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California Bookwatch

Volume 17, Number 10 October 2022 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Pets/Wildlife Shelf Geology Shelf
Money/Finance Shelf Biography Shelf Judaic Studies Shelf
General Fiction Shelf LGBT Fiction Shelf Romantic Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Poetry Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

A Lot of Questions (With No Answers)?
Jordan Neben
Atmosphere Press
9781639883592, $18.99 Paper/$9.99 ebook

The essays in A Lot of Questions (With No Answers)? are designed to be thought-provoking, compelling. They provide stimulating discussions which open with "Ruminations About Religion" (in two parts) and continue with such sections as "The Price of History", "The State of Generosity", and "Make Sure Your Death is Sudden and Violent."

These 'opinion essays' (as Jordan Neben describes them in his introduction) are not meant to be a static read of author opinion, but are crafted to spark in its readers an analytical, reflective response that ideally will lead to group discussion as much as individual contemplation: "These essays will pose to the reader questions such as: "Does the way in which people die change our reactions to their deaths?" "Is it potentially a good thing for people to raise doubts about their beliefs and convictions?"

Their best use will be as an impetus for such interactive experiences, as Neben's special way of fostering such reflections brings the underlying relevance and impact of his topics to life. Consider the points raised in 'Almost Everyone Else': "This idea again reminds us that unimportant people have collective value, not individual value. How many works of art depict the death or major life events of important figures? Yet average people must grasp at lower hanging fruit. If they wish to have their lives and terrible deaths commemorated for future consumption, they must hope that a lot of other average people are brought down with them."

Neben's blend of philosophical and social reflection holds added value for its wide-reaching inclusion of ordinary experiences, extraordinary circumstances, and their lasting impact on world history and collective memory. How can doubt and questions be raised so as to educate and prompt a deeper level of inspection and reaction in the general populace? It's long been acknowledged that critical thinking is on the wane. Those who would refute this sense would best begin with questioning the status quo, historical precedent, and the truths and realities set forth by authorities. What better place to begin than with the stylized inquiries of A Lot of Questions (With No Answers)? These questions may not come with pat answers, but their impact lies in the nature of their inquiry.

Ideally, A Lot of Questions (With No Answers)? will be chosen not just for literature library holdings, but for classroom discussion groups profiling the importance, nature, and impact of inquiry and analysis.

The Pets/Wildlife Shelf

Northern California Nature Guide
Erin McCloskey
Lone Pine Publishing
9781774511718, $21.95, PB, 224pp

Synopsis: From Monterey Bay in the south to the Klamath Mountains on the Oregon border, Northern California has some of the most iconic natural wonders in the US: redwood forests, San Francisco Bay, Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and Lake Tahoe. Both beginning and more experienced naturalists will enjoy this guide to 400 of the region's most commonly encountered plants and animals. Birds, butterflies, wildflowers, trees, squirrels, bugs, and more.

Each featured species includes color illustrations, detailed notes on ecology, range, animal behavior, and native uses. Of special note is a separate color-coded quick reference guide. There is also an illustrated glossary, bibliography, and index for both common and Latin names

Critique: Now in an updated and expanded second edition, "Northern California Nature Guide" is impressively informative, exceptionally well organized, and throughly 'reader friendly' in presentation. Beautifully and profusely illustrated throughout, "Northern California Nature Guide" is an essential and unreservedly recommended and easily portable reference guide for Northern California wilderness hikers, campers, bird watchers, and vacationers, as well as community and academic library collections.

The Geology Shelf

Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Eastern California, second edition
Allen F. Glazner, et al.
Mountain Press Publishing Company
PO Box 2399, Missoula, MT 59806
9780878427079, $24.00, PB, 326pp

Synopsis: Eastern California is a geologically dramatic region with the ever-present risk of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, flash floods, and sand storms. It also features spectacular and easily viewed rocks and landforms.

With the publication of a newly expanded second edition of "Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Eastern California", authors Allen Glazner and Art Sylvester build on co-author Robert P. Sharp's insights to produce a full-color illustrated guide to 33 amazing geologic sites in Death Valley and the surrounding region.

Readers will learn how stones slide across the Racetrack playa, find the rocks missing from Dantes View, and visit the rim of the Long Valley caldera, an enormous depression left by a supervolcano eruption far larger than any that has occurred since the dawn of human civilization.

Critique: Profusely, informatively and beautifully illustrated throughout with full color photography, "Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Eastern California" is an impressively detailed compendium of geological information that is remarkably 'reader friendly' in organization and presentation. Enhanced with the inclusion of a glossary, a bibliographic listing of sources, an index, and a geological checklist, "Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Eastern California" is highly recommended for community and academic library Geology collections in general, and as a textbook for supplemental California Geology curriculum studies lists in particular.

Editorial Note #1: Allen F. Glazner has conducted geological research in the Sierra Nevada and eastern California since his undergraduate days, and retired from teaching in 2019. He is a co-author of "Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park" and of both editions of "Geology Underfoot in Southern California". He has a website at

Editorial Note #2: Arthur Gibbs Sylvester teaches UC Santa Barbara courses in structural geology, field geology, and petrology. His research includes fieldwork in Norway, Italy, Grand Teton National Park, the Tahoe-Sierra, and the Salton Trough. He has led more than 300 field trips in southern California for student, industrial, and professional geologists. He is on Wikipedia at

Editorial Note #3: Robert P. Sharp (1911-2004) originated the Geology Underfoot series. A true polymath who could explain complex concepts to anyone, his specialty fields included sand dune physics, glaciology, and planetary sciences. He was among the first to interpret dune processes in orbital imagery from Mars and received the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America, its highest honor, in 1977. In further recognition of his contributions to diverse fields, a mountain and a glacier in Antarctica, a Mars-crossing asteroid, and a mountain on Mars have been named in his honor. He is on Wikipedia at

The Money/Finance Shelf

19 Rules for Getting Rich and Staying Rich Despite Wall Street
E. Aly
Marshwinds Press Company
9781734117035, $24.95 Hardcover/$19.95 Paper/$11.99 ebook

19 Rules for Getting Rich and Staying Rich Despite Wall Street is a wealth acquisition and management guide that should be in any business, economic, or personal financial planner's library. E. Aly makes some surprising admonitions in the course of this analysis - among them the thought that being rich does not translate to saving for retirement and then selling off assets in retirement years; and that there are right and wrong forms of leverage (among other revelations).

These contentions are backed by statistical and financial studies and research that teaches how to build sound investment strategies without sacrificing lifestyle goals, whether present or future. These 19 rules are addressed step-by-step and begin with assessing expectations, definitions of being rich, and approaches to not just building, but maintaining wealth. The latter is a topic too often missed in the drive for the former, but is just as key to becoming and staying rich as the methods for arriving at this point.

As Aly teaches the basics of building an investment portfolio that generates the kind of investment income that translates to wealth, readers receive new ideas about what constitutes that wealth and how it is best managed. Some of the financial insights blend common sense with basic business savvy, while others represent a better definition of and approach to wealth management that incorporates strategies designed to not just generate, but maintain a reliable money stream. The result is a special blend of flexibility, business insights, and goal-driven steps (19, to be specific) designed to foster not just better understanding, but better wealth management strategies.

