even in one's advancing years. Bravery Becomes You evolves a special form of "inner stretching" to confront the various fears that hold one back from taking leaps in new directions. Its blend of autobiography, psychology, and encouragement tempers its advice with eye-catching chapters ("Your Turn" and "View from the Scenic Overlook") to provide self-check reflections on what is limiting the creative impulse, how to address it, and how to become "open to new views of life." The nuts and bolts of what it means to "get braver" and translate this courage into confident action is intrinsic in every description of Bildahl's own search for the kind of life she desired.

There's also a light-hearted side to her stories as she shares incidents and adventures with family members and confronts the patterns of worry and fear that dictated so many of her perceptions about her life before her journey began. The risk doesn't lie in cultivating's in not trying new things. Many books address transformation, changing mindsets, and aging gracefully. Bravery Becomes You adds to this literature, but addresses its courage-inducing messages to older readers who are just as able to transition to different lives as those younger and more flexible...if they overcome the innate fears that lay under the surface of desirable change.

Bravery Becomes You is a top recommendation for self-help and women's issues collections; but especially for discussion groups strong in transformative processes. These range from book clubs to self-help groups, women's groups, and psychology groups: all of whom will find Bravery Becomes You a powerful portrait in achievement and how to successfully grasp new goals, as well as an appealing memoir of fun and change.

The Relationship Shelf

Keys to Healthy Communication
Bobby R. Patton, Ph.D.
Rusalyn H. Andrews, Ph.D.
Jennifer Page Daily, M.D.
Tridox Publishing
9780578317861, $17.99 Paper/$3.99 Kindle

Keys to Healthy Communication: Authenticity, Empathy and Empowerment is about improving physical and mental health through building better relationships, and focuses on the elements of communication which lend to (or detract from) this process. Readers who view themselves as victims of their emotional responses and who are interested in taking the leap to enacting changes are the ideal audience for Keys to Healthy Communication, which shows how to identify and rewire relationship-damaging responses to create better outcomes more in line with building authenticity and empathy.

Introductory chapters emphasize the physical and psychological connection between better health and better mindset, while later discussions center on the basics of determining reality, right and wrong, what influences healthy or unhealthy relationships, and how to restructure inherently damaging responses to foster better communication and results. A key prerequisite to understanding and employing these techniques will be the reader's interest in and ability to self-examine and adjust reactions, perceptions, and habits with the goal of fostering healthier responses.

Each element of this three-stage key to more effective communications (authenticity, empathy, and empowerment) thus receives in-depth discussions designed to encourage readers with insights, exercises, check-in points, and best practice examples. The result is a fruitful discourse on the elements of positive change that lend to not just individual study and pursuit, but to communication and discussion among a wide audience of couples, groups, and therapy participants with a special interest in building strong relationships, starting with self-adjustments.

Self-help and psychology library collections will find Keys to Healthy Communication an excellent acquisition that resonates on many levels, holds the ability to educate many, and evaluates the roots of dogmatism, prejudice, and defensive behaviors that erode the processes of effective life interactions and connections.

The Christian Studies Shelf

Raising Kids for Tomorrow's World
Stan and Cheryl Schuermann
Pen It! Publications, LLC
9781639841240, Paperback: $13.99/Hardback: $19.99/ebook: $3.99

Raising Kids for Tomorrow's World: 12 Keys to Preserving the Faith is a faith-driven survey of child rearing that will appeal to Christian parents who desire to instill lasting faith in the next generation. Based on I Thessalonians Chapter 2, this study is a unique and thoroughly biblical approach to parenting. It is gleaned from the Apostle Paul's own description of how he parented the church in Thessalonica and addresses many challenges parents face today. This biblical guide to "raising little pharaoh" encourages creating a culture in the home where a child's faith can develop and grow. "Our opportunity as parents through our words and life is to paint a portrait of the One our children do not yet know. With broad, sweeping brushstrokes and the finest detail, we create a beautiful portrait of the unseen God. Through our illustrating, our children will come to understand he is the Lord and desire to obey his voice. Whom your children follow will be the most important ongoing decision of their lives."

