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California Bookwatch

Volume 18, Number 5 May 2023 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

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

Reviewer's Choice

Banquet of Shadows
Lucas Pogrzebny
Independently Published
9789878864020, $12.99 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Banquet of Shadows is the first book in the Bloodmoon Castelain series, opening with a vivid death scene designed to both set the atmosphere and create immediate intrigue: "The room was tinged red as the pendulum clock struck midnight, letting them know what time it was with twelve ominous chimes. Amid the noise and the blood, Craven squeezed Arthur's hand tightly, as if this might prevent their parting. The room was brightly lit - so bright, in fact, that the red nectar that sprang from the wallpaper flowers now seemed to have splashed everywhere, decorating everything. The vibrant colors now contrasted with the extreme pallor of Arthur's face. Jarring juxtaposition.

'I don't know... who killed me,' Arthur repeated over and over again." With this passage, the story takes off for uncharted territory, bringing readers into a powerful vampire tale that involves an 1887 backdrop, a macabre trap reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's best horror pieces, and a series of conversations that leads to the revelation of murder and danger. In barely five hours, would-be survivor Lester Craven finds himself confronted with a perhaps-predictable trap instigated by the invitation of Baron Darcrois to join a group in his bizarre Chateau.

Lucas Pogrzebny writes with the flair of Poe and the passion of a seasoned wielder of the pen of intrigue and supernatural influence. Think a blend of Bram Stoker's classic Dracula horror combined with the mystery and intrigue of Agatha Christie's story And Then There Were None for a flavor of the literary attractions replete in Pogrzebny's tale. As the saga evolves to consider banquet participant Lucien's deeper probe into the purposes surrounding this dire dinner, Pogrzebny creates vivid scenarios steeped in "you are here" moments that bring the macabre events to shuddering life.

It's hard to identify a contemporary horror work that is more old-school in its attention to atmospheric detail, yet more modern in its twists of plot. Pogrzebny's artistry lies as much in developing a mystery as it does in creating a supernatural world of vampires and men which simmers under an investigative process that changes its possibilities like the spots of a leopard.

Libraries seeking supernatural horror works that excel in both literary description and devices and a sense of mystery and discovery will find Banquet of Shadows a powerful addition. It's especially recommended for more literary readers who love Poe's works and look for contemporary writers able to emulate his prowess (albeit in a full-length production).

The Biography Shelf

The Fruit You'll Never See
Gail Brenner Nastasia
Independently Published
9798986931302, $14.99 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

The Fruit You'll Never See is a memoir about shame and overcoming negative messages from childhood. It will heavily resonate with readers who have struggled to overcome their own self-limiting training and self-perception, and represents an example of the process of nurturing inner strength against all odds.

Gail Brenner Nastasia's memoir opens with a bang: "Not even law school could change the fact that I was trash." As her life is revealed, readers learn some shocking facts about her family and the progression of her coming of age and entry into adulthood which fostered this sense of shame and self-depreciation. Gail's realizations about her beloved aunt's shortcomings acknowledges the lure of being included at all costs "...even though I know she used me, at least I got to go along for the ride."

As she repeats patterns of trusting and loving those who do not have her best interests at heart, Gail moves ever deeper into a familiar quagmire she is, sadly, well-equipped to handle: trading sexual favors for the feeling of belonging, being desired, and being loved. As Gail moves into various addictions, it is with the underlying conviction that her value lies in her worth to others -- not herself. The remarkable part of her story lies in how she overcame drug addiction to become a successful attorney; then took another big step in defying her inheritance of low self-esteem by creating a different life.

How she achieves her goals, learns different, healthier ways of interacting with her family, and maintains the equilibrium that truly reinforces her value makes for a powerful memoir that many readers will find inspirational and revealing. Rather than consulting self-help books for growth lessons, readers would do better to read The Fruit You'll Never See. Its lessons in abuse, recovery, and the contrast between healthy and unhealthy life choices are stark and involving, offering clues to better living. It ideally will be pursued in book club and psychological group discussions, as well as available for library patrons interested in vivid, candid stories of getting and staying clean.

The General Fiction Shelf

Heaven & Earth
Joshua Senter
Roubidoux Press
9781737585626, $34.99 Hardcover/$12.99 ebook

Ruth and her pastor husband have moved mountains to build a megachurch empire, but in Heaven & Earth, the mountain has just erupted in a big way. This results in a scandal that leads to their exile from their own creation and community as they flee into the backwoods milieu of a small Missouri farm.