These are the real keys to defining the concept of "rich" -- and the reason why 19 Rules for Getting Rich and Staying Rich Despite Wall Street proves more logical, accessible, and pragmatic than many "how to get rich" books. It focuses on the building process over the goal of maintaining financial security, while drawing on an investment income that will prove liquid under any condition.

Libraries looking for wealth management books that are filled with strategy backed by real-world experience should consider 19 Rules for Getting Rich and Staying Rich Despite Wall Street a foundation guide to understanding how the rich can get richer -- and maintain that status.

The Biography Shelf

Escapegoat Daughter
Misty Compton
CoreCavity LLC
9798986459400, $4.99 Kindle/$17.95 paperback

Many memoirs document dysfunctional family relationships, but Misty Compton's Escapegoat Daughter joins them with a different focus, chronicling not just dysfunction, but the process by which a daughter makes a purposeful decision to sever all contact with her family in order to maintain her own health and sanity. That process is both reinforced by this memoir about her life and reviewed in depth as Compton examines the roots of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and decisions.

She considers the self-preserving rules that made her the 'black sheep' in the family and how she ultimately decided that going "no contact" was the only way she could lead a healthy life. The fine art of distancing involves not only many decisions, but many attempts to establish healthier connections and boundaries in a relationship. Compton reviews all these choices and their consequences as she reviews her life in Escapegoat Daughter, from childhood to her own wedding and ongoing recovery and growth.

The story opens with a new beginning as Compton accepts her boyfriend's marriage proposal. It then moves to undercurrents of family influence as Compton considers her boyfriend's traditional approach to her family and the values that would soon be shaken by interactions that forced them both to change. These psychological depths come to light slowly as Compton reviews her life-changing epiphany and how her parents reacted to it.

As Compton and her husband learn more about family scapegoats, she comes to realize more about her position in her family, and why distancing and self-protection may be her only choices in maintaining healthy boundaries. Readers receive a thorough review of all family connections and relationships as the story evolves. The meat of the story lies in the decision, enactment, and difficulty of going "no contact" as Compton explores many different aspects of her resolution. She also candidly acknowledges her own responsibility for choosing different courses for her own life without casting ongoing blame onto others for her psyche or actions.

The result is more than another book about family dysfunction and adult healing. It narrows the focus to the choice of "no contact" in all of its ramifications, charting the course to this effort and the messages that come from within and from family. While Escapegoat Daughter represents a fine memoir of personal struggle suitable for library memoir collections, it's especially recommended for those in toxic family relationships who will learn about the logic, methods, and impact of making a "no contact" choice. Ideally, Escapegoat Daughter will also serve as fodder for recovery discussion groups or the EMDR therapy sessions of adults who are handling or healing from toxic family interactions.

Why is this book such a standout? Compton says it best: "Awareness is the starting point for all healing. If we are aware of and take accountability for our bad behaviors, we can heal and stop narcissism from continuing to the next generation."

JADA: Just Another Dead Animal: A Vietnam Memoir
James Morris
Atmosphere Press
9781639884810, $16.99

JADA: Just Another Dead Animal: A Vietnam Memoir is the posthumous publication of a Vietnam vet who returned with severe PTSD, and who wrote this memoir before he died to review and perhaps reconcile his past. The foreword by his younger brother details his sibling's intentions in writing this book, outlining why Glenn Morris considered his brother a hero. According to Glenn, James Morris "was a living casualty of war, trying to live beyond his memory and his memoir."

This book details the war experiences that led to acts of courage and PTSD alike. The story begins with the "good old days" of youth pre-war, then moves into the Vietnam milieu where James's life turns into a tightrope walk over ongoing dangers that stem from as seemingly-ordinary actions as taking a single misstep. The "you are here" feel of the narrative explores perceptions of self and enemy, experiences, and the life-changing milieu of Vietnam that seeps into a soldier's psyche. As panic attacks develop which will become a common experience for James for the rest of his life, JADA: Just Another Dead Animal goes the extra mile in showing how ongoing stress and life-challenging situations create responses in individuals that serve as coping mechanisms long after threats vanish.

More so than most Vietnam memoirs, this attention to the experiences and ideas of combat and how they come home to roost in field and civilian life makes for an astute examination of survival and psychic injuries that are nearly impossible to resolve, once embedded. Also enlightening is the process by which other human beings come to be perceived as "animals" and how this perception translates to life back home, when combat is over.

James is wise enough to realize that his military experience will be part of his life forever, even when it's past. While his encounters and experiences could serve as triggers for fellow veterans, they also serve as validations of the struggles experienced by military men who see action overseas, then attempt to return to "ordinary life" at home, survival traits and perceptions still firmly engrained in heart and mind. Ironically, James may be seen as a hero to his brother, but he will also be applauded for his courage in being so candid and revealing in this memoir. Its experiences, lessons, and insights are healing: "I shamefully never felt I truly saved anyone's life in Vietnam, but I hope in some way this story might save just one life. And it may have been my own."

Libraries that choose JADA: Just Another Dead Animal to augment other Vietnam memoirs in their collections will find that, more so than most, James Morris provides a healing experience that acknowledges the rigors and changing mindsets of combat experience and coming full circle to return home. It's a lesson in adaptation and perspective is recommended for book club reading circles interested in Vietnam experiences that capture the racing pulse of a nation and a world on edge, as well as individual experience.

My Nine Lives: An Exuberant Adventure
Ben Lin
Atmosphere Press
9781639884230, $18.99

My Nine Lives: An Exuberant Adventure comes from a true "Renaissance Man" who is a renowned chef, actor, and acclaimed pianist. Here, Ben Lin recounts the heady flight of all his abilities as he moves into the world powered by an inferiority complex that motivates rather than limits him.

Readers looking for inspirational memoirs that chart an upward trajectory through not just one career path, but a number of talents and opportunities for using them, will relish My Nine Lives. It explores the motivations, insights, and career moves of an entrepreneur who overcame many odds to make the most of his life. From his early years in China and his struggles to overcome the hurdle of proficiency in English to his forays into cooking, teaching, and interacting with students to influence their own evolving lives, Lin captures the excitement and nuances of a career and life that moves forward into various new ventures with enthusiasm: "...there was no greater joy than to impart the knowledge of something I loved to well-motivated enthusiasts."

Lin takes the time to describe all these milieus, from the complexities of Chinese regional cooking and the different cultures and approaches it represents to moving from cooking and the culinary world to teaching, acting, and performing. From new developments to debuts and career changes, Lin's memoir absorbs the complexity of a multifaceted life, flavoring it with examples of overcoming obstacles to make the most of opportunities. The result is a lively memoir that requires no prior familiarity with Ben Lin, but an appreciation for specific examples of a well-lived life and what it means to overcome adversity to rise to the top.

Libraries looking for such memoirs, as well as collections strong in Chinese cultural experiences, will find My Nine Lives: An Exuberant Adventure more than lives up to its subtitle, imparting a sense of adventure and achievement to audiences who would emulate its energy and lessons.

Patsy Swayze: Every Day, A Chance to Dance
Sue Tabashnik
Passion Spirit Dreams Press
9780989408660, $25.99

Patsy Swayze: Every Day, A Chance to Dance was written to celebrate, honor, and reveal the life of a dancer and mentor whose activities influenced dance students for decades. In so many ways, Patsy was an icon and trailblazer; yet her influence is barely known outside the world of dance. Thus, the need for this book, which should be included in any definitive library collection of performing arts personalities.

