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California Bookwatch

Volume 18, Number 10 October 2023 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Health/Medicine Shelf Business Shelf
Audiobook Shelf Biography Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Historical Fiction Shelf LGBTQ Fiction Shelf Romantic Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Poetry Shelf
Christian Studies Shelf Buddhist Studies Shelf Islamic Studies Shelf
Religion/Spirituality Shelf    

Reviewer's Choice

Fix My Face
Carolyn V. Hamilton
Swift House Press
9798986754116, $12.95

Fix My Face: My World-class Cosmetic Surgery in Safe, Affordable Ecuador follows Carolyn V. Hamilton's investigation and undertaking of cosmetic surgery in Ecuador after she moved to that country from Seattle. It's as much a commentary about the medical system and processes in Ecuador as it is about her surgical experience and the surprising discoveries that came from her encounters with Cuenca's medical services, and offers a contrast with U.S. systems which is both eye-opening and important.

From the beginning, Hamilton cultivates an investigative tone that brings readers into Ecuador's world, revealing a culture and medical system that reviews quite favorably in comparison with modern American medicine. Imagine a world in which doctors personally follow up and make impromptu house calls!

In America, this action was regulated to bygone years. In modern times, it's still alive and working well as a commonplace occurrence in Ecuador.

It is the reader especially interested in overseas cosmetic surgery who will gain the most from this book. Hamilton provides wealth of practical information, from how to assess foreign systems and operations to costs, procedures, and navigating the alien affordable world of 'medical tourism'.

Because she undertook the journey, Hamilton is in the perfect position to speak not from research, but personal experience. In addition, she gathers the insights of others to add to the mix of considerations and analysis. Interviews with physicians also supplement her story, providing further advice on doctor/patient interactions that will prove more fruitful than many in the U.S.

Between the personal decisions she made to foster healing and support her surgery to the outcome of navigating Ecuador's medical systems, Hamilton provides a practical, inviting account that will attract readers interested in both cosmetic surgery and overseas medical system savvy. Libraries and readers interested in not just research on such systems, but personal experience filled with lively encounters and practical tips for cosmetic surgery undertaking and optimum healing will find Fix My Face a practical guide as well as an engrossing personal saga.

The Health/Medicine Shelf

Box of Birds
Stephen Stowers M.D.
Independently Published
9798987144206, $15.99 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Box of Birds comes from a New Zealand cardiologist who reflects on the nature of his work, its moral and ethical conundrums, and how medical work and visions have gone awry in the U.S., which led him to travel to New Zealand to a better vision of medical management and efforts.

His journey from practicing in the U.S. medical system to New Zealand led to startling revelations -- not the least of which is that New Zealand has better patient outcomes, yet spends less money on healthcare.

The journey from education and internship to facing cardiology crises and learning from individual situations and corporate edicts makes for an especially intriguing memoir that delves into moral and ethical areas most physician memoirs skirt. His personal life encounters, including experiences of nature and its force, juxtapose nicely with the medical world he encounters in New Zealand to add depth to his story.

While this might give pause for thought to readers interested in medical politics and issues alone, Box of Birds isn't just about the practice of medicine. It's about the practice of life.

Especially eye-opening are revelations about medical management and physician and researcher freedoms which allow for a greater degree of creative problem-solving in New Zealand's atmosphere than in the U.S. Box of Birds thus synthesizes the final points in life, medical treatments and systems, and physician and researcher edicts to operate on strong moral and ethical grounds.

Libraries and readers interested in accounts of alternative medical systems in the world and how they compare to U.S. approaches to healthcare will find Box of Birds suitable for not just personal enlightenment, but discussion groups interested in debating medical community systems and real-world experiences that hold alternative, successful approaches.

The Business Shelf

The Boldly Inclusive Leader
Minette Norman
BrainTrust Ink
9781956072112, $24.95

The Boldly Inclusive Leader: Transform Your Workplace (and the World) by Valuing the Differences Within explores the concept of 'boldly inclusive' leadership, crafting an invitation to leaders (and would-be leaders) to reformulate the skill of directing others through a variety of self-examinations and pathways that, Minette Norman admits, follow no singular blueprint of success. Indeed, the heart of this message lies in its encouragement of leaders interested in fostering inclusion in new ways. These varied paths to success lie, themselves, in disparate opportunities that traditional leadership approaches usually miss, from adopting new skills based on truly listening to others to fostering the kinds of self-awareness that don't consider empathy and compassion to be business liabilities.

As Norman considers the various incarnations of inclusive leadership, she peppers her findings with case history examples. These both personalize the efforts and demonstrate their own diversity of approaches, solutions, and revelations. The Boldly Inclusive Leader is a "put your money where your mouth is" kind of book. Plenty of books and leaders parrot the ideal of inclusion, but have few guidelines to define this concept and even fewer roadmaps on how to actually achieve it. Norman tackles both in a vivid challenge to the status quo and the processes of corporate leadership that too often thwart their own stated ambitions and altruism. Especially thought-provoking are the considerations and examples of unconscious bias in the workplace, which every leader needs to consider and acknowledge.