Her husband's betrayal has not only shaken the foundations of their church and belief, but causes Ruth to veer from her own preset course in life as a beloved pastor's wife, leading her to question virtually everything she's believed about her world. Well known for her inner wisdom and ability to save others, Ruth must now train her light on a mission that is perhaps impossible - saving her family and herself. The cost of that venture may be greater than the alternatives of divorce or remaining married.

Joshua Senter presents a multifaceted story that questions a diverse set of notions about how the world operates, from opinions about homosexuality and marriage to a man who proves to be very different than the facade she's accepted all these years.

One of the strengths of this novel lies in Ruth's revelations about the illusions and truths in her entire life, which are portrayed in such evocative language that readers are drawn to her dilemma. Ruth's process of growth mirrors many paths in life which create set courses and then are diverted by circumstances which introduce different realities and events to challenge seemingly-solid foundations.

As she and her family attempt to forge a new life and face difficult decisions that change everything they've believed in, Ruth discovers that even she can continue moving onward and upward, even though everything she knew to be solid truth is shaken by her revelations about her world. Heaven & Earth is outstanding in its evocative probe of this process. It's a novel highly recommended not just for libraries and individuals seeking stories of spiritual and psychological growth, but for book clubs examining women's lives and issues, religious lives and mindsets, and the heart of family changes that reach out to touch all with the promise of change and transformation.

When Oceans Rise
Robin Alvarez
Creative James Media
9781956183160, $14.99 Paper/$4.99 Kindle

Trigger warning: When Oceans Rise is a novel steeped in revelations about manipulation, emotional abuse, and the processes of identification and recovery which prompt seventeen-year-old Malaya to reconsider her life when she becomes submerged in a toxic relationship.

Readers who would pursue her experiences will find much growth and realizations within her story that also embrace a touch of the supernatural as she comes to realize that she is cursed by a family legacy of women falling for the wrong man, with death as the outcome and cost of their love.

Malaya becomes convinced that her choices and man are quite different. The ways in which she becomes isolated and is manipulated by her dream man are subtle, at first, but work their dreadful magic to land her in a situation which would careens towards a similar fate. Is this inevitable, or will Malaya be the one to break the curse and the trend?

Robin Alvarez crafts a particularly thought-provoking, eye-opening scenario of heritage, legacy, abuse, and the processes by which even a determined, savvy young woman becomes ensnared in the same emotional traps as women before her. Alvarez then introduces an extraordinary opportunity for Malaya to travel back in time and make different choices. But, will they lead to different scenarios, or move full circle to reinforce the idea that such patterns are inevitably repeated?

When Oceans Rise is a powerful survey that introduces a sea witch's influences, but presents many thought-provoking moments about pivot points, decision-making, and repetitive patterns in life that defy change. As Malaya contrasts old and new life options, she makes the kinds of revised choices that seemingly send her on a healthier alternative road. Or, do they?

Individual readers will find much food for thought within her story, but ideally book clubs consisting of women's literature readers (especially young adults moving into new adult status) and psychological groups interested in the mechanics of abuse, repression, and breaking family patterns will find much discussion fodder in When Oceans Rise. This makes it a highly recommended novel that operates on more than one level.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

Liv's Secrets
Janet Levine
Armin Lear Press Inc.
9781956450507, $24.95 Paper/$7.99 ebook

Liv's Secrets doesn't sound like a historical novel, but it comes steeped in the genre's best trappings of action and facts. It follows a fictional South African Jewish family's journey from Eastern Europe to South Africa, where currents of prejudice and racism follow them to affect their new lives.

A somewhat-daunting list of characters opens the story. While some might translate this to a weighty novel that will feature fluctuating major players and a complexity that belays emotional investment in people and outcomes, such a perception could not be further from the truth. Janet Levine's approach is designed to introduce and streamline the many characters that interact on the pages and arena of historical change, and this prologue and review helps readers immediately place the characters and their connections.

Because this story of the Weisz family members evolves over a series of decades and different generations, such a review lends a foundation of knowledge to the story that makes it easier to become involved in its personas and events from the start.