Thirty-six short chapters form a blueprint for discussion and reflection. Each chapter concludes with a section to "Consider and Apply" that sums up the concepts and offers an opportunity to deepen the reader's understanding and arrive at practical application. This allows for specific links between modern-day challenges and Biblical direction, and will please Christian parents who choose it for either independent study or discussion in a Bible study or Christian book group.

Raising Kids for Tomorrow's World is recommended for Christian parents who would better cement the concepts of faith into their family and daily teachings to educate and guide kids into the faith: "Parents are always teaching because children are always listening and observing. How do you respond to the events, blessings, and annoyances in your life? How do you respond to store clerks, your boss, the government, the not-so-experienced referee in your child's soccer game? Do you show a sincere fondness and love for the people you encounter? You will be a commentary on life. And you will show your children how the puzzle pieces of this life fit together."

The General Fiction Shelf

The Dead Cartoonist
Fred Andersen
Palavr Publishers
9781736845424, $9.75 Print/$2.99 ebook

Cartoonist Nate Thurranger is an artist who thinks that the only reason for getting the daily paper is for its comics, which he reads avidly and knows by heart. His own strip, At Loose, may not be found in the regular newspaper pages, but he believes it to be every bit as good as Pearls or Rose is Rose.

It's edgy social commentary at its best, and so only appears in the pages of alt-and college papers. Nate has never questioned his devotion to his art. Until now. An appreciation for comics and social commentary will enhance the reader's experience as he follows Nate through an evolving world of romance, intrigue, family interactions, and snafus.

As Nate journeys far from his Belmont, California apartment and enters the adventures he'd depicted for his comic characters, readers receive a lively interplay of action and intrigue as he encounters Milton Morey, the creator of the Seven Gables strip that features a solid family portrait which has been an ongoing success since Nate was a youngster. In the real world, Milt knows that people are watching him.

In Spain, he has successfully escaped his home in the seaside village of Burriana well aware of the irony of his position: "He wondered if his readers would find it funny, the author of the gentle family comic strip now incognito, unwashed, and on the run."

Fred Andersen injects bolded descriptions of comic panel action into his story to add further reference and reinforcement to the comic strip milieu and its real-world counterpart. As Nate's European comics conference and Milt's world intersect, a kidnapping, a ransom payment, and the possibility of ideological issues affecting the comic writer's world come into play, mingling with romance to add a full flavor to the story.

From good and bad investments to business pursuits gone awry, Andersen's survey of the comics industry and some colorful characters who find they are actively living the adventures they attempt to illustrate for their readers makes for a thought-provoking, fun read.

Andersen's ability to juxtapose the truth about comic strip characters and real personalities creates a romp through threats and bigger pictures of America's place in the world which will delight novel readers seeking multifaceted productions.

The Dead Cartoonist is at once a social commentary and a story of loyalty and intrigue that will delight a wide audience. It belongs on any fiction shelf, but ideally should appear alongside collections strong in comic strip history and culture.

Chandrakant S. Desai
Independently Published
9798760498793, $8.54 Paper/$2.99 Kindle

Readers of biographical fiction will find Kachro a fine life journey that moves through spiritual and physical realms as it follows Kachro through life in a search "...for his Timba, through the murmur of his song, in darkness and silence." His name is Chandresh, but his nickname, Kachro, means "dirt." As such, he finds that " witch, shaman, or bhuvo can cast a spell to diminish him, as he was dirt." As he moves through life, embracing peace where he finds it, mystical experiences mingle with life lessons to lend substance and meaning to his search for enlightenment.

Literary readers who enjoy spiritual and philosophical inspections will find much to relish in Kachro because it embraces both as it moves through this pilgrim's encounters, much in the manner of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. From "how to measure and calibrate life" to tales of the great Shiva and the impact of Kachro's constant coming and going on those around him, Chandrakant S. Desai crafts an evocative, spellbinding journey that should ideally be digested slowly and thoughtfully. Like Siddhartha, beneath its cloak of simplicity lies the aura of complexity that captures movements through life and its realities, illusions, and possibilities.