Norman's honest and penetrating exploration of critical DEI issues makes this a book that not only belongs in any serious business literature collection, but also should spark spirited dialogues on diversity and inclusion in corporate boardrooms and in business and leadership book clubs and groups. Not one to repose on a library shelf until its lending popularity is spent, The Boldly Inclusive Leader deserves and requires high-profile exposure to a wide audience who would take the first steps towards empowerment and enlightenment in the process of managing, directing, and encouraging leaders and workers to be all they can be, regardless of gender, race, age, or life outlook.

The Audiobook Shelf

The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County
Micah House
Kendrell Publishing
B0C5KDMDG5, $21.83 Audio

This audiobook version of The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County by Micah House provides a listening opportunity that profiles narrator Angela Clark's ability to clearly yet powerfully bring a story to vivid listening life.

Readers of the print version will discover, in this audio book format, nuances that perhaps had been missed by the eye. This comes from Clark's ability to dramatize and emphasize passages to help them leap from any printed page and into the mind and visionary imagination of the listener.

"It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The 4,430-second Saturday afternoon." Clark's opening lines in the first chapter 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' creates an evocative invitation to continue into Micah House's world, where 85-year-old Olympia Blanchard remains of sound mind and refuses to bow to her age.

Under Clark's voice, Alabama history and present-day complications come to life as a family of witches living under one roof find that modern times bring challenges they never foresaw. The quality of this audio is such that even prior print readers should ideally imbibe. The nuances of the story brought to life in audio demonstrate the power of the ear to better understand words and underlying meanings, while the listening experience will enhance any drive or efforts to better absorb the grief, investigative efforts, and pursuits of a clan of witches who become involved in catching a murderer.

Nuances of Southern heritage, history, and culture; a murder mystery; and a band of witches who struggle to survive relationship and life changes come to life in the audio version in a manner that supports House's ability to weave a multifaceted plot of intrigue and psychological depth.

Readers who may have balked at pronouncing some of the characters' names in print have no such limitations in audio, where Clark easily vocalizes the correct names in a clear voice that readers can equally easily understand. The result is unmitigated appreciation for the plot, character development, and psychological twists and turns of a novel replete with fantasy and emotional connections.

Readers who typically eschew audio productions are missing something if they pass on the compelling, exceptionally well-done production of The Blanchard Witches of Daihmler County. Clark's ability to tailor her voice to capture the thoughts and approaches of the story's different characters is not only nicely achieved, but exceptional.

The Biography Shelf

Parish the Thought Too
John Ruane
Roswell Press
B0C9BJR9Y4, $7.95 ebook

Parish the Thought Too: The Lost & Untold Stories continues the coming-of-age tales begun in John Ruane's memoir Parish the Thought. It follows his life in Chicago in the 1960s and the pivot points that affected not only his growth, but his community and neighborhood as a whole.

From snowstorms and even a tornado that struck the city to the ice cream truck's neighborhood attraction, high school dances, and cultivating friendships, Ruane's memoir carries readers through sports, family interactions, and the flavor and feel of years which are gone, but not forgotten thanks to this memoir's personal reflections: "I had promised my dad I would be safe, so I made sure that as I crawled onto and across the snow- and ice-filled roof with a forty-mile-an-hour wind whipping against me, I did it very safely. Then, this brilliant ten-year-old stood and walked to the edge of the roof, looking down at that beautiful drift. Wow, I thought. I'll bet every kid in the neighborhood would love to be in my position, standing on the edge of their snow-covered roof, ready to jump forty feet down into the snow."

The "you are here" feel can't be beat. Ruane carries readers into the sights, smells, and thoughts of the times, neatly recreating an atmosphere where athletics took center stage and brought together families and players in a team effort. Blue-collar experiences in Chicago come to life in a play-by-play series of memories that are supplemented by black and white photos.

From absorbing hockey skills in high school and translating them to college-bound efforts to jobs that tapped sports experiences, Ruane's story melds the personal with bigger-picture thinking about career, life, and managing new encounters in different aspects of life: "The pretty wild child took my hand and walked me out on the floor... She was energetic and a very good dancer. I really didn't belong on the same floor with her. She had dance moves which probably would have received an "R" rating back then. The adult chaperones started to send concerned looks in our direction."

Libraries and readers new to Ruane's story as well as fans of his prior book will find Parish the Thought Too: The Lost & Untold Stories an excellent slice-of-life memoir that brings the 1960s and student sports efforts to vivid life.