Eighty-eight-year-old narrator Liv opens the tale with a reflection on her present circumstances, the post-apartheid world, and memories good and bad that might pass with her. Her observations of the importance of preserving these experiences for future generations do not go unnoted: "We learn history from survivors' horrific nightmares? Is this all we have to share? Nightmare stories. Our century was one of struggle and strife. Perhaps I've lived too long? I'm forgetting the beauty of life; I'm forgetting the joy, the love, and the surprises."

As the saga evolves, it becomes a template for other scattered South African Jewish family experiences, revealing the social, political, and emotional ties that are all tested by history and life. Liv's first-person introduction leads to third-person descriptions of the 1960s in South Africa and the events which unfold to present new challenges to her family. The timeline that moves from past to present is clearly identified in chapter headers that keep readers on track about the changing milieu which propels Liv and her family in new directions.

Relatively little fiction has been written about Jewish experiences in South Africa. This fact, combined with Janet Levine's enticing attention to capturing life under a repressive White South African government and its lasting impact on the psyches of all strata of society, makes for a story that is rich in historical detail, compelling in its social examination, and cemented by family and characters that face difficult decisions on how to live their lives and reflect their values and ideals.

Libraries (especially those strong in cross-cultural fictional explorations of Jewish communities and experience in history) will find Liv's Secrets a thought-provoking, delightful exploration that ideally will find its way to discussion groups interested in South African history and Jewish cultural experience in particular.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Sushi and Sea Lions
Rachel Corsini
Creative James Media
9781956183528, $12.99 Paper/$4.99 Kindle

Sushi and Sea Lions is a study in romantic comedy that literally opens with a hilarious bang: "I glanced over at... Billy? I think his name was Billy. If it was, he'd be the third one since the walking boot came off. Like the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Trip trap, trip trap right into my bed. Especially after one too many Pinot Grigios."

Injured prima ballerina Daniela Verdi fills her newly-vacated days and life with a series of distractions that lead her away from what her dream life has become -- until she encounters Vincent LaBate, who harbors his own reasons for avoiding his vastly revised life and any possibilities of romance. The two begin a relationship that is both healing and extraordinary as it evolves new possibilities and reveals the chinks of old patterns that come back to haunt each of them.

Rachel Corsini's novel represents a delightful romp through vastly revised possibilities and worldviews that take each character on a sentimental journey through failed dreams and new circumstances. Vincent and Daniela are well aware that their lives are different, but what is less apparent is what is needed to effect permanent revisions in how they approach the future and romance.

As life is viewed through Daniela's first-person confessions, readers receive an examination that is candid and vividly realistic: "I used to be alive, filled with fire, consuming the world like tomorrow might never come. I relished a good love story, the exertion of leaping across a ballet studio, the sighs a piece of art could emit from me. Since the injury, since my heartbreak, I'd lost my desire. It was time to find it again and the Billys weren't doing the trick."

As Vinny moves into her life and heart, Daniela comes to realize the potential for a very different life, complete with new possibilities and goals. Corsini's ability to juxtapose the evolving growth both between the romantic partners and their individual experiences and special interests creates a well-crafted romance replete in intimacy, sexual exploration, and emotional growth. Vivid food descriptions even conclude with recipes. There are plenty of steamy sex scenes for romance readers who like their stories hot, but also many insights into the couple's interactions not just with each other, but family and friends around them. These contribute to a tale as fully vested in exploring the patterns of developing relationships as it is to describing the physical attractions that develop between two already-strong characters.

Readers seeking the perfect special blend of humor, growth, romance, and dreams altered and realized will find Sushi and Sea Lions a fine study in great expectations, unexpected endings, and new beginnings.

Althea's Awakening
Maggie Sims
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
9781509249527, $5.99 ebook

Althea's Awakening adds a third book to the School of Enlightenment series of steamy romance novels, expanding the characters and attention to romance cultivated in prior books by Maggie Sims. Here, Lady Althea Egerton is looking to enlarge both her business and her love life. Both would be easy if she could find a rich suitor, but having been in thrall in too many ways in one relationship, she is loath to compromise her newfound independence with another marriage. An investor seems a more appropriate choice; especially if he comes with added benefits.