Patsy Swayze's famous son Patrick was one of her students, and many readers will harbor at least a rudimentary knowledge of his skills. Sue Tabashnik's book outlines the wellsprings of these abilities as it surveys Patsy's life, her influences on her son, and their relationship as well as their strengths and place in performing arts history.

Houston, Texas in the 1950s and '60s was not known as a bastion of social acceptance; yet Patsy, early on, made her dance lessons available to people of color and people from all walks of life. She was a philanthropist and a teacher whose directions proved revolutionary at a time when so many doors were closed to those from different economic, racial and ethnic levels of American society. Because of all these facets (including the fact that her many achievements have never been fully assembled in one place and celebrated before), Patsy Swayze: Every Day, A Chance to Dance represents a key piece of literature that goes beyond following one woman's career.

Patsy made a name for herself in many ways. It's a legacy that deserves to be profiled, and to live on to influence future generations. Her biographer achieves this goal by interviewing other dancers and artists whose memories of and associations with Patsy catapulted their own careers and endeavors to unprecedented heights. Student commentaries about their teacher's lessons offer additional insights into her focus and modus operandi: "She was all about technique...She also always stressed about being a triple-threat: to learn to sing, to learn to do acrobatics, to learn to do jazz, to learn to do tap, to learn to do ballet. She said to learn as much as you can so when you are called upon in a show or a movie - "Can you do this?" - you can say yes. She told us to be a triple-threat - actor, singer, dancer - and try to excel at them all." As a host of interviews from professional dancers, choreographers, actors and industry leaders bring forth various facets of Patsy's life, readers gain the full flavor of her personality, her son's world, and her life.

Liberally laced with color photos of contributors, performance literature, and vintage photos, Patsy Swayze: Every Day, A Chance to Dance is a vibrant account of a notable teacher's world. It should become a mainstay in any performing arts or memoir collection interested in lively performing arts industry discussions and insights.

Suspected Hippie in Transit
Martin Frumkin
Balsam Press LLC
9781734800012, $5.99 Kindle

Aside from the tongue-in-cheek nature of the title's initials, Suspected Hippie in Transit provides a travel story about an experience in Malaysia which is "a comedy for some and a tragedy for others." In that country, being identified as a hippie is cause for deportation ... even if the label is somewhat mercurial and relies on appearance and actions which may lie far from an actual hippie's world. The passports of those who are deemed possible social reprobates are thus stamped "S.H.I.T." and are subject to suspicion and dismissal.

Martin Frumkin was one such soul who embarked on the international hippie trail of enlightenment and discovery. While his experiences were similar to those of many other travelers who walked this path, the difference is that he took the time to write them down, with the added injection of wry observation tempered by humor. Thus, this book, which takes readers on a journey both eye-opening and fun.

The sojourns through Asia in the 1970s assume a "you are here" diary feel that brings readers into the cultural milieus of the regions and times: "As I wake this early morning, am I still dreaming? I look up and see multiple archways of a palace. Really? A palace? Yes. I am a guest of Hare Raj Singh and his two brothers, Locki Raj and Ravi Raj." If, at this point, readers anticipate the usual new age focus of the hippie, it should be cautioned that Frumkin's voice of experience is far more candid and practical than most.

From packed trains to the swirling currents of the Indian Ocean, one of Frumkin's strengths is the ability to inject readers into the world he observes: "Shimmering a crimson dance, a second line of clouds lounge at the horizon, unable to conceal a brilliantly rising orange-red sun-ball. Below the boulder on which I sit, a dark-skinned boy has just taken a loose watery stool, breakfast for a murky-gray pig. Bon appetite. Sunrise in India!"

Maps and black and white photos pepper the story as Frumkin moves through India in the first segment of a seven-year odyssey that embraces sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, and spiritual and cultural enlightenment. His encounters with slums, squalor, frantic lifestyles, and strange times fueled by a "hippie trail" marks the days of a traveler who becomes immersed in different worlds and their social and political ironies and incarnations.

Spiritual and psychological enlightenment are the hallmarks of travel and are abundant attractions in Suspected Hippie in Transit, which documents not just one traveler's individual experience, but reflects the pursuits of a generation of searchers.

Libraries strong in Asian cultural exploration, travel, spirituality, and solidly good reads will find all these qualities mark a story both enlightening and fun. Frumkin's ability to capture the dual complexities of a pilgrimage to India makes for enlightening, entertaining reading that's highly recommended for a wide audience of seekers, travelers, and those who would relive the milieu of the 70s from a nomad's perspective.

A Voice Out of Poverty
Jillian Haslam
Top Reads Publishing, LLC
9781970107234, $18.99 Paper/$7.99 Kindle

A Voice Out of Poverty: The Power to Achieve From Adversity is a study in rising out of poverty. It comes from a woman whose childhood was influenced by the slums of Calcutta.

From the start, Jillian Haslam describes powerful scenes of poverty in India which would have proved impossible to overcome had it not been for the ongoing determination of her mother. Given such a beginning, it would seem unlikely that life could improve. But her mother imparted a valuable message that, though resisted early in life, ultimately drove Haslam to reach for greater goals: "My mother relentlessly stressed that life could always have been harder. Never make a fuss. Be grateful for what you have, however paltry. Things can be worse."

This admonition, along with a work ethic instilled at a young age, kept Haslam on track to escape her own poverty and serve as a guidepost for others seeking to understand the wellsprings of success. Haslam's memoir moves through the ups and downs of her journey, exploring both her life and Indian society and culture (which is well known for its large, impoverished communities). Her path to personal improvement led her into a mission of broader transformation for those around her as she was appointed as President of BofA's Charity and Diversity Network in India and began to help others overcome poverty.

Besides the inspirational quality of her unique story, Haslam also provides the powerful lessons that she absorbed in the course of her upward trajectory. The result is more than a singular memoir of achievement, but a broader inspection of how personal experience can drive social and political change at different levels, as well as representing a solid inspection of Indian culture and society.

A Voice Out of Poverty's powerful message needs to be heard. This memoir should not be limited to library autobiography sections alone, but should be made part of book and social issues discussion groups, studies on contemporary Indian society, and examinations of the changing roles of women in leadership positions.

The Judaic Studies Shelf

Penny Hashem
Visage Books
9781495822094, $28.95 Hardcover/$19.95 Paper/$8.49 kindle

You is a study in Judaic spirituality and philosophy that promotes self-help and growth for better understanding and enlightenment, and brings with it the flavor of wisdom embedded in the Torah. From this description, readers might think You is intended for Jewish audiences alone, but its messages are much broader than that. They offer insights to all thinking readers who look for books that reveal largely unknown secrets to understanding life.

While the ideas themselves are not original, the Torah-based path to them does provide routes that many won't have considered before. What makes Penny Hashem's journey different is the acknowledgement of how a Torah-based focus offers a refreshingly new perspective. As Hashem states, "Ultimately, this is a book about you." Thus, each reader's unique perspective, insights, and ideals of life's purpose will change the experience and value of what is to be gained from You. Much like Schrödinger's cat, the observer becomes an integral part of the experiment, which changes its results.