What seems like a simple read layers this complexity into its stories in a manner designed to bring meaning and thought-provoking insights to a broad spectrum of literary and spiritual readers. Libraries interested in literary novels that embrace such concepts and couch them in biographical journeys replete with transformative encounters will find Kachro a fine addition.

Blue Bird
Matt Gibson
Remain Pure LLC
9781735811086, $12.99 Paper/$9.99 ebook

Blue Bird is the story of a man whose world revolves around booze, and is steeped in descriptions of the alcoholic stupor that permeates his vision of the world: "The underside of my arm stuck to the dining room table as I reached for the bottle. The table is white oak, stained light brown, the same color as a rum and ginger ale. So the drink spillage acts as a kind of glue. It's a rum table. The entire surface is a glistening sheet of goodness."

The narrator explores both the staid possibilities of living an ordinary life or choosing his world, which revolves around the bar, brutal honesty, and encounters with others that embrace small acts of kindness as well as desperate flights and confrontations.

Matt Gibson creates an atmospheric read that (it should be cautioned) might trigger alcoholics in recovery or those who find it difficult to process stories so thoroughly immersed in the culture of drinking. These descriptions and vivid encounters are tempered by a special brand of dark, ironic humor that captures the urban environment of tent cities, the homeless, the image of the bluebird who serves as both a neighbor and a reminder of possibilities, and profound thinking "soaked in a veneer of rum." "The bluebird was right: We are all dying. I was just very good at it."

What remains to be explored is the path chosen for this end game. That's the subject and focus of a hard-hitting story that embraces the gritty process of self-inspection and the lure of self-destructive acts. Blue Bird is a vivid portrait of wonder and depravity. Gibson's ability to capture the perspective and world of a character entranced by booze who filters life experiences through the haze of its allure makes for a story that is hard to put down. In the beginning (and end), it's all about the rum, the bar, and a character who talks to birds, relates to them, and ultimately finds himself all too human.

Its philosophical and social forays make for a thought-provoking incursion into a world affected by alcohol and assumption with a story that will appeal to libraries strong in contemporary urban fiction.

Mercedes M. Yardley
Black Spot Books
9781645481195, $17.95 Paper/$5.99 ebook

Readers of gothic fiction who look for vivid plots that portend both disaster and the unexpected will find both in droves in Darling, the story of Cherry LaRouch, who fled the small town of Darling, Louisiana at age sixteen. She's built a life for herself and her children far from that world, but when her mother dies, they return to Darling to face threats that come from both within the house they inhabit and in the town itself. As children begin to vanish, Cherry's dilemma literally hits home and becomes all too personal as she struggles to uncover a deeply depraved, long-held truth about Darling and its residents.

As a novelist, Mercedes M. Yardley employs the usual trappings of a horror story, but weaves within them the concurrent struggles of a girl who fled her small town with a bad reputation in tow and returned an adult woman whose children face some of the same repressive forces. Cherry's personal involvement with the evolving disasters gives her a feeling of guilt and responsibility. This powers the plot with a gripping and realistic feel.

Yardley is also adept at capturing the lingo of the South and this region, embedding her characters with personality and a dialect that reinforces this sense of place: "Mrs. Getchell glowered, and her frizzy gray hair managed to look offended. "Oh, hush. You act like you ain't got a lick of sense. Put that boy to bed and tuck him in good. He's been near hysterical without you for these past few hours."

As repeated disasters rock her world and solidify her entanglement with Darling, Cherry finds that new possibilities and prejudices over the past bring her under a suspicion which she can't deny. Readers of horror literature will find all the trappings of a powerful story in Darling, which is liberally spiced with the feel of the South and a place that lures Cherry and her family to disaster. The many surprises, unexpected twists and turns, and revelations as Cherry unwillingly and unwittingly becomes mired in the town's threats creates a gripping tale that comes to life in many different ways, using the horror component to explore the South's culture.

Horror literature readers and fans who want more than just a story of evolving evil will find much to like in Darling, a gothic horror piece that follows one woman's departure, return, and struggle to survive her decisions.