Women often chase the Earl of Cheltenham: he's seen as the perfect suitor. Sexually, intriguing, strong, and rich, he'd match Althea's own strengths and pursuits...if she'd have him. Maggie Sims creates a story that is vivid in its inspection of social, political, and personal ambition. Like most men, Lord Cheltenham wants "full control" over his destiny and his women. He's in for a surprise, because if ever a woman were committed to not giving in, it's Althea. Even if it means enjoying a form of sexual pleasure she's been unable to achieve in the past.

Steamy sexual scenes weave nicely into a story of a strong man and woman who find they are both colliding and joining their shared ambitions and lives. The tie between sexual and business explorations is intriguingly made as the duo dance to a very different tune than either anticipated from their lives.

Sims profiles the propriety of the times in evocative scenes which set the stage for exploration and realization. The result is another vivid romance both adding to the School of Enlightenment series and creating characters that bend to the power of their social status while remaining true to their ambitions and dreams.

Libraries and readers seeking titillating Regency romances and intersections between personal lives and business pursuits will find Althea's Awakening a delightful story that approaches growth and discovery from very different vantage points than most Regency reads present.

The Western Fiction Shelf

Thunder Falls
Neil Perry Gordon
Independently Published
9798987563205, $16.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

Thunder Falls: The Education of Leopold Red Wolf belongs in any collection strong in Western fiction and Native American literature. It explores the evolution of protagonist Leopold Wolf in the mid-1800s. His journey led him to become an outspoken Native American rights advocate at an era when the concept of Native rights was barely an idea, much less a reality.

The roots of Wolf's quest actually begin when he is eight and observes his mother's terrible death when a cannonball is fired through their house by the Confederacy during the opening days of the Battle of Carlisle. Tasked with taking care of his father at too young an age, Wolf grows up with the weight of the adult world on his young shoulders. This sets the stage for his later involvement in the Carlisle Indian School, which employs Wolf and Son Woodworking in a much-needed building job. Little did he realize that the business arrangement would lead to social change and revised purpose in his life.

Neil Perry Gordon juxtaposes fictional drama with historical fact in a satisfying way, bringing to life the milieu of the late 1800s and the political influences on Native American lives and futures. As Wolf comes to many new realizations that revolutionize his life trajectory, so readers absorb the politics and influences of times which lead Wolf to make uncommon decisions that lead him to become an advocate for Native Americans.

The story unfolds a rich contrast between ethical and moral values and the social compass of changing White society and Native Americans alike as issues of assimilation, repression, and civil rights rise to the forefront. This showcase of history encourages important dialogues between contemporary readers and book clubs interested in the too-wild West and methods by which it was perceived, tamed, and controlled.

Libraries and readers seeking a fictional story that attracts with realistic scenarios and influences will find Thunder Falls a powerful social observation of many of the forces in this bygone world which continue to influence behaviors and choices today. The story concludes in a cliffhanger which portends further coverage of Wolf's journey and education, maintaining that, despite all the events that have influenced him, his real education is just beginning.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Michele Packard
Independently Published
9798987607701, $5.99 ebook, $11.99 paperback, $19.99 hardback

Prior fans of genetically enhanced superwoman Matti Baker will welcome her return in Defcon, while newcomers will easily fall into her world. This is because Matti employs a feisty voice in describing an encounter which once again tests her ability to survive, protect her family, and prove effective in her efforts to thwart the bad guys and support everything she loves.

Matti is one of a triplet of enhanced children. Her strong family ties have resulted in prodigy who also have extraordinary abilities, and who join her in her efforts to neutralize threats to the U.S. Even seasoned thriller readers will be surprised and amazed by Defcon because Matti's character is spunky, sassy, and infused with proactive thinking and behaviors that translate into a passionate story infused with history and social observation.

Matti's opinions and examinations offer unexpectedly astute considerations of American ideals gone awry as the intrigue and confrontations play out. These thought-provoking, critical inspections, delivered in a brazen staccato first-person reflective voice, are part of what brings not only Matti and her family to life, but the principles they are fighting for in Defcon.

Another unusual device linking action with a contemporary, realistic punch is the ongoing allusions Matti makes to popular music and songs which pop up in her mind as she undertakes her missions. These cement her activities with a blend of drama and social reference that compliment the cat-and-mouse actions of intelligence, counterintelligence, and unconventional warfare that encircle her life to threaten all she loves. The challenge lies in what label to assign Defcon, because it doesn't fit neatly into any pat genre read.