The Finer Things Club
Lauren Erickson
Muse Literary
9781958714966, $24.99 Hardcover/$14.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

The Finer Things Club: The Summertime Chronicles of a Yellowstone Housekeeping Employee is a memoir about self-discovery during two seasons of work in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It outlines a journey that led the 20-year-old author to reconsider her future and the values she held in her life.

This is a survey of wilderness influence that is akin to Thoreau in some ways as Lauren Erickson observes the nuances of nature, learns to journal her true feelings sans the overlay of civilization's influences and expectations, then shares these insights with others.

Her two seasons of work in Yellowstone are the main highlight, so this book departs from the usual nature chronicle by including many interpersonal encounters and inspections that Erickson honed while working with the staff at Yellowstone National Park.

At times, the tone of inspection and revelation are almost poetic: "I could feel my heart sigh - I didn't realize it had been holding its breath. Finally being able to speak like a poet, like a writer, to another person held so much meaning for me. The only connections I ever felt were to the words in the pages of my books, spoken by brilliant authors, who knew what it meant to look at life up close and ask the deeper questions: What do you really want to say? What did that experience really mean for you? Who do you really want to say those things to?"

From encounters with grizzlies and tourists to co-workers and shared experiences, Erickson moves through this world and revised life with insights and growth experiences that come from the duality of a manmade venture set within the boundless opportunities of a national park. Under her hand, the politics, psychology, and processes of maintaining a park for tourists and nature alike come to life as vividly as the relationships she cultivates both outside and within herself.

Erickson is at her finest when revealing the deeper questions and answers that come from taking risks and navigating new territory without getting lost. Libraries and readers seeking powerfully written memoirs about summer work in general and the processes of working in a national park in particular (an attractive option for many young adults) will find The Finer Things Club exposes the nitty-gritty of what can be experienced during temporary summer employment, and what happens when a young adult decides to walk out of a comfort zone and into a new environment.

I Love You More... To Suzanne, From Mark
Mark Mallardi
Atmosphere Press
9781639888917, $24.99

At first, I Love You More... To Suzanne, From Mark seems yet another memoir about a couple battling cancer and their emotional and medical realizations in the face of the disease. Look further to understand that this memoir is something more than a personal journey, documenting the failures of the United States cancer care system from a perspective few couples can claim - both Mark and his wife were diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer just a few months apart. One might anticipate that such an event would lead to shared experiences, but here it also leads to increased perception about the real approaches and limitations of traditional cancer treatment options as the couple learns that alternative (and viable) cancer treatment options had been systematically repressed in the U.S. They journeyed outside the country in pursuit of better alternatives. This is their story of that process of diagnosis, options, realizations, and sordid realities, and it will bring information, understanding, and likely not a few surprises to those who believed the U.S. offered state-of-the-art cancer treatments.

As much as medical and research information is included, I Love You More... To Suzanne, From Mark is not meant to be a definitive guide of advice to other cancer patients, but a chronicle of two journeys and the individual decisions and discoveries that stemmed from them. Chapters embrace pilgrimages to Mexico City and other environs, incorporating spiritual reflections into the experiences to bring these worlds and the two observers to life. The candid tone Mark Mallardi employs also informs readers how difficult decisions and pursuits were made, and the mindset alternations that needed to take place in order for him to do so. From how alternative cancer treatments are marginalized and suppressed in this country to how Mark and Suzanne relied on faith, love, and determination to uncover these alternative pathways, I Love You More... To Suzanne, From Mark introduces a spirited and thought-provoking discussion of cancer politics and science that will lead readers from all walks of life to reconsider the focuses and priorities of the U.S. medical system itself.

Libraries and readers seeking a memoir that tackles bigger-picture thinking will find I Love You More... To Suzanne, From Mark holds much food for thought, discussion, and understanding that goes beyond individual experience and builds a platform for pursuing different options and better understanding treatment logic and illogic. It should be in any library collection strong in cancer issues and U.S. medical system pursuits.

The General Fiction Shelf

Sea Glass Memories
Anne Marie Bennett
KaleidoSoul Media
9798986050348, $12.00 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Book 2 of the Seahaven Sunrise series, Sea Glass Memories, returns to the Maine environment featured in Feathers in the Sand to explore a new start. It focuses on Elena Jeffries's move from Boston to the small community of Seahaven, where she becomes involved in a class play, a local grief support group, and a touch of romance that leads her to think all may not be lost in her life. Grief is not only a changing state of being, but one which promises riches from its flux, as Elena finds by becoming involved in a world both unfamiliar to her and replete with new opportunities.

Anne Marie Bennett deftly intersects past experience with present-day changes as Elena moves from her Boston past into a future that portends resolution and redemption in new ways.

One satisfying feature of Elena's move is her realistic perspective about her life's new possibilities. These create a current of experience and acceptance that flows underneath any illusions of ideal life. Elena's pragmatic perspective spills into the Our Town play rehearsal, her encounters with others open new doors of possibility, and her musings about her choices in the matter reflect both the impact of grief recovery and the potential of forging a different life with new relationships at its core.