Don't Poke the Bear
Robin D'Amato
Atmosphere Press
9781639882908, $18.99

Don't Poke the Bear is set in New York City in 1995 and follows three friends who juggle rigorous work weeks with personal time and their relationships with one another. Allie, Rihanna, and Natia are determined to live a bohemian lifestyle despite the pressures around them to conform. Jim, Allie's younger boyfriend, who works as a server in a cafe, also aspires to make a life for himself outside the financial and social demands of society. Poking the bear in these cases involves either holding off from or selecting when to jab establishment values and representatives in different ways.

As the story evolves, each character forges a path towards a middle ground that embraces karma, regrets, more purposeful choices, and the tides of change. Past and present relationships and ethic history entwine throughout this story to create a compelling contrast in perspectives between generations.

Robin D'Amato employs this device to show how poking the bear holds different possibilities that influence future choices and perceptions as time goes by. From disparate romantic relationships to shifting goals and visions of what it means to evolve life and love in New York City, D'Amato adds a heavy dose of ethnic and social inspection to the tale. This creates satisfying contrasts in the different roads that brings these young people together in the most unlikely of circumstances. All three friends are defeated in their initial goals. All three recover in different ways and learn to forge alternative lifestyles against all odds.

With its emotional contrasts and encounters and focus on the colorful and diverse culture that is New York City, Don't Poke the Bear provides a contemporary novel with a realistic, involving plot that's especially recommended for new adults living in urban areas or those familiar with New York City's unique cross-cultural melting pot. Its atmospheric descriptions and realistic dilemmas make for a thoroughly engrossing story of relationships, evolution, and revised romantic goals.

The Literary Fiction Shelf

Love, Guns & God in America
Christian Fennell
Firenze Books
9781777281045, $17.99 print / $4.99 Kindle

One would expect that the third book in a trilogy would require prior knowledge of the others. Not so with Love, Guns & God in America, the third in 'The Real and the Imagined' series. It both compliments its predecessors and stands nicely on its own to attract newcomers.

Christian Fennell's novel presents a vivid, soul-searching account of life and death in America, opening with a compelling reflection: "In the coming of time; in the coming of love in the time of America, a man will lift his head from a thick and darkening pool of his own blood. Hellish pain rushing forward, and he'll say, Jesus fucking Christ." The narrative style of this story is different than in most novels. For one thing, it lacks quotation marks around its dialogues between characters. But what it lacks in speech quotes is made up for in an organizational structure that places dialogues in paragraphs that make it easy to follow the give-and-take of the conversations.

Just as mercurial are tenses and observations that move in and out of characters' lives and perspectives: "That's okay, we're looking for Uncle William in California, and they walk on, in the woods, on their way to those sunny, forever blue skies of California." The novel's structure may take some getting used to, but the riches of the journey are well worth the adjustments to a writing style which is evocative and steeped in metaphor and insights.

Passionate observations of life in different strata of the American psyche drive a story that is a raw inspection of the violence and confrontations of both a nation and the individual. Ultimately, Love, Guns & God in America is a study in reality, adversity, shifting perspectives, and the courage to change. Its literary inspection of the American milieu will especially appeal to readers of contemporary American literature, both modern and experimental, who will find in these observations nuggets of insights for surviving modern times: "It's not like there are endless opportunities. They don't last forever. We can't watch them all go by. At a certain point, we have to act. To have that courage. And we have ours, don't we..."

Libraries strong in fictional literary works will find the trilogy in general and Love, Guns & God in America in particular to be worthy of acquisition, both for individual pursuit and group discussion.

Uncle Joe's Muse
Micah Thorp
Open Books
9781948598545, $17.95 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

Followers of literary fiction will find Uncle Joe's Muse a fun, engrossing story of a struggling (yet still-aspiring) rock band filled with misfits who have failed in their roles as husbands and fathers, and are facing yet another failure with their musical careers in Uncle Joe's Band.