The main prerequisites for a successful reading of You are a spiritual belief in a higher force and an inquiring mind interested in considering the Torah's daily and overall presence in life. Armed with such a background, the reader receives explorations of biblical sources for God's incarnation in this world, Torah-based prayers or terms which are explained and explored as integral pieces of the investigation, and analyses that move between spiritual, philosophical, and psychological realms.

As literary allusions enter this study, readers will appreciate Hashem's ability to seamlessly move between disciplines to integrate their concepts and beliefs into bigger-picture thinking. The Torah insights she provides are specific and unique: "Torah provides us to help us liberate ourselves from the veils that shroud our Godly core. As we discussed, the lifecycle ceremonies (along with the daily rituals, and the weekly, monthly and yearly calendrical observances) are all facets of an integrated practice through which we train ourselves to penetrate the darkness.

The detailed and disciplined answer then to the question of how we can habituate ourselves to seeing the Godliness that is hidden within everything, is to take advantage of the tactics and exercises that Torah offers us." While the author's intention is to translate somewhat esoteric Torah readings into language and approaches the average reader can easily understand, it should be added that "average" translates to those who would absorb deeper layers of meaning than trite observation or easy answers. This audience will relish You for its integral ability to raise the bar on intellectual discourse.

While You will most likely appear in Jewish library collections, it shouldn't repose on a shelf or in a single reader's mind. Instead, it can become central to discussions and debates in reading groups interested in the intersection of Jewish, philosophical, spiritual, and psychological thought.

The General Fiction Shelf

Soulful Return
Fidelis O. Mkparu
DX Varos Publishing
9781955065603, $18.95

In Soulful Return, Harvard-trained medical doctor Afamefuna Onochie Nwaku appears to have everything -- an education, a lovely wife, and a fine home. When he receives a phone call from Nigeria that informs him his sister is being threatened, everything he's worked for (and everything he's worked to escape from, in the past) is also placed at risk. It's not like Afam doesn't long for his home. Indeed, when he responds to his sister's plea for help and returns to the land of his birth, he feels a renewed connection that refutes the very different life he's built for himself in Boston. But his newfound feelings, combined with his revised status in Nigeria as an outsider and an American who brings with him the ability to confront corruption and change the lives and world of his former homeland, places him in a precarious position both in Nigeria and in America.

Fidelis O. Mkparu does an excellent job of depicting the moral, ethical, and cultural dilemmas of an immigrant who remains connected to two very different worlds. As Soulful Return evolves, readers receive a vivid inspection of these issues from the viewpoint of a character who inspects his own emotions and motivations with candid honesty. Others have cared for the medicine plants that are his family's legacy. It's time for Afam to reconsider where his responsibilities and heart really lie -- with his now-changed native country, or his newly-built life.

Mkparu has created a masterpiece of immigrant experience and connection, outlining many of the forces that influence and stress modern Africans and Americans alike. His consideration of corruption, responsibility, family ties, and new beginnings lends to a powerful novel steeped in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of Nigeria. This serves as a fitting contrast of the Western education and experience that Afam represents.

Libraries interested in powerful stories with literary and cultural value will find Soulful Return a thought-provoking inspection. It also ideally will reach into book club and discussion groups focused on the African immigrant experiences between two worlds.

Waiting 'Round To Die
Chris Grant
Atmosphere Press
9781639884513, $17.99

Waiting 'Round To Die is a study in coming of age, walking into life, and moving away from suburban roots to undertake a road trip and pilgrimage of a lifetime. The first-person narrator remains nameless. This lends an existential feel to the story from the start. He connects with a long-lost uncle who joins him on this unexpected road trip through life, moving across continents and encountering a host of characters who might have answers to life questions, but usually just add more depth and queries to their efforts. "I had a vague idea where I was going."

This mercurial sense of destination keeps moving the characters forward into new realms and encounters that belay the notion that they are sitting around waiting for life to come to them. This is a story about "a life spinning out of control." It's also a tale of growth, discovery, and confronting stereotypes and traditions.

Unlike most books about these topics, it's rooted not in the usual coming-of-age scenario revolving around teens, but in a middle-aged man who feels "Abandoned by my friends, left in a place I loathed." His process of analyzing and disentangling himself from past relationships and tackling subjects of reincarnated figures from the past that offer unusual lessons for present and future experiences makes for an involving romp through life, laced with philosophical overtones.

The examples Glen imparts to his nephew are many as the story unfolds -- some as unusual as accepting the claims of men who represent figures and lessons from the past. What is possible, impossible, and worth fighting for falls under question as the narrator moves through this surreal world and a vastly revised life compared to the one he walked away from.

The characters are lively and well-drawn, the ironic life inspections are intriguing, and the on-the-road adventures a draw for readers who would walk out of their own lives for a period of time. Libraries looking for contemporary novels that are thought-provoking and fun will find both attributes power the revelations and adventurous road trip that is Waiting 'Round To Die.

The LGBT Fiction Shelf

The One Woman
Laura May
Creative James Media
9781956183801, $10.99

LGBTQ romance readers looking for the story of a chance meeting between a married woman and one who captures her heart will find The One Woman a fine story of an emotional entanglement. Problems result when Julie, who is leading a staid life as a wife and graphic designer, encounters the vivacious Ann. Their chance meeting introduces a spark to her life that Julie never imagined could have existed between men or women. This brings with it a conundrum that Julie deftly avoids facing until a second unexpected meeting and further developments strengthen her attraction and its impact.

Laura May creates an especially compelling story as she surveys Julie's changing world. Julie is well-traveled and a smart, successful woman despite the three-year relationship that has anchored her in so many ways. Despite this, she doesn't have the kinds of friendships that would bring her enlightenment and connections in life. Meeting Ann introduces this possibility and much more as Julie grows and changes. As she comes to learn that Ann is gay and the two draw closer, revised life issues enter the picture, from Julie's choice to remain child-free to her relationship with Mark.

May shifts the first-person points of view between Ann and Julie. This allows for a deeper inspection of the perceptions, attraction between them, and broader questions about individuality and being part of a couple that each woman approaches from different experiences and vantage points.

May goes beyond physical attraction and issues to probe the psyches of each woman, from past influences and perceptions to ideals of relationships and the future. By the time tragedy enters the picture, forcing Julie to make an impossible choice, readers are thoroughly steeped in the individual backgrounds that lead up to these life-changing revelations and moments.

Libraries strong in LGBTQ+ literature, as well as patrons who are interested in a love story where each character grows beyond their assumptions and life trajectory, will find The One Woman a compelling saga that considers the experience of finding true love and what happens when it changes everything.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Siena My Love
Tom Bisogno
Atmosphere Press
9781639884322, $14.99 Paper/$5.99 Kindle

Siena My Love is both an Italian cultural exploration and a love story. It follows teen singing sensation Michael Ventura on an unexpected journey back home to his roots after a powerful career traveling the world as an idol. Michael has long been on a roll of success, but when family needs him, he readily returns home. There, he confronts not only changes and new responsibilities, but childhood friend Sophia, who has also matured and changed in the years they've been apart.

The story opens with a turning point in Michael's life and career choices. The pivot point explored in the prologue creates the first draw to readers before chapters fill in the blanks of past events, relationships with parents, early life in Italy, and the circumstances that led Michael to become a star.

Tom Bisogno takes the time to thoroughly explore Italian culture and the various forces that influence Michael's attitude and his relationship with Sophia: "...we're not naive teens back at the Palio where we didn't understand our hormones or how to express our feelings. I told you before how much I regretted disappearing on you for all those years. Because of that, I really didn't want to mess up your life by interfering in it."