The result is an intimate portrait of small-town Maine life, a big-city girl's sea changes, and the process by which she overcomes her own expectations and grief to enter into a milieu which promises many new treasures.

Libraries and readers seeking a beach read replete with warmth and a sense of personal discovery and recovery will find Sea Glass Memories an alluring, evocative grief journey that carries Elena from the life she'd anticipated to one which is unpredictably promising.

The New Tenant
Allison G. Smith
Muse Literary
9781958714393, $24.99 Hardcover/$14.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

The New Tenant tells of widow Angela Wilcox, who moved from riches to rags virtually overnight upon the death of her wealthy husband. Left not only bereaved, but penniless, Angela meets a new, vibrant tenant in the boarding house she now resides in. This leads her to confront not only the unusual nature of such a personality in a place where subdued resignation is more the norm, but the exceptional qualities of an individual who hasn't let life beat him down.

Jack helps Angela by opening her eyes to new opportunities for service and interpersonal interaction in this world. Her appreciation of his gifts is evident as her story unfolds: "Being introduced to things she had never noticed even after living here for so long, she finds herself worrying less and less about her own circumstances." Jack's magic doesn't just stop with influencing Angela's trajectory. It spills into holiday celebrations and the lives of other tenants, changing their perceptive of opportunities and possibilities in their own worlds.

As Angela begins to rely on Jack's magic more than she cares to admit, she also finds herself slipping in the area of reciprocating by asking more closely about Jack's own daily experiences and feelings. When the truth emerges about what someone like Jack is doing in this situation, Angela finds her assumptions shaken yet again.

Allison G. Smith crafts a winning women's story in Angela's navigation of her revised life. From the consideration of the true nature of friendships and love to the experiences of those who swirl around Angela's world, Smith creates an interconnected jigsaw puzzle of personalities and purposes that leads to unexpected revelations and satisfying insights.

Driven by strong characters who each face different adversities, The New Tenant focuses on lessons in kindness and adaptation that the world truly needs right now.

Libraries and readers looking for uplifting stories of growth and giving will find The New Tenant replete with thought-provoking life lessons that will resonate and attract.

Mortal Weather
KP McCarthy
Top Reads Publishing
9781970107364, $28.00 Hardcover/$18.99 Paper/$9.99 ebook

Mortal Weather is a novel of magical realism, existential philosophical observation, and mystery that will attract a wide audience with its genre-hopping qualities and compelling attractions. It opens with a decidedly philosophical bent that invites readers and the narrator to consider ideals and new ways of approaching life:

"There is only one reliable kind of prophecy, Stanhope: the self-fulfilling kind. Who do you think you are? That's you. The world whispers, so listen. Imagine the dharma that approaches and prepare a welcome."

Hero stories and myths served as the initial inspiration for Mortal Weather, KP McCarthy reveals in his preface; but the proof of the pudding lies in its interpretation and presentation, which here assumes a thought-provoking romp through ideology and hope that can only come after tragedy.

Stanhope (the characters are all aptly named, with a tongue-in-cheek humor reflected in such names as 'UpChuck') is actively seeking change after the death of his wife and his own near-fatal accident. But just because the scenario changes doesn't mean that Death's touch has been thwarted, as Stanhope finds when those around him begin to fall. This leads him to wonder about his ultimate power and impact on the world as his journeys carry him and his readers into magical realms he never thought possible before.

Stanhope encounters a number of memorable characters who face their lives and losses, influencing his with equal passion. Readers will find themselves falling in love with more than one kind of character, but beware -- death is often not far behind.

There is comedy, there are reconnections which serve as "tonics" to the soul, and there are gifts of surreal art which promote healing and discovery in the face of the death of not only spirit, but imagination. At times, it's hard to see how uplifting possibilities and new beginnings can emerge from the ashes of death's touch, but McCarthy creates an ultimately hopeful story steeped in not just magical realism, but the power of relationships to transform and heal. The result is a study in relationship-building, transformation, and discovery that tackles the challenge of existential philosophy and spiritual components with the affectionate touch of new possibilities.

Libraries, book clubs, and readers will find many thought-provoking moments in a mix of characters who each cultivate their own powers of hope, salvation, and growth.

Perpendicular Women: Adventures in the Multiverse
Chris Coward
Atmosphere Press
9781639889228, $16.99

Perpendicular Women: Adventures in the Multiverse juxtaposes two alternate universes. In one, wife and mother Kara Cuesta struggles to heal a dysfunctional family. In the other, older tech executive Pandora Garnett may be the only force that can stave off World War IV. The perpendicular lives of these women intersect in the arena of special interests, from the family focus Kara represents and fosters to the bigger issue of humanity's survival that Pandora struggles to assure. These disparate yet somehow entwined lives are presented as a series of juxtaposing chapters of connection, playing out the strands of each woman's experience in alternate viewpoints of experience that emphasize each character's disparate life from the start, Housewife Kara's world of 2012 and leader Pandora's two-moon world of 2028 are connected by experiences and phrases that link these two lives: "There was much to celebrate and much to fear."