Enter twelve-year-old rebel Allison, who shows up on the porch of the band's house with the mandate by her mother to stay with her father for the summer. Allison's presence changes everything, challenging the lifestyle they've built for themselves, their ambitions, and their uncertain futures, both individually and as a band. The band has a history of failures... will they fail at this unexpected important task of supporting a fatherhood that none of them had succeeded in before?

Micah Thorp describes the members with an unerring attention to honest psychological detail. As the story unfolds, Thorp injects into this sordid milieu the foundations of unexpected stability and new possibilities. The band members work together on the new parenting challenges which range from Allison's venture to the mall with a boy to her equally mercurial and undefined hopes for her future, which she explores with Ian as their friendship evolves. Thorp focuses on family relationships, dysfunction, and new beginnings as fathers, band members, and children hone both their separate and interconnected visions of the future. His story is especially revealing as it contrasts ambitions, dreams, and family ties during the course of a journey that changes all its participants.

On the face of it, Uncle Joe's Muse covers the efforts of adults who have never manned up to their life objectives and responsibilities. But underneath these relationships lies an undercurrent of change steeped in California culture and changing definitions of what constitutes musical and personal success. Allison, her father, and her surrogate father band members evolve in different ways against the backdrop of these changing times.

Readers who choose the novel for its musical roots and coming-of-age flavor will be happy to see that it reaches for more than a few predictable notes, expanding the characters and their ambitions to new levels. Uncle Joe's Muse is highly recommended for readers of maturity stories that represent evolution at different stages of life.

The Past We Step Into
Richard Scharine
Atmosphere Press
9781637528235, $18.99

The twelve short stories comprising The Past We Step Into represent a slice of American life, history, and culture. They collectively capture the resonance of immigrant experience, changing social and cultural milieus, and the efforts of people to step from past influences to present-day experiences.

Each story serves as a microcosm of that experience and the lives which evolved over a fifty-year time frame. They are interconnected in the sense that each generation builds from the influences of the past, but forges new paths forward under different conditions. "Saturday Night In Front Of the Iga" opens the collection with a first-person inspection of the narrator's immigrant heritage, spiced with and reinforced by family stories that bring to mind vivid images bygone years.

With this backdrop in mind, the narrator maintains that "transportation and romance go hand in hand" and then spins a story that reflects both. "Genealogical truths died with that generation." But, they also live on in this one as new facts come to light to reinforce family history, dumb luck, and the influence of both chance and purposeful ventures as a farming family's economic status changes after Pearl Harbor's bombing. "Why is it that I remember what should have been bad times so happily?" Because good and bad are wound into the overall experience as the 40s and 50s come to life and love comes full circle.

Compare this journey into the past with the subsequent short piece, "Thirteen Springs." Here, a Wisconsin family man embarks on another journey into the past to explore rural roots and a family history cemented by thirteen springs in the countryside. Each tale captures a piece of family history and memory that examines good and evil, positive and negative forces in the world, and influences of the past on new generations. These are legacies that both look back upon and ahead to the marks they will leave on the world by their perspectives and approaches.

Each tale both captures a microcosm of experience and represents another step forward in time and place. The Past We Step Into's literary memoir format will attract audiences interested in family narratives, but will prove especially intriguing to those interested in genealogical research and the foundations of belief systems and experiences.

Libraries strong in literary short stories that capture slices of life and family connections alike will find The Past We Step Into appealing to a wide audience, from literature students to general-interest readers who appreciate family sagas and life-changing experiences.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Violet's Vow
Jenny Knipfer
Independently Published
9781737957515, $2.99 Kindle

Violet's Vow is the second novella in the Botanical Seasons series set in the 1890s. The story revolves around flower shop owner Violet Brooks, who faces both business and personal conundrums as she continues to pursue both justice for her deceased husband Roger and a new romance that swirls around a man who may have had a hand in his death.

Violet's ability to open her heart to new possibilities while fielding past history and stunning new revelations gives this romance story the special added attractions of intrigue and entangled lives. The sights, colors, and smells of flowers permeate the story, adding atmospheric elements to events ("A faint scent of lavender and rose accompanied her nearness and words.") as Violet engages help from unexpected quarters to arrive at a truth which rocks her perceptions of the world.