From musical interludes to changing friendships, love, and wishes come true, Siena My Love is a sweet story of growth and revelation that embraces family, friendships, and adventures around the world. Its warm story of growth on personal and professional levels gives a heartfelt read to those who enjoy clean romance tales steeped in cultural traditions and artistic environments.

Libraries interested in acquisitions which feature strong characters that come together from different perspectives will welcome Siena My Love's evocative embrace.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The OCD Chronicles
Stuart Chapman
Atmosphere Press
9781639884063, $17.99 Paper/$7.99 Kindle

Contrary to what its title may portend, The OCD Chronicles: Fear and Loathing on the Psychiatrist's Couch is not a memoir about a psychiatry experience, but a psychological thriller that follows disturbed man Stan Navarro in his search for revenge, redemption, and psychological relief.

Yes, obsessive-compulsive behaviors are at the heart of his focus, motivating and driving his adventures with a relentless search for peace and power; but also central to the plot is a force that builds delusions, dangers, and tests a psychiatrist's ability to stave off seemingly-inevitable disaster.

By making OCD behaviors the profile in a story that rapidly expands outwards to tackle a protagonist's brutal memories and their influence of dangerous choices, Stuart Chapman creates a character whose actions and perceptions blur the line between fantasy and reality. This, in turn, immerses readers in a story packed with tense moments and twists and turns that rely on a touch of insanity mixed with purposeful intentions to enact sweeping life changes. In this scenario, the overseeing psychiatrist might be just as much the problem as the patient, manipulating events to enact healing and change, but actually formulating a new reality for his client where the therapist is in power and calling too many shots.

Readers used to scenarios of the usual psychiatric session will find this psychiatrist's approach to Stan more than a cut above the ordinary as he becomes involved (perhaps too much) in Stan's past. Stan Navarro may have "grown up absurd" in the 1950s. But in these times, and in this situation, he's evolving into a monster. As scenarios move between past, present, and surreal images of the Holocaust and a psychiatrist's experiments possibly gone awry, readers will find much to appreciate in a thriller that holds many cat-and-mouse games and not much predictability.

Be prepared to be amazed, surprised, and challenged. The OCD Chronicles is no linear story of the roots of obsession, but a powerfully enacted portrait of a son's relationship with his father, the OCD compulsions that drive his adulthood, and the interjection of a psychiatrist hell-bent on experimenting with the mind. History, thriller elements, and psychiatry mingle in a powerful novel that proves not just hard to put down, but difficult to categorize. That is its strength -- and why it will appeal widely, from standard thriller audiences to those who appreciate stories of psychological danger and growth.

Risky Assets
Rachael Eckles
Aphrodite Books, LLC
9781734901849, $27.00 Hardcover/$17.00 Paper/$15.00 Kindle

It's unusual to see a thriller that opens with an extensive probe of events that occurred nine months earlier, but Risky Assets takes an unusual turn in starting with ten chapters that set the stage for present-day events, immersing readers in the second mystery in a series featuring financier Celeste Donovan. Celeste is beautiful, brilliant, and rich. She appears to have it all. But appearances can be deceiving, because under the surface of her success lies an nuance of angst and injury caused by her abusive ex and traumatic events that took her away from her familiar jet-setting world, threatening her latest love, Theodore. All that is behind her, now. Or, is it? The reality is that Omar's threat still looms, and there's only one way to handle it. Eliminate the danger.

There's an obstacle to her success, though. Omar has joined the ranks of the U.S. government, and eliminating him would bring his fellow agents into her life. How can she get away with murder under these circumstances? Where there's a will, there's a way.

Rachael Eckles excels in portraying a strong, confident woman whose desire for success and peace conflict with the methods she tries to employ to assure that both dictate her future course. Celeste analyzes strategies, theories, and tactics with an astute assurance that lends power to her position and her persona.

Readers receive an engrossing story that relies on both an individual woman's strengths and the various conundrums she faces in trying to juggle safety, murder, and redemption alike. The result is a thoroughly engrossing thriller that is especially highly recommended for collections seeking strong female protagonists, unusual scenarios, and twists and turns that are delightfully thought-provoking.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

The Blanchard Witches: Prodigal Daughters
Micah House
Kendrell Publishing
9798985607536, $26.95

Readers familiar with the first book in Micah House's series, The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County, will welcome the return to new events provided in its sequel, The Blanchard Witches: Prodigal Daughters. Here, the outcome of Olympia Blanchard and her family's battle with werewolves continues to resonate. It was an epic battle during which two participants fell in love. It was a battle replete with secrets, because Fable Blanchard became pregnant at that same time. And it was a situation which holds resounding impact today, even after the wolf is defeated, because new trials await the family and their followers. A missing daughter, a new beau, and another daughter who continues to keep secrets around her pregnancy and the father of her child makes for an engrossing story flavored with Southern atmosphere and supernatural elements. House crafts an excellent story that juxtaposes magic, mystery, and new dangers with evolving family relationships that continue to transform all involved.

Allusions to fables such as Sleeping Beauty arrive with deadly new interpretations as events unfold, creating a picture-in-picture series of events that reach out and grab readers with blends of vampires, crimes, and matters of the heart. It's a delicate dance to move between these elements in such a way as to keep the action fast-paced and unpredictable rather than mired in formula genre approaches, but it's a creative impulse that House cultivates to give the story a fresh, original feel.

Characters are believable and engaging; situations pull on not just the heart but moral and ethical developments against supernatural backdrops; and the saga moves between family members and outsiders with a strong attention to detail, description, and twists that address issues of prejudice and family connections alike.

The result is another highly recommended story that blends occult fiction and fantasy with a special Southern flavor. Like a mint julep, it lingers on the tongue and in the mind, inviting readers with an engaging tone that only needs a porch rocking chair for, the reader of Southern fiction and occult suspense stories, to complete the atmosphere.

Ninety Days in the 90s: A Rock N Roll Time Travel Story
Andy Frye
Atmosphere Press
9781639883875, $18.99 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

Avid followers of time travel fiction well know the typical plot progression: an adventurer falls into another time, solves problems there, and spends the rest of the time trying to return home. Andy Frye's Ninety Days in the 90s: A Rock N Roll Time Travel Story offers a different flavor more intent on capturing the place and tone of the 1990s. It follows Darby Derrex, a modern-day financial and social failure whose latest undertaking is to run her uncle's Chicago record store.

When she discovers that a time machine offers her the opportunity to journey back in time to 1996, the height of some of Chicago's major music experiments and when she was a music critic who cultivated a love relationship with Lina (ultimately failing at both), she decides to fix things.

She didn't expect to fall in love with the past. Didn't anticipate that the edict to repair what was broken in 90 days, or remain in that past forever, would prove such a challenge. And Darby didn't expect to have so much fun while facing the music.

Andy Frye creates a compelling story that depicts the counter-culture of the 1990s with an astute eye to examining its major influences, allure, and punk-based attractions. From stormy relationships and opportunities to travel within the musical world to social strife and revelations about the forces that drew her away from the love of her life, readers follow Darby into a world influenced by love and 1990s political and social evolution.