From their different ages and concerns to the bigger pictures that reach out to shake their worlds and affect the future, Kara and Pandora represent two forces that both create and destroy new possibilities as they penetrate the veil of time and discover new aspects about their abilities to change their worlds. Chris Coward writes with a seasoned, reflective hand that adds a dash of humor into the mix ("We'll save the world while we pay the attorney.") but keeps the focus steadily on the evolving connections and compassion between characters forced to confront abusers, users, and their own complacency and courage in changing their worlds. As these worlds and interests intersect, bigger pictures emerge that readers won't see coming, which lends a very satisfying complexity to the story that places it above any singular consideration of women on the verge of transformation. "I believe Paradise is a feeling, not a place. We can all be together."

The multifaceted characters that permeate this Multiverse environment and their interconnected lives and decisions makes for a story that is unpredictable, satisfyingly complex in its social and psychological observations, and filled with the movement of wonder and change as incredible stories prove true and characters come to realize what a force they can be to affect the world's evolution and progression. Libraries looking for stories replete in heady psychological and social reflection will find Perpendicular Women: Adventures in the Multiverse holds just the right mix of science, personal, and social inspection.

Final Lullaby
Sasha Lauren
Black Rose Writing
9781685132576, $20.95 Paper/$5.99 ebook/$17.46 Audiobook

In Final Lullaby, Tucker and Angela are gentle, sweet souls who have found in each another a kindred spirit. Tucker's blues music talents lure Angela, who contemplates the surprising scenario of a connection developing between them. Love is in the air from the very beginning ("Tucker showed me his house with the earnestness of a bighearted lap dog who only wants to share himself and be loved."), proving it is possible to fall in love in mere seconds. This is not the end of the story, however - it's only the beginning.

Sometimes love is not enough. In Tucker and Angela's case, love drives an examination that revolves not just around romance, but dances through impossible conundrums, social expectations, and taboos that come to rest on their shoulders. Unexpected developments pull Angela into worlds with moral and ethical dilemmas she'd never closely examined, much less dreamed of. Sasha Lauren cuts to the chase in her candid probe of a topic many fictional approaches would shy away from. From issues of medical system corruption that introduce impossible pain to sufferers to the observation that "heartache is a ravager," Lauren creates a powerful series of interplays that open with love and move deftly into forbidden territory and subjects that test the hearts of characters and readers alike. The ongoing influence of former soul friend Madeleine in Angela's life, the decisions to foster her legacy in different ways, and the impact of loving again are all powerfully rendered in a tale of best friends, old and new friends, and the process of mourning and recovery. All this is complicated by a medical system that harms as much as it heals.

Ideally, Final Lullaby will be chosen not just by romance readers who will find the unfolding story departs from predictable paths to enter thought-provoking realms of social inspection, but by book clubs interested in debating many of its issues. Libraries and readers will find Final Lullaby a compelling journey into love, healing, and recovery. It operates on different levels, introducing thought-provoking reflections that ultimately demand the reader's engagement on more than just appreciating a romantic interlude and new possibilities of growth.

I, Lloyd Stollman
Rob Sullivan, PhD
Black Heron Press
c/o Independent Publishers Group (dist.)
9781936364404, $15.99

Schizophrenia never looked so good. Well... assuming an alter ego isn't exactly mental illness, until one's fictional personality takes the reins and commits murder. That's the dilemma of mild-mannered, isolated clerk retiree Lloyd, whose successful act of being a movie cowboy proves so empowering that he enters into other fictional personas that ultimately begin to take over.

Suddenly, Lloyd has lost control of not just his life, but who he is. And in his advanced years, this translates to a loss of not just self, but life connection that drives him into new directions and dangerous curves in the road.

The opening lines explaining Lloyd's initial foray into mental disintegration uses impeccable logic to enter his world: "I only started to feel right when I put on my first disguise. Before that, I had been a half-person, a shadow, a ghost, a nonentity, anonymous, dead. But once I put that disguise on, I felt like I fit in my own body, that I belonged, that I was part of society, like I had a place, like I was somebody." In fact, "It was such a relief. Not to have to be myself."

As relief turns to dread and disaster, readers follow an intense story made all the more pointed and powerful by the use of the first person, which allows readers to enter into the logic and surprises that buffet an urban disguise artist's revised life trajectory.

Rob Sullivan provides powerful images and insights throughout Lloyd's story, crafting a series of events that send him on expeditions through relationships, uncharted territory, and emotional responses that have not been a part of his prior life. The psychological and social revelations permeate a story so intensely revealing that even acts of cross-dressing are realistically presented and thought-provoking at every step of the way.