From differences in classes and social standing which affect Violet's experiences and perceptions of future possibilities to motivations and influences on letting Roger's death remain a mystery, Violet faces as much confrontation from within as from those around her.

Women who choose this novella for its promise of romance and intrigue won't be disappointed. The story fulfills both, with its dual pursuit of love and the truth, challenging Violet and her readers to take a leap of faith as she continues on a trajectory that could affect her ultimate happiness. As she struggles over holding a grudge, letting go of the past, and acknowledging fault in her present courses of action, Violet's dilemmas reach out to embrace readers who may have faced their own conflicts between truth and its impact on reality. The result is an involving story that captures the times through one woman's ability to forge a happier future for herself.

Readers of women's fiction who like stories set in the past and sparkling with vigor, surprises, and love will find plenty to appreciate as Violet pursues puzzles and revelations in Violet's Vow.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Dark Country
Monique Snyman
Vesuvian Books
9781645480730, $17.95

Thriller readers who enjoy more than a touch of supernatural intrigue in their reading will appreciate the blend of horror and thriller components that make Dark Country a thoroughly compelling, edge-of-your-seat read. Perhaps this is because many of the scenarios presented are based on real events that occurred in South Africa -- horrible crimes and clashes that cause Monique Snyman to describe her story as "a fictional tale with one foot in reality."

Esme Snyder is an occult crime specialist in South Africa who has seen many terrible things during the course of her work. But this latest discovery, and the trials that follow, test even her world-savvy experience as she faces a serial killer who taps supernatural forces to decimate his prey, placing her in the spotlight of his deadly game. Complicating her efforts is an equally savvy media presence which elevates the threat with news that terrorizes and involves the public in her investigation.

As mythology, history, and cultural relations coalesce in a blinding clash of forces that place Esme in the center of a dangerous match, readers will find Monique Snyman brings both the investigative and the supernatural potions of the story to life against the backdrop of South African culture.

Readers need no prior familiarity with that country's history or landscapes in order to appreciate this story. Dark Country holds many philosophical and thought-provoking inspections throughout, as the head of Snyder International Religious Crime Investigative Services contemplates the passion and purpose of her job beyond capturing dangerous killers. Indeed, her motive was never just to fight crime, as readers discover in the course of riveting actions and reactions.

As the saga tackles issues of magic, belief systems, and their impact, readers gain astute insights while absorbing the underlying messages couched in horror/murder mystery events. These astute reflections and considerations of broader meanings of good, evil, and crime-fighting efforts elevate Dark Country in delightfully unexpected ways, lending to its appeal to a broader audience than readers of supernatural horror or crime-solving genres alone.

Those who like their first-person characters contemplative as well as powerful and effective, and who enjoy stories of personal, social, and criminal investigation, will find Dark Country a compelling read. It stands out for many different reasons, from its satisfyingly unpredictable plot to the injection of life perspectives that keep readers thinking, as well as thoroughly engrossed.

A Fatal Guilded High Note
Cecelia Tichi
Independently Published
9798985121629, $15.99 Paper/$2.99 Kindle

Fans of cozy mysteries strong in both historical background and romance will find A Fatal Guilded High Note fits the bill with a story of intrigue that meets all of these requirements.

It revolves around two married, avid opera enthusiasts, Val and Roddy DeVere, who find themselves tapped for their investigative skills when a murder at the opera draws them in personally. For Val, the investigation becomes a struggle to clear her name as she's fingered as the perp and goes to trial. For her lawyer husband, who defends his wife before a jury, it's a case that is not open and shut. Both try to find the real perp while battling the possibility that their lives and careers will be devastated by the accusations and trial outcome.

While A Fatal Guilded High Note is part of a series of mysteries encountered by Val and Roddy, it stands nicely alone for those unfamiliar with the duo's past exploits. Readers will note that, from the opening lines of the story, Cecilia Tichi cultivates a powerful first-person inspection that brings her characters and their world to life: "My husband followed opera the way some men tracked racehorses. The celestial voices, he said, gave reason to endure New York winters." Using these descriptive personal reflections, the world of 1899 New York society comes to life in a revealing manner that draws even non-historical-mystery readers into the atmosphere and intrigue surrounding Val and Roddy's latest case.