The reflections are crisp and thought-provoking as Darby navigates what should be a familiar world, but turns out to hold different psychological revelations than she'd held, back in modern times. Has she escaped, or gotten herself trapped? This question plagues her revised decisions and perceptions as a girl from the future revisits her past with the unprecedented opportunity to make different choices.

While readers of time travel fiction will find many recognizable dilemmas in Ninety Days in the 90s: A Rock N Roll Time Travel Story, its real strength lies in its portrait of how a woman faced with the opportunity to make changes decides, instead, to go with a flow that leads in different directions.

Does she control her destiny, or does it control her? And, can she help the world discover new music? Frye's ability to permeate his story with the music-saturated atmosphere of the 1990s scene will draw readers who usually don't choose time travel stories. Its recreation of this era and its key artists adds to a story replete in historical musical background and experiences. These elements make Ninety Days in the 90s: A Rock N Roll Time Travel Story a top recommendation not just for the usual time travel story reader, but for rock music fans who would relive the music, social influences, and world of 1990s Chicago.

Brian Burt
Independently Published
B0B8KW2Z3P, $2.99 Kindle

Contemporary readers seeking to tap the roots of speculative fiction should look no further than the short pieces in Mindshards: A Collection. It serves as a strong example of hard-hitting speculative works representing the best of the genre and the best use of the short story format.

Speculative fiction focuses on changing the nature or perception of reality itself, placing characters in positions where they have to absorb, reflect, and act within these altered states. The stories in Mindshards each place characters in extraordinary circumstances, weaving in equally astonishing responses to the bizarre that keep characters and readers guessing about outcomes.

Take the opening story, "Phantom Pain." Here, the first-person protagonist finds himself in Louisiana on a sports scholarship. Fresh from Chicago, the narrator initially doesn't understand either the culture or the legends of the bayou. He's about to find out (and so is the reader) as events immerse him in Creole culture via his wife and evolving community connections.

Brian Burt doesn't just describe this milieu. His words resonate and amplify with supercharged imagery designed to engross: "New Orleans doesn't just sing, friend; it jitters and jives and wails like a wild animal that can't be caged." His knee blown in a sports injury, the narrator becomes a cop. And this is where his reality and perceptions are truly shaken as he is pulled into the underworld and dark culture flowing under Louisiana's appealing surface of artistic endeavors.

His encounter with Voodoo gangs gobbles a piece of him regularly (mind you, he's selling off these pieces willingly, not understanding their true cost). As a "crazy fever" spreads through the streets via these gangs, the narrator (who "doesn't believe in black magic...just black hearts") finds his world shaken. Only when it's too late does he realize the price he really pays for selling his soul piece by piece.

Each story is steeped in emotional draws, from the hatred and despair in "Phantom Pain" and its powerful concluding thought ("Nobody sells his soul all at once. No, the Devil buys on the layaway plan.") to the ranging "Brilliant Blood of Souls" which tackles a ghoulish killer in Los Angeles and the bioplasma signatures that help a savvy cop identify perps ... until one apparently alters the impossible.

Speculative fiction readers who also enjoy crime scenarios will find the collection's prize-earning strengths lies not so much in 'whodunit' scenarios (or, 'why do it'), but in undercurrents of supernatural and impossible forces in such works as "Equinox," about a tiny Michigan town which harbors a magical milieu where "place and time fused together."

Place and time fuses in these short works, which are truly mindshards of the unexpected. Each story steeps revelations and thought-provoking moments in action that challenges each character (and their readers) to walk out of their ordinary worlds and the typical progression of life events.

Libraries strong in short stories, speculative works, and powerful writing will find Mindshards a work of literary and psychological prowess, while book clubs looking for strong examples of contemporary speculative works will find its stories compelling, offering much food for thought and lively discussions.

H2LiftShips - Beyond Luna
Bob Freeman
Indies United Publishing House, LLC
9781644562376, $5.76 Paper & Kindle

Space opera used to be a very popular genre, but in recent decades, it seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhat. Sci-fi readers of all ages who mourn this loss and look for contemporary space opera stories rich in action, humor, and description will find this first book in the H2LiftShips series, Beyond Luna, captures a milieu set in a parallel futuristic universe of solar ships, military engagements, and post-apocalyptic wonder.

Here, Solar Sail cargo ships operate in the asteroid belt. One such vessel is the LunaCola, whose crew makes a business of scavenging supplies from Earth and gambling at the casino to fund their existence and lifestyle. This pursuit often brings them into conflict with pirates, authorities, and the law. It also introduces them to unusual scenarios that test their abilities and loyalties.

As an author, Bob Freeman provides a fitting disclosure of the type of reader who may (and may not) be attracted to this world. Merriam-Webster defines space opera as "...a futuristic melodramatic fantasy involving space travelers and extraterrestrial beings."

While this description is too often augmented by the note that space opera can be notoriously simplistic and often represents bad writing, Freeman's series defies this notion by offering a setting, circumstances, and developments that test his characters' ability to survive and grow on different levels. All this is set against the backdrop of action, encounters with a variety of sentients who harbor their own special interests, and a crew that handles high tech and high controversy with equal skill. As for the 'post-apocalyptic' piece, it should be noted that this universe isn't exactly suffering for its origins and influences, but presents a surprisingly positive picture of revised lives and new worlds.

Freeman incorporates many vivid descriptions of this futuristic technology and milieu into a story that is richer for the time taken to explore these foundations. The result both supports the rollicking adventure-forward nature of the space opera genre while expanding its boundaries into the realm of solid writing, vivid descriptions, and unexpected encounters between sentients and humans.

Sci-fi fans of the space opera genre who look for strong action and, especially, attention to a sense of place and high-tech worlds will relish Beyond Luna's ability to bring to the table a different sense of scientific wonder and development, all wrapped into a story that flavors its action with more than a light dose of humor for added value.

H2LiftShips - Backstory
Bob Freeman
Indies United Publishing House, LLC
9781644563076, $5.99 Kindle

H2LiftShips - Backstory opens with Graciela's observation of the world: "Everywhere she looked, it was gray. And black. The ruby-red laser flashed once, twice, pushing the flat, nano-spider fabric out, a spinnaker filled with photons, pulling the ship with it. The Lunar sentients; humans, simians, canines, or octopuses, seldom went out or left their cozy caves for a walk-around. If they had to work in the airless dust to service the ammonia generators or solar cells it was not for pleasure. Just get out, do the work and scurry back to the safety of home." This roots the action to follow with a sense of place that predates the other series books, before Graciela captains her own solar ship. On the cusp of a career-changing decision, Graciela is about to move from her world at the Lunar Academy to something bigger, embracing family, new encounters, and unfamiliar situations.

Bob Freeman doesn't just remain content with packing in action and building a high-tech scenario. He also adds human elements which realistically portray a dysfunctional family and a young woman who tries to move away from her past and into a future where family assumes a different role. Freeman depicts interactions between characters which are humorous and thought-provoking, all in one: "On behalf of your crew, the boost team, and the owner, we are pleased to honor your first flight, the official Didn't Crash patch. Wear it with honor."

That was unexpected, and Captain Grace struggled to come up with the right response, because, of course, captains don't cry."My Air is Your Air," she said simply. It was the first thing out of her mouth. "I will work to make the travels safe. And profitable. So, let's get to Luna and the cosmos." It wasn't a rousing speech, she thought, but also not a long one, and that counts more."