Everyone harbors misconceptions and makes mistakes. As Lloyd observes that "if anyone's totally capable of navigating the straits of life and never crashing into anything, I sure would like to meet them." In his case, the crash is almost surreal in its strength as Lloyd Stollman loses himself in Glenda and other personas and finds himself on the lam, immersed in counterculture, and skirting the edge of madness.

Libraries and readers seeking powerful psychological novels of transitions and revelations will find I, Lloyd Stollman offers especially intriguing insights into the opportunities and dilemmas of juggling alternate personalities and possibilities. Even stronger are the insights suitable for psychology groups and book club circles that revolve around the assumption of not just new personalities, but responsibility for their incarnation, growth, and perhaps inevitable outcomes. I, Lloyd Stollman crafts a rare opportunity for a bird's-eye view of life through the changes a sixty-two-year-old man experiences through choices both of his own making and outside of his control. It's intense, riveting, and hard to put down.

Year of the Puffin
Gregory Phipps
Atmosphere Press
9781639889211, $18.99

Year of the Puffin isn't about (or for) the birds. It's about an Icelandic college football team, The Puffins, who are determined to win the championship in American college football despite harboring a ragtag group of misfits and misguided directors whose intentions often go awry.

Though the international dovetailing of this story feels surprising, a prologue outlines how soldiers introduced American football to Iceland in the 1930s, when that country served as a base for American soldiers who played flag football during periods of waiting out winter storms.

Readers who anticipate a sports-centric series of events will be surprised at the accompanying cultural contrasts that add value to the story. Gregory Phipps excels at injecting these seamlessly into the action: "He'd lived in Iceland for so long that he often forgot the North American capacity for enthusiasm."

As unfolding events around various types of successes and failures embrace characters and their readers, a sense of Icelandic psyche begins to grow as issues of team playing, leadership, love, and adversity begin to emerge to form a bigger picture underlying the football team's efforts and impact. "You can be anything. You just have to prove it. Over and over again. For the rest of your life."

As beautifully graphic descriptions of Iceland unfold, readers will be drawn to this compelling story of its countryside, people, sports efforts, and individuals who face dangerous secrets, internal conflict, and the external pressures of international relationships and perceptions. To limit Year of the Puffin's audience to football enthusiasts alone would be to do it a grave disservice. It's a powerful story of plays made by individuals, nations, and competition that evolves many layers of attraction to make it the perfect item of choice not just for lending libraries, but book clubs looking for vivid discussion material about Iceland's people, culture, and worldwide sports.

Trigger Warning
Robert Klose
Open Books
9781948598668, $17.95

Trigger Warning is a novel that embraces university politics and procedures, focusing on Professor Tymoteusz Tarnaszewski ("T"), who finds himself resisting the administration's new requirement of inserting "trigger warnings" in all syllabi. As a Professor of Biology, this could limit or mitigate the impact of his teaching, T believes.

And so he embarks on a resistance that leads to a charge of insubordination despite the fact that his teaching actually is more effective than that of most of his peers. Just how far these students will support him is tested by his convictions, actions, and clash with administrative regulations. When he is betrayed by a student, new connections are made which challenge both his stand and his relative isolation as a beacon of leadership in his mind and in his students' lives.

Robert Klose lays open the world of college encounters and politics with a steady hand to exploring one teacher's impact on his closed world and the situations which evolve from it that mitigate T's ongoing isolation and loneliness. By juxtaposing ideology, political correctness, and the motivations of teachers and students who break away from their self-imposed worlds to acknowledge the tides and trends of the greater world around them, Klose creates a thought-provoking milieu which should be of special interest to students and teachers who have long operated in institutions of higher learning.

The newfound contractions, contraindications, and changing triggers in their lives affect all the characters both within the system and outside of it, leading to confrontations and realizations that embrace not just political and social change, but personal growth.

Ultimately, Trigger Warning is about money, motivation, and moves that change everyone within the university system. In effect, its experiences, confrontations, and evolving challenges mirror events in the world outside the university's walls, providing many thought-provoking moments and surprises as these influences are uncovered: "You as a teacher speak about truth and facts and moral obligations to your students. But we" - thumbing his chest - "think only in terms of appearances and expediency. When you were directed to include trigger warnings, both of these considerations were on our minds, but mostly appearances. Trigger warnings made us look like we were current, and correct, and that we were giving students what they wanted. The public would, of course, approve. And the legislature, with the power of the purse, is part of the public."

The result is a superb political, social, and interpersonal assessment that is especially highly recommended for students, teachers, and supporters of higher learning. The ways in which teachers are constrained and guided will also provide delightful fodder for controversial discussions in book club circles and among readers that come from university-level settings.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

A Delicate Marriage
Margarita Barresi
Atmosphere Press
9781639889303, $17.99 Paper/$27.99 Hardcover

A Delicate Marriage is a historical novel set in Puerto Rico forty years after it became a U.S. colony and centers on wealthy Isabella "Isa" Soto, whose initial ambitions are thwarted by her love of and marriage to poor man Marco Rios.