Another powerful attribute that sets Tichi's work apart from others is its attention to blending this atmosphere with social, cultural, and personal notes that are also enhanced by use of the first person, as well as reflective passages that capture and contrast past and present. Equally strong are the social, economic, and cultural contrasts that evolve during the course of the story. Val may be currently privileged (she even has a maid), but her roots lie in very different socioeconomic circles.

Tischi's story doesn't just embrace New York City's milieu. The contrasting worlds of Louisiana and Florida are added to the mix as the investigation broadens, making for an engrossing story that mixes mystery with social and political observation. Tischi is especially adept at juxtaposing personal lives and these social surroundings. She draws readers into the overall world of the late 1800s and provides pleasing examinations that both support the mystery and enhance its progression.

A Fatal Guilded High Note has the ability to attract beyond the usual mystery reader audience with these cultural notes. Libraries strong in mystery, historical novels, and women who are proactive and engaged in their world beyond marriage will find this story a winner, deserving feature and recommendation to a wide audience.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County
Micah House
Kendrell Publishing
9798985607512, $24.95 Hardcover/$14.95 Paper/$9.95 ebook

The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County opens a projected 6-part novel series recommended for both fiction readers and fantasy enthusiasts. It's an intergenerational saga filled with magic, surprise, and entertaining stories.

Family interactions, evolving powers, hidden killers, and attacks that involve and test relationships capture vivid dilemmas in a tale that embraces both supernatural forces and interactions between old and young. Readers who choose The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County will find its evolving story of loss, acceptance, change, and conflict features many insights and engrossing moments.

From potions to intriguing shifts in events that affect the entire family and the old 23-room mansion that houses them, Micah House creates a tale spun on the foundations of both magic and family connections. People are killed every day. But the small town of Daihmler finds such events uncommon and shocking.

Even more controversial and challenging are the supernatural forces at work behind the death, which the Blanchard clan seems especially well (or ill) equipped to handle. It's rare to find a satisfying intersection between supernatural fantasy, intergenerational relationships, and small town special interests woven into a mystery that grips all characters on different levels.

Micah House takes the time to build these relationships and the mystery, and as Yasmine confronts the threatening werewolf Patric and comes to realize the truth, so readers may consider their own connections to forces which take over their lives and change their paradigms. Why didn't Yasmine run away from this complicated situation when she could? It takes the words of a killer to open her eyes to what her soul already knows.

House builds a powerful psychological aspect into the thriller component to bring the story to life, crafting a riveting tale that's hard to put down and often unexpected in its twists and turns. Leisure readers with a special interest in mystery and intrigue experienced by a family firmly rooted in its community and its belief system will find much to enjoy in The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County, and will look forward to more.

The Nexus Games
Shami Stovall
Capital Station Books
9781957613048, $14.99 Paper/$4.98 Kindle

The Nexus Games offers a special brand of urban fantasy mixed with thriller elements to keep its readers engaged and moving through a fast-paced adventure, and is highly recommended reading for litRPG fans attracted to stories of high-tech magic tinged with some of the feel of The Hunger Games.

When Special Forces Soldier Alex Kellan awakens in a world of magic and high technology, he believes he's in a dream state. He already thought he was being stalked by unknown would-be assailants in the real world, but this milieu is something outside his experience entirely as he navigates a treacherous environment ruled by the outcomes of The Nexus Games that he's being forced to compete in.

A military man on leave would seem to be the perfect competitor in any game, but Alex holds some added attractions from his skill set and his perspective on life. These are about to be challenged and ultimately transformed as Alex discovers everything he's relied on has changed.

Shami Stovall paints an engrossing picture of a world askew and a savvy military man's newfound quest. The intrigue and action are juxtaposed nicely with fantasy elements, giving the story the feel of magical realism, but with a realistic military twist to its pursuits. Is he insane? Can he make the ultimate self-sacrifice for the sake of something he hadn't even known existed in his prior life?