As her first command's wild ride progresses, Captain Grace and her zany collection of shipmates encounter worlds that test their abilities to survive and stay the course of their purpose -- to make a profit. H2LiftShips - Backstory provides an excellent prequel to the series, and is a strong starting point for readers to absorb the language, humor, and atmosphere that bring this world to life. Sci-fi libraries seeking examples of modern space opera which is fun to read and action-packed, powered by strong characters who face unique dilemmas and challenges as they navigate new worlds and their own psyches, will find H2LiftShips - Backstory an outstanding choice.

H2LiftShips - Bosons Wave
Bob Freeman
Indies United Publishing House, LLC
9781644564837, $3.99 ebook

H2LiftShips - Bosons Wave recounts the ongoing story of Captain Graciela and the crew of the H2LiftShip LunaCola, whose secret mission involves a journey that embraces family and political drama in this third volume of an intriguing space opera adventure.

It's set in a world that simultaneously feels both familiar and alien. This is a world of space pirates and high-tech oddities, from algae rocket ships to an odd marriage between advanced technology and old-world devices -- bioGel laser rifles and HAM radios, for example. It's a scenario in which Captain Graciela and her crew battle the brainless algae which have joined with angry bioGel computers to challenge both sides with impossible situations.

From Jovian clouds integrated with DNA computers to gamblers who operate in a space casino against the backdrop of intrigue and conflict, Bob Freeman crafts an environment that will especially please prior series readers with more than just a fast pace. Freeman takes the time to incorporate vivid descriptions into his world-building space opera, marking them with a wry sense of humor that overlays the action. The descriptions of both heady clashes and everyday activities build a strong sense of place to contrast extraordinary events with ordinary life pursuits, but with a twist.

Readers of the prior two books in this series will find Bosons Wave a powerful survey of risky experiments, HiveSister concerns and sentient developments, and the crew's struggle to avoid disaster. Ironic, delightful phrasing fosters a stream of ironic observation through the story: "The green monster's visit was not as friendly as it seemed."

The result is a fitting compliment to the other books in the series, expanding the escapades of this Navy crew's space-faring struggles as they tackle interstellar emergencies, family issues, and military operations with equal ability. Readers seeking a rollicking good read from a modern space opera will find H2LiftShips - Bosons Wave a fine adventure that employs many futuristic descriptions to power its characters and their dilemmas.

Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being
C.G. Fewston
Independently Published
B09JMSZM8Y, $5.99 Kindle

Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being is a novel set in 2183, where homeless outcast Jerome Conquergood wanders the post-apocalyptic world of New York City. His earliest memory is of awakening in the City of Old York with no family or connections. As long as he can recall, he's harbored a hatred of the Korporation (a blend of business and political mega-entity) that controls his world.

Forced to join this much-hated entity to find his missing twin brother, Jerome finds himself stripped of his name, identity, and life as the Korporation takes over and regulates him to the status of a lowly employee -- and a possible future savior.

As Jerome struggles with his new life and tries to maintain perspective and purpose, he enters a strange new world of elite living and unprecedented luxury, both of which serve as lures from his life connections and mission. His initial determination to stay his course ("We are not what the Korporation makes us do," Conquergood tells himself. "Never will be, never have been.") is shaken by these experiences. Readers will find many social and ethical conundrums arise as Conquergood becomes an initially unwilling part of the structure he so abhors.

As an author, C.G. Fewston creates a story replete in social, political, philosophical and psychological depth and inspections that require slower reading in order to thoroughly absorb. No pat dystopian adventure, Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being is intellectually challenging and absorbing. It ideally will attract the thinking sci-fi reader who appreciates not just a futuristic setting, but the moral and ethical quandaries faced by a protagonist forced to move out of his initial perceptions of his place in life in order step into the shoes of the enemy.

This absorbing, engrossing story of genetic manipulation and a search for the ultimate human psyche will also ideally lend to classroom assignment and discussion for courses interested in philosophical and social dilemmas in sci-fi. Not your usual dystopian saga, Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being is highly recommended for its bigger-picture presentation of redemption and relationships that grow from adversity and self-inspection. Its inspection of the foundations of reality and the future of humans is thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging as Conquergood moves towards not only his brother, but a different vision of a new human influenced by genetic and social manipulation.

The Poetry Shelf

Almost A Memoir
M.C. Rydel
Atmosphere Press
9781639884438, $16.99

The poems in Almost A Memoir represent metaphysical reflections of the end of life, immortality, and destiny. They will especially delight poetry readers who choose this book for these themes and their literary exploration. The subjects are provided in sections of chapters (an unusual format for a poetry presentation) that both divide and define the works, creating a linked series of investigations that are striking in their reflections of life, death, and living in-between these states.

Almost a Memoir lives up to its name with its progressive chronicle of relationships and experiences. The collection opens with a cautionary note in "Months of Immortality": "Everyone in my family/Dies during the month of October./You've got to know that about us/Before you get involved." As the chapters evolve, moving readers from the author's life experiences to those of others, poetry readers will appreciate both the free verse's astute reflections and the psychological analysis embedded in scenarios that range from life changes to family relationships.

One such example is "Fabric of Coincidence": "We've exposed the fabric of coincidence./Space and time like warp and weft/Guarded by three phantoms of fate./The first specter spins the thread of life/From her distaff onto the spindle./The second measures the thread with care./The third cuts the thread as it unravels/With her abhorred shears and assures us/Of an identical demise on different continents."

More so than most collections, these poems work as a unit, building a continuity of analysis that assumes the form of autobiography, the plot of a novel, and the impact of literary analysis. These poems have achieved the level of performance art since 2010, and have been presented as spoken word poetry in urban bars, bookstores, theatres, and coffeehouses. Their appearance here, in print and under one cover, offers a fine opportunity for absorbing a narrative of life, relationships, and evolving perceptions of what it means to at once be moral and immoral, both on paper and in life.

Libraries strong in contemporary poetry representations, especially those that move from performance art to the written page, will find Almost A Memoir a fine example of this process and its impact. Creative writing discussion groups will ideally utilize it as an example of contrasting delivery devices between spoken and written word.

But Still, Music
Anne Pitkin
Pleasure Boat Studio
9781737052036, $16.00

But Still, Music is a poetry collection that gives readers a flavor of the South. It follows Anne Pitkin's childhood growing up as a privileged white girl and into an adulthood where she was to lose her grown child. Segregation, distancing, and loss assume different forms in these poems, which create close connections between past and present, injecting this Southern childhood into the progression of events and future lives.

"Mockingbird" is one such journey: "I heard the mockingbird/the day my mother died, and I was free/of the last attachment./That day, the sun clamored/into the windows of the mausoleum/our old home had become." From the dogwood tree which "shivers with the sun" during a visit back home, to a newly compromised mother, to the elusive cedar waxwing birds which so enthralled her own mother ("My mother, who tried to throttle her one life/into a shape she could live with,/loved them, their spots of red/signaling catastrophe or passion/pulsing behind the ordered world - waxwings/descending from the heavens."), Pitkin's evocative reflections on the sights, sounds, and connections that formed her life and continue to influence it are moments of time captured in the amber of poetic wordsmithing.

From journeys abroad to the intersection between human and natural worlds, readers receive works that resonate: "I keep coming back to it - /an empty field and the cracked frozen stream beside the one tree/missing half its branches, casting a crooked shadow./I'm drawn by an emptiness I understand now - " Life is a "work in progress," with the signposts of experience and direction all around us.