Military in nature, but with a psychological force that lends it a deep personal flavor; thriller in action, but tempered by family relationships and close friendships; and flavored by political and historical information that invite debate and thought, Defcon is quite simply a standout for its adventure, tone, and powerful, female-driven protagonists. Libraries seeking extraordinary characters and stories which are nearly impossible to put down will find Defcon an outstanding choice that holds the promise to attract a wide audience.

The Indian Defense
Jay Perin
East River Books
9781736468067, $4.99 ebook

Because The Indian Defense: A Historical Political Saga is the fifth book in the political thriller series One Hundred Years of War, it's recommended that readers of The Indian Defense will have read these predecessors because their rich history, continued here, should ideally be in the back of the mind when embarking on this latest adventure.

This story opens in 1989, where an ex-president crippled and incapacitated by an assassination attempt somehow appears to remain a key player in the political struggles which are emerging. It seems that stepbrother Godwin Kingsley has won, and is building his business empire around the world with a clever eye to disabling any semblance of rebellion in any of Temple's people or others who defy his bids for power.

With Temple's daughter Lilah on the run from powerful hit men, Temple disabled, and Kingsley's plan to rule the oil sector firmly in place, it would seem a slam dunk that nobody can change the fateful progression of his wide-reaching powers. Nobody, perhaps, except his friend Noah and a family secret that could penetrate the cloak of power and secrecy that surrounds Kingsley's world.

Jay Perin highlights the thrill in the thriller genre as his world-hopping adventure carries a host of characters into unfamiliar territory, foreign cultural encounters, and figures who prove just as powerful, in their own ways, as Kingsley or Temple. A cat-and-mouse game evolves, with American politics one of the main prizes as the characters hit, miss, and strategize their next moves.

As Lilah's foray into India provides her with tools to not just recover from the blows of but defy the forces pitted against her, readers follow her into an international journey replete with confrontations.

From fake bank transactions and events that place a former attorney's reputation on the line to exiles that concoct a new strategy to confront the forces that have transformed their lives, Jay Perin explores social, legal, and political changes through the eyes of characters who each hold their own special interests at heart.

Replete with risk-taking decisions, startling revelations, and a plot that toes the line between thriller and real-world historical facts, Perin's care in extracting events from politics of modern times, but couching them in a way that maintains distance from any association with real-world politicians, creates an especially adept dance between fact and fiction. This will draw a wide audience with the flavor of high drama and the not-quite-real familiarity of historical touches.

It's also important to note, that this point, that the One Hundred Years of War series is an adaptation of the Mahabharata, the Indian epic mythology. The presence of so many seemingly disparate elements would seem to portend a complex and weighty read, but The Indian Defense represents an accessible, thought-provoking, thoroughly engrossing story that enhances the series as a whole.

It is highly recommended for libraries and readers seeking the intersection of fiction, fact, and the well-developed tension of a compelling political thriller.

The Miracle at Assisi Hill
Pat Camalliere
Campat Publications
9798987162408, $24.95 Hardcover/$17.95 Paper/$5.99 ebook

The Miracle at Assisi Hill is a Christian mystery that follows the investigation of battle-torn amateur historian Cora Tozzi, who is recovering from tongue cancer and tackling her religious questions in a convent. When she befriends a nun with a secret and faces her husband's own serious illness, all her prayers seem for naught. Or, are they?

The juxtaposition of a quest to solve a mystery combined with spiritual inspection creates a story which will prove especially compelling to Christian audiences looking for more than intrigue alone. Pat Camalliere's special brand of investigation of psychological and mystery matters is simply delightful, between its focus on Cora's life and ongoing spiritual questions and the dilemmas faced by a woman destined to become a saint.

Between the health conundrums Cora faces with her husband Cisco's startling mental health decline in the face of physical illness ("She had no idea Cisco's personality could be affected like this. When her mother had a stroke, she was impaired and confused, but her personality remained the same. This was a shock. Cisco just wasn't acting like himself.") to subplots of ghost lore, Native American history and tribal interests, and miracles that portend religious revelations, the story is much more than either a mystery or a Christian examination, but a multifaceted production that draws on various levels. It's rare to see a novel as accessible to a wide audience of readers as it is to genre mystery followers or fans of Christian fiction.