As a child facing his first hurricane in 1928, Marco is charged with caring for his mother and siblings when his father vanishes at the height of the storm. Determined to fulfill his promise to his father to become the man of the family, he embarks on a mission to improve both their lives and the broader world of Puerto Ricans who live on the poverty line.

Isa harbors her own feelings of abandonment and pain from her father's choices, rebelling against his admonition that she should not marry Marco for various reasons. As she faces life with Marco, including a terrible truth from childbirth and his lack of skills in either satisfying her or maintaining his moral balance, Isa experiences a series of revelations about life, good and bad choices, and the influences of her country's values and politics under American rule. These change her perceptions of her relationships.

When reporter Antonio Badilla further changes and challenges her ideals, Isa finds herself responding to his seductive ideas and offer as Marco finds himself in the center of a whirlwind of cultural, social, and political change in Puerto Rico.

A winning combination of personal experience and research lends a realistic, warm overlay to the true foundations of the events portrayed in A Delicate Marriage, bringing the nation and its people to life. The intimate "you are here" feel of the story represents a powerful inspection of poverty, politics, and personal connections that requires little prior knowledge of Puerto Rico in order to prove accessible.

Driven by fictional characters that look to grasp unprecedented opportunities for their island nation, A Delicate Marriage examines the delicate nature of all kinds of relationships and peels away layers of historical and cultural influence to illustrate how change trickles down from political events and connections into personal lives and psychology.

Libraries and readers interested in either Puerto Rico or a winning story of a couple buffeted by the winds and tides of political change will find A Delicate Marriage compelling, revealing, and thought-provoking. At its conclusion, they will know far more about Puerto Rico's vivid history on a level that embraces personal struggles and growth.

Stone Mother
Malve S. Burns
Atmosphere Press
9781639889242, $17.99

Stone Mother may sound like a fairy-tale, with its story of a young girl raised in a German castle, but it's also a work of historical fiction that embraces post-World-War-II history with a psychologically poignant story of family psyche, abuse, and survival. The story opens with an especially compelling first-person observation from five-year-old Marie: "To a child, parents are like weather - all around you and constantly changing. They come and go at will, are the spring rain and autumn fog, refreshing cold and blistering heat. They're the gray days that last forever or star-filled nights after a drenching rain. My own mother was both a firebolt and freezing cold, and constantly around me..."

Even at age five, Marie has learned to navigate her mother's volatility and explosions. What she has yet to learn is how to navigate the larger forces in life that bring the outside world to their doorstep and prompt further changes after the Allies defeat the Germans and her changes yet again. Stone Mother represents both an inward and outer journey that operates on many levels. As a story of abuse, family dynamics, and survival tactics, it breathes a breath of fresh air into such accounts by placing Marie in disparate positions as she grows up and confronts other forces in her life. Especially poignant are the contrasts between the lifestyle and culture Marie has known of her Germany, and the experiences of others, which might as well come from a foreign land far from Marie's ken. Reflections on how Hitler rose to power through promises and an almost visionary hypnosis that acknowledged Germany's inner psyche and frustrations to how Marie not just survived, but thrived despite family and social buffets, make for engrossing, thought-provoking moments that bring the nation and its people to life.

Between changing points of view as other characters explore their own evolutionary process and reactions to the methods the characters use to confront darknesses of the past and promises of the future, Malve S. Burns creates a powerful novel of trauma, healing, and recovery that operates on both a personal and national level. Whether seeking fiction about post-German recovery or individual survival of family dynamics, libraries looking for exceptionally vivid, evocative stories that blend the magical perceptions of youth with the staid absorption of adulthood will find Malve S. Burns has created a gem in Stone Mother that ideally will also earn a place on book club reading lists.

The Lost Princess of Alicante
E.V. Padilla
Atmosphere Press
9781639888863, $18.99

The Lost Princess of Alicante is a historical novel that moves from the Caribbean Islands in the 1600s to the modern American Southwest, and back. The legacy of a ruler's dream of building an enlightened society has come to roost in corrupted ideals that moved away from this vision and into a political and social structure that is anything but ideal. Two women, Ines and her Aunt Sofia, find themselves mired in choices of the past and their incarnation in their present-day lives as they navigate the politics and social requirements of a newly installed princess who holds little familiarity with her revised role and heritage.

Don Roman Velasquez, Sofia's wealthy cousin, may have uncovered a truth, but he's shaken their lives with not just his discovery, but a kingdom's recovery of a leader who steps into a new role and faces the fact that a few days with Prince Agustin's carefree son Alejandro has resulted in a new legacy that portends her ongoing connections to this strange new world. Her confrontation with spies, the dangerous Grizzle-Beard, and abuse that transfers handily from her aunt to greater struggles in her new life injects life and surprising twists into the story of a young woman who doesn't step into a new role and life, but is pulled and falls into it with few choices. Can descendants really restore an ideal and a dream? Should they be called from their own worlds to do so?