They are particularly haunting in this collection, which documents a long journey and its ultimate impacts and epitaphs: "There you've been, loves of my life./There you've changed me, one by one,/all of you, in the one place, bizarre music rioting,/shells and telephones whispering."

The powerful, highly recommended collection that is But Still, Music should ideally be made part of any discussion group interested in contemporary poetry reflecting place, time, and life monuments. It doesn't just narrate. It sings.

The Carcass Undressed
Linda Eguiluz
Atmosphere Press
9781639882649, $15.99

The Carcass Undressed links body parts to matters of the heart and soul, is organized into three sections (The Body, The Bones, and The Heart), and uses these focal points to 'undress' the emotions connected to each. Each section represents an opportunity to observe the narrator and examine self, considering a woman's evolving identity crisis and connections to her physical and psychological profile.

"Another Me" is one poetic example of possibilities in alternative living and reacting to life: "There's another me,/not exactly lurking and not quite as exhilarating/as the performance which I am about/to give." As Linda Eguiluz moves through her life and times, readers receive insights and opportunities to consider her connections, transformations, and identity.

Each poem represents a transformative opportunity to reconsider self, womanhood, and life. Each excels in thought-provoking bigger-picture inspections, as in "A Good Wife": "When you are taught/to worship men,/honoring yourself/feels quite off script."

Contrast this with the feeling and knowledge of another woman who becomes an unwitting part of an affair in "A Hundred Hours in a Year": "I still remember the moment you looked at me/from across the table, next to your beautiful wife,/next to your beautiful children, and decided I/was no longer a child, and I that you were insane."

These hard-hitting, reflective poems capture both transformative events and the little moments in life where stepping back becomes a driving force to observation and realization. Each poem connects inner body workings with deeper inspections of psychology, philosophy, and a woman's progress through life.

Especially highly recommended for women's literature libraries, The Carcass Undressed bares its soul in a manner that will make it attractive not just to women's literary collections, but discussion groups revolving around women's issues and lives.

Lies of an Indispensable Nation
Lilvia Soto
Atmosphere Press
9781639883837, $17.99

The poems and essays comprising Lies of an Indispensable Nation: Poems About the American Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are literary representations of social, political, and military quandaries that take an unusual approach in blending an analysis of terrorism with a poetic inspection of its real roots. These roots lie in Jimmy Carter's presidency; in choices made which changed relationships between the U.S. and other nations and gave birth to a form of terrorism that culminated in, rather than being born on, 9/11; and which document ten years of a warped double war that set the stage for the world today.

In choosing the literary form rather than a nonfiction inspection, Lilvia Soto's work holds the potential to reach a very different audience than the usual political analysis piece. Her essays about her scholarly research blend well with poetic, more emotional reflections of rage and dismay, creating a contrast in lives and experiences that captures sentiments and perspectives from many different vantage points.

From the legacy of conflict conducted on foreign soils and brought on by 'barbarians' from supposedly-civilized worlds to the build-up of monstrous deceptions and disconnections between truth and falsehood perpetuated by leaders with a vested interest in fostering rhetoric, Soto creates a powerful condemnation of events. This approach recreates history to point out its failure to reflect reality.

These poems reflect this reality as perceived by those who were impacted by events that reached out to change their worlds. "You will have/all the days of your life/to ask yourself what happened." Unlike many similar-sounding analyses, Soto's work holds no pat answers. Indeed, it captures the legacy of revolutionary thought and action as the decades pass: "We talked through the night,/Steinem, Friedan, de Beauvoir,/Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King./Intoxicated with possibility,/we dreamed, signed protests,/sharpened our pencils."

The act of writing Lies of an Indispensable Nation is a revolution in and of itself. The revelation lies in the act of reading it, to absorb the precedents of where America is today in the world. Libraries interested in poetry, political inspection, and literature will find Lies of an Indispensable Nation a powerful acquisition. It ideally will move beyond literary readers and into political and social issues circles, where its words and reflections will benefit from debate and discussion groups.

Tricia Johnson
Atmosphere Press
9781639884209, $16.99

Sway is a book of poems as firmly rooted in Pennsylvania as it is in nature, offering readers the opportunity to settle down in the "patterns and rhythms" of time and place, as the book's title poem introduces and so aptly states.

The imagery and "you are here" sense that this introductory title poem introduces ("The soft rustle of cotton fabric/Brushing against the body, clothespins in hand/With gentle wind gusts/As the shirt slowly dries on the clothesline") is part of the homespun feel of a collection that circumvents seasons and feelings with equal dexterity.

Mirrored in her descriptions of nature and place are striking juxtapositions of personal and natural position that lead readers to consider their own relationships with the world: "I am the elements and something more/The unique points of rainbow, sparkle through crystal suspension." As delicate webs of words unfold like a spider's creation, some impacts are immediate, while others simmer in the mind, to be recollected later.

Above all, a sense of "happy peacefulness" permeates this collection, which may be, in these pandemic times, its greatest strength and gift. Readers who imbibe will immerse themselves in all of Pennsylvania's seasons, from the quiet snowfall of winter to the experience of its contemplative opportunities: "Nighttime magic/Deep with life, quiet/Alone in the shelter of the full cold moon/Oak tree sentinels/Primal fire/Goodbye to past,/cleanse/Fire cheeks."

The resulting all-seasons celebration of connections to the world is highly recommended for libraries seeking contemporary free verse poetry rooted in nature and a sense of place. Sway's impact will ideally be discussed not just among poetry and literary circles, but by readers interested in experiencing feeling interconnected and one with nature.

Weightless, Woven Words
Umar Siddiqui
Atmosphere Press
9781639884704, $12.99

Weightless, Woven Words presents poetry about the workings of the mind and its connections to the human condition, firing its words with the desperation and meditative experiences of mental health and illness as Umar Siddiqui explores the inner world of self and connections to love, God, and the human condition.

The book's division into seven categories does not coincide, as readers might expect, with the emotion-laden subjects they deliver. Rather, these separations serve as boundaries to set the parameters for concepts that restate the connotations of words, phrases, and conditions.

Take the peaks and valleys of "Desperation," the opening section, for one example. Readers might anticipate a dark and brooding piece, from its title, but Siddiqui injects a sense of wonder and observation into many of his works that swing from despair to recognizing opportunity and the emotional connections between these states: "Meadows to frolic in don't mean much,/When it's not what I want,/For I don't know what to do but this hunch,/Of my mind makes me ask what?" The style of these poems may be described as lyrical - but without the confinement of rhythmic structure that dictates form be created and followed uniformly within even the poem itself, much less the collection as a whole.

When Siddiqui adopts a classic rhyming tradition, he often breaks loose of it mid-point, leaving readers to focus as much on the words and emotions within as their poetic structural impact. In a nutshell, he demonstrates a flair for following poetic rules -- then breaks them. This act in itself challenges readers to absorb the unexpected in works that are driven by emotion, contemplation, and an experience created by the form and presentation of the poems themselves.

The result is a gathering that should be considered by libraries looking for strong examples of contemporary poems, but which should equally be of interest to readers of psychological works of inspection, who can use this collection to probe their own psyches and connections to evolutionary thinking and analysis.

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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