Camalliere creates a memorable story that resonates on more than one level, offering a draw that invites religious introspection as well as moral and ethical examination. Another important note to know about its creation: the Sister who is presently in charge of the canonization process for Mother Mary Theresa participated in the editing of this book to ensure its historical and Catholic authenticity. The Miracle at Assisi Hill is thus highly recommended not just for libraries seeking genre mysteries that stand out, or for Christian collections seeking fiction that invites thought and discussion, but for general-interest readers who will find Cora's dilemmas and revelations about life, death, and what lies between are both intriguing and thoroughly engrossing.

Skin for Skin
Melvin Litton
Gordian Knot Books
c/o Crossroad Press
9781637897096, $4.99 ebook/$22.99 Print

Six gamblers are robbed one night in 1930s Kansas. One additional, who never makes it to the table, is murdered in a macabre situation. Two farm families already struggling with their calling find equal challenge in their hearts and lives as the murder reaches out to enfold them in a poker game's dangerous stakes and the treachery and revenge which results.

This third book in the Kansas Murders series is best imbibed by readers of the prior productions, who will find Skin for Skin a powerful conclusion to the trilogy. This does not mean that newcomers are denied accessibility. From an opening section listing a cast of characters and their relationships, and the care Melvin Litton takes to build the atmosphere and environment of the times, the story reaches out in many ways, right from the start: "The sun tips down the dusty sky to spill its last light over the broad horizon then drops like an empty bottle beyond the tall weeds. The wind blows hard at the end of day, leaving line and shadow ill-defined, all relic moments in the ruined dusk."

The deadly preface to the poker game and events that follow chart the rushes of landscape in a poetic manner that brings this world to life, flavors it with intimate contrasts between life, death, and the shade that lies between, then serves as an intriguing introduction to the more worldly events that follow. Each seeming diversion and departure to the plot proves to be a device that cements characters, intentions, and a sense of place with the overlay of metaphor and philosophical and psychological observation.

Readers will find themselves walking the rough streets of 1930s Elim, Kansas, considering religious reading and mythological references and analyzing characters for their ulterior motives. Changing scenarios then test their mettle: "...given all they do without she admires her dad's stubborn effort to keep their farm. And he keeps smiling despite the odds. Never gives up, keeps working like their grandad who smiles and says, 'Give me a couple good crops, I'll spring back.'" This atmosphere is cemented by supercharged words and revelations that connect characters via cultural roots, religious inspection, and social change.

To call Skin for Skin a mystery or suspense piece would be both accurate and an injustice. Based on real events which cement the historical value of this novel, it is as vivid in its recreation of the 1930s as it is in its probe of mercurial intentions and changing worlds. Libraries and readers seeking literary intrigue and thought-provoking surveys of gambling and madness and their lasting impact on families and communities alike will find Skin for Skin a powerful exploration. It feels complex in the amount of characters and topics it presents and touches upon, but is completely riveting in its approach and discussions.

River of Wrath (St. Benedict, Book II)
Alexandrea Weis and Lucas Astor
Vesuvian Books
9781645480174, $17.95 Print/$7.99 ebook

The St. Benedict series continues, following River of Ashes (Book I) with the story of Leslie Moore, now in the second semester of her senior year at St. Benedict High and still recovering from the death of her twin sister. This is ravaging her with guilt and affects everything in her life, from her relationships to her future.

Readers unfamiliar with the prior book may think this will be a story about ongoing bereavement and recovery, but River of Wrath is actually a murder mystery, and will especially delight mature teens who can absorb both the emotional and the investigative impact of this compelling tale.

Leslie isn't the only one questioning her position and future in this town. So are adults who have lived there for a long time, only to find that a new threat is challenging and changing their perceptions of its attraction and safety.

Alexandrea Weis and Lucas Astor craft a powerful story that moves from adult interests and perceptions to the narrower focus of a teen recovering from tragedy. Their ability to weave Leslie's concerns into the broader story of a series of murders that change everything is part of the draw of this tale. Not only has everything changed since Leslie Moore's deal with the devil, but so has she.

Vivid dialogue and descriptions cement the tension, contributing to a powerful account that winds through different lives affected by evolving events and subterfuge. Readers needn't have prior familiarity with River of Ashes to appreciate this continuation of Leslie's dilemmas -- but they should. Together, the two books present an intense series of events that are intrinsically woven on many levels, questioning the evolution of heroes, psychopaths, and family connections that not only bind, but damage.