E.V. Padilla poses many interesting questions in the course of building a novel that rests not only on historical precedents and modern conundrums, but the psyches of women who find themselves mired in a situation they never dreamed of. From the birth and death of dreams to portents of the future which emerge in unexpected ways, the social and political confrontations are just as vibrant as the personal revelations Padilla builds among characters that hold their own special interests and perceptions of choice and future in hand. The Lost Princess of Alicante presents many characters and forces at work in the evolution of its story. No light read, it will pique the mind with shifting relationships that come from arenas of abuse, domination, political struggle, and personal growth. Libraries and readers seeking historical novels that represent intriguing discoveries that require characters move beyond their personal ambitions to assume bigger roles in life will find The Lost Princess of Alicante filled with discussion points and thought-provoking moments.

The Arsenal of Deceit
Donald Levin
Poison Toe Press
9780997294194, $22.95 Paper/$4.69 ebook

The Arsenal of Deceit is a story of intrigue and social inspection set in Detroit in 1941. It focuses on a cast of characters who investigate their worlds, from P.I. Elizabeth Waters, who is probing Detroit's pro-Nazi, Christian nationalist groups, to Black detective Clarence Brown's discovery of a deadly racist conspiracy and Eva Szabo's mission to uncover the source of anti-union violence. Four investigators seemingly making their own paths through the political and social turmoil of Detroit find their worlds intersect in more than professional manners as they navigate uncertain (and uncharted) waters of treachery and plots. Their conclusions will shake the foundations of their personal missions and society as a whole.

The dialogue-driven story is especially strong in interactions between different characters and players on all sides of the law, contrasting the search for justice with the deeper inspection of personal ethics and motivations for actions that don't always fall on the side of propriety. It's no easy dance to present the concurrent evolution of four different characters; or to move between them with such grace that readers are carried by the momentum of each character's charisma and ongoing developments, with little confusion experienced during these transitions. The discoveries about special interests fostering social conflict in America are especially thought-provoking as events mirror modern-day turmoil affecting broad circles of society.

Readers well aware of modern history will find the events and well-researched backdrop of this story come to life, spiced not only by the strong character development and contrasts in motives and influence, but by the powerful intersection of research into American history which lends a real foundation of truth to matters that test the characters and their readers. Perhaps at no other time would the events of the 1940s outlined in The Arsenal of Deceit prove so compelling to both history buffs and average Americans with little familiarity with the past. Its echoes and resemblance to present-day scenarios is eerie, offering much food for thought. Libraries and readers interested in novels that promise appeal outside the usual historical fiction circles will find The Arsenal of Deceit not only highly recommended for thoughtful readers who like their intrigue spiced with real-world events and questions, but for book clubs interested in debating the underlying influences directing both political and community circles in past and present American society.

Nova Roma: De Itinere in Occasum
Anderson Gentry
Crimson Dragon Publishing
9781944644079, $16.99 Paper/$8.99 ebook

The first book of the series, Nova Roma: De Itinere in Occasum, provides a different slant on ancient Rome by delving into the genre of alternative history. This approach lends a creative edge to a subject which, otherwise, has almost been overdone in fictional circles, positing a situation which changes both Rome's second civil war and the wide-ranging impact it holds on a changed world.

While readers need not have prior knowledge of ancient Rome, a basic background in traditional history and some analysis of events will lend to an even deeper appreciation of the historical accuracy and unusual extrapolations Anderson Gentry has created in a story that moves into a different outcome and world from a single twist in fate.

Of particular strength and note is how Gentry weaves actual history with alternative history. Also unusually strong is an introduction which sets the stage for even those with light knowledge of the times to appreciate how Gentry introduces these changes based on real events. Imagine, for example, a Roman Republic in the New World, albeit without Caesar as leader. Imagine an empire that never falls, a Dark Ages that never happens, and a powerful light that never fails.

These are but a few of the facets of this vastly revised world that are explored in detail in the Nova Roma series, introduced here in De Itinere in Occasum. The story opens with a "you are here" prologue that captures the setting and atmosphere:

"It was a lovely late winter evening, with the cool mild air typical of Rome at that time of year. The show in Theatrum Pompeium was entertaining; the actors were portraying some event that had taken place during a trial of an accused murderer several days earlier. Despite the best efforts of the actors and their outrageous antics, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, commonly known as Pompey Magnus, general of the Roman Army and former consul of Rome, was not amused. The news from the north was too dire."

Soon this old world and Pompey's place it in will shift as a freak storm blows his ship into unknown territory, where he encounters strange new worlds and resolves to build his own Roman