Stovall wields swift action and adventure with precision. Her ability to capture not just a fantasy world but a pragmatic contender experiencing a dangerous new game creates a story that is satisfyingly fast-paced and filled with unexpected twists and turns. While The Nexus Games will find a place in urban fantasy collections, it also holds attraction for novel readers, fans of suspense and action stories, and gamers, who will find the dashes of humor give added value to a story that evolves a compellingly unpredictable plot.

I, Bionic
Jess K. Hardy
Mystic Owl
c/o Owl City Press
9781648981685, $13.99 Paper/$3.99 Kindle

I, Bionic is an Ignisar novel that follows Elanie, who has installed the LunaCorp hormone upgrade to enhance her sexual appeal. Yes, Elanie is bionic. And something is wrong. The Ignisar is a spaceship geared for pleasure. Elanie has been commissioned and sold as one of the crew, with a particular duty. However, she suspects that her latest bionic upgrade isn't working, and with this introduces a host of new challenges she's never faced before.

Jess K. Hardy creates a futuristic story that compliments and expands upon her sci-fi romance Love in the Time of Wormholes. Readers familiar with this backdrop will be especially appreciative of the twists and turns taken in I, Bionic.

The book opened the Ignisar series with the interstellar pleasure cruise environment, setting the stage for this different viewpoint from the perspective of a bionic woman whose mission changes. As she becomes involved with the ship's physician Sem, who grows to love her and joins in the effort to make her better, readers are treated to a graphic sexual and emotional journey that traverses both unfamiliar futuristic scenarios and familiar matters of the heart. As Sem loves, loses, and finds himself caught in a maelstrom of possibilities and questions, readers embark on a wild ride through Elanie and Sem's changing lives in an atmosphere where nothing is set in stone.

I, Bionic tackles issues of passion and purpose on many different levels. Its ability to move through social strata that embrace a community of bionics used to having what they want, a couple frustrated about what they can achieve and get, and a quest to become "luminous, vital, alive," provides an engaging exploration that explores the growing love between flawed characters who each search for their own ideal of perfection.

Readers of sci-fi romance who appreciate graphic sexual and emotional encounters will find I, Bionic both unpredictable and thoroughly engrossing.

Baen Books
P.O. Box 1403, Riverdale, NY 10471

Four new books by Baen provide engrossing stories that deserve a place in any sci-fi collection.

Prior fans of Wen Spencer will welcome and relish Harbinger (9781982126018, $25.00), which continues the Elfhome series with another engrossing Tinker adventure. Tinker has succeeded in changing her world, but as war heats up, she is to play a pivotal role in confronting the opposition's dangerous new weapon and the Harbinger warlords alike. This challenges her perceptions of friends and enemies and revises her place in this changing world, packed with Tinker's friends Oilcan and others who join her in once again changing destiny.

Hank Davis and Christopher Ruocchio edit Time Troopers (9781982126032, $16.00), a collection of sci-fi military confrontations in short stories by Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Robert Silverberg, and others. Pair time travel scenarios with military encounters and combat strategies for an engagingly different romp that follows the Time Troopers in a series of absorbing escapades. Both books stand out from the crowd and deserve a place in any sci-fi library.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Fair Trade (9781982126087, $25.00) tells of Jethri Gobelyn, who has become a trader on a premier Liaden tradeship against all odds. His mission is to foster family ships against other special interests, but when his mission leads him to become a lead trader on his own vessel, a conflict of loyalties evolves that tests his mettle and his alliances. This gripping story of the Liaden universe will attract newcomers and prior fans of the Laiden environment alike with a fast-paced story of conflict and growth.

D.J. Butler's Abbott in Darkness (9781982126094, $16.00) provides an especially quirky, appealing story of a young man who has accepted a job that moves his family some forty light-years from Earth, and promises to help him cure his financial woes. Trouble is just beginning as he is assigned to investigate a possible scenario of corruption, only to find his family placed at risk in the cat-and-mouse games that ensue. Part investigative thriller and part sci-fi, Abbot in Darkness delights with a multifaceted story that keeps readers on their toes.

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Midwest Book Review
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