The tension and revelations are nicely done, making this a special recommendation for those interested in not just murder mysteries, but the underlying influences that formulate criminal psyches and victims alike.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Sightseeing in the Limbic Landscape
Krys Call
Independently Published
9798654701299, $19.80

It's impossible to neatly categorize or pigeonhole Sightseeing in the Limbic Landscape: A Neuroscientific Comedy of Manners. It's a science fiction comedy of errors that romps through California's Delta, neuroscience and psychology, and gender issues alike. Indeed, the social, scientific, and political farces under examination and exploration contribute to a series of dialogues which are both philosophical and psychological in nature.

The first thing to note about Sightseeing in the Limbic Landscape (if the above descriptors are not enough) is that this is a literary work of over five hundred pages, packed with a Proust-like detail to in-depth descriptions and language (such as 'cuneiform' or 'funicular') which may not be in every reader's personal dictionary of terms.

As Marie, Anita, and a host of characters undertake this peculiar journey, the humor embedded into social commentary comes to light in unexpected ways: "'s smoked gouda-style rice cheese and vegan salami with sprouts and pickle relish. It smells of a natural foods delicatessen. Even the meat eaters find themselves wanting some."

Krys Call's tourist's journey through this landscape evokes behavioral and emotional responses in the reader, in keeping with the reference to the limbic system, as the story unfolds in disparate and unexpected ways, blending science with liberal philosophical observations: "Hope is no longer just hope when the appropriate equations are in place."

The resulting intersection between fiction and science will delight literary audiences looking for an expansive, involving neuroscientific comedy that is anything but your usual sci-fi formula adventure. The questions it provokes and the social insights it encourages make Sightseeing in the Limbic Landscape appropriate not so much for leisure readers looking for action and adventure in the sci-fi realm, but for literary audiences. These readers will thoroughly appreciate Call's attention to detail and the liberal sprinkling of dialogues examining the nature of reality, science, and social transformation.

Wrapped in the guise of sci-fi, but embracing so much more than a formula read, Sightseeing in the Limbic Landscape is highly recommended for not just college-level readers, but discussion groups interested in literary devices and inspections that expand the boundaries and scope of scientific connections to life.

The Final Season: Planet Gallywood #1
Andrew Gillsmith
Independently Published
9798367783919, $14.99 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Fans of the quirky sci-fi novels of Douglas Adams now have a new author to follow: Andrew Gillsmith. His prowess at blending irony, humor, intrigue, and life inspection shines in much the same manner as Adams in The Final Season: Planet Gallywood #1.

The prologue introducing this milieu sounds like a classic Adams observation: "If the inhabitants of Rexos-4 had anything resembling a common creed, it would almost certainly have been "Mxtlpicam bnak ooligapn," which in most languages translated to something like "What's the bloody point?" In the original Rexan tongue, the question mark had been dropped; deemed as not only unnecessary but also contrary to the spirit of the expression. There was indeed no bloody point, and the Rexans damn well knew it."

With this, the most popular entertainment franchise in the known universe sets off into a foray in which the Rexans face the end of their world with an attention to pulling off a grand finale in a manner never seen before. As Gallywood executives and participants struggle to create the spectacle of going out with a bang, readers are drawn into a rollicking ride that explores the best of all possible worlds -- even if it does reside on the edge of apocalypse.

From virginity broken to galactic civilizations that exist not by "darting around amongst the stars and doing great things," but by people who are "carrying on about their lives and trying to make their way through the workweek without being discouraged to the point of giving up," Gillsmith adopts a speculative tone that enables characters to dance around each other and the biggest concern and objective overriding their lives ... their demise. Between government lotteries and rescue attempts to the entertainment businesses's management of an end of the world spectacle,

The Final Season is simply outstanding. It's a prime example of science fiction's venture into new worlds, sparked by a future entertainment industry gone awry. Is there a happy ending to the saga, or a tragedy? Libraries and readers looking for Douglas Adams-style sci-fi inspections on steroids will find The Final Season a colorful examination of life's meaning, death's universal threat and promise, and the efforts of media to capitalize on it all by pinpointing the meaning of and irony behind everything, including entertainment.

ALFIE: Earth's Last Hope
Ignacio F. Bunster-Ossa
Inspiration Pointe Press
9780996840644, $14.95 Paper/$9.95 ebook

ALFIE: Earth's Last Hope will delight hard sci-fi readers with its contrasts between a high-tech future's ability to mitigate the ecological devastation of Earth and the realization that Earth's environmental degradation and abuse are not something to flee from; but tasks important to acknowledge and fix. Can humanity save its home?

Opposing forces and special interests each try to influence the planet's future. There is a stark disparity between saving the planet's biodiversity and plundering it to the bitter end, and this dichotomy is illustrated in the course of a story that follows each train of thought about the planet's future and mankind's responsibility in managing it.

Add an alien intelligence into the mix that also holds its own special interests and influences for a tale that brings to life those who would party away their inheritance and those who would preserve it.

Ignacio F. Bunster-Ossa surveys suspended lives, errant behaviors, technology-laden futures, and the impact of attitudes and choices which lead to conceit, blind rage, the ethics of an ecological approach to managing landscapes and communities, and the ultimate impact of profiting from planetary changes. While part of the tone of the story lies in a romp through social, political, and technological decision-making follies, injecting a wry ironic humor into unfolding events, it also represents a thought-provokingly powerful examination of what happens when humans exploit nature without concern for its demise or health.

The ecological and social messages embedded in this story pair hard sci-fi with social issues in an unusual, revealing manner. ALFIE: Earth's Last Hope is highly recommended to sci-fi and social issues readers not just for its futuristic focus, but for its many considerations of human impacts on the planet. These portraits venture into realms of good, evil, and the ways in which mankind burns itself in the process of plundering the world.

Baen Books

Two new science fiction books are highly recommended reads for libraries that look for solid series additions.

M.A. Rothman and D.J. Butler's Time Trials (9781982192488, $25.00) opens a new time travel series with the story of Marty Cohen, a linguist and military strategy student who moves from Egyptology to woodworking to escape academic rivalries. When visions begin to trouble his dreams and he is called back to Egypt to participate in a dig that has produced unprecedented discoveries, Marty finds new doors opened that tap his academic skills in unexpected ways. The intersection of a time travel adventure with a study in intrigue and discovery creates a riveting story filled with unexpected moments and tense developments.

Charles E. Gannon's Into the Vortex (9781982192471, $26.00) is the second book in the Vortex of Worlds series, and presents the conundrum faced by Druadaen, who has proven the contradictions that exist between magic and physics on his world. His reward? Exile by temple believers determined to preserve their illusions and power against the reality of facts. Druadaen remains committed to uncovering the truth, and his quest here involves a mysterious portal, a solo foray into unknown territory, and a quest that further threatens to shake the foundations of Arrdanc. The gripping story will best be enjoyed by those who appreciated the first book, and library collections with this in their holdings will find Into the Vortex equally powerful and compelling.

The Poetry Shelf

Seasons of Life
Susan McLeod
Atmosphere Press
9781639887118, $14.99

Poetry readers who choose Seasons of Life will find it a collection spanning childhood, coming-of-age, and adulthood. It offers inspections both personal and universal as it discusses family, holidays, and the "four seasons" of growth which tie them together. In many ways, Seasons of Life represents a throwback ... to simpler times and to rhythms lost in the modern swing towards free verse, much of which has almost lost the ability to be defined as 'poetry'.

The rhyming simplicity of Susan McLeod's effort alludes to a time when poetry was both readily understandable and rhythmically attractive. One example lies in her survey of various kids' games, such as 'Hoops': "Roll, roll our hoops on the grass they go/Which way they fall, we don't know/Playing with our hoops was lots of fun/Kept my friends and I on the run/I remember a simpler time/When playing hoops was very fine".

Modern poetry readers seem to look for and embrace a sense of complexity and philosophical musing in their works. The progressive short pieces in this collection pack a lot of punch into a number of succinct descriptions of life, allowing for more experiences to be explored than one would think by the page count of this book.

Seasons of Life is a road map of experiences of a bygone era. The cadence of the rhyme, the simple daily life experiences which are presented with a sense of joy rather than complexity, and the attention to swimming holes, summer days, and family comfort is a breath of fresh air against the usual angst-laden emotional turmoil of modern poetry. It will attract readers seeking expressions of life's progression in a more celebratory manner than most poetic inspections offer.

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

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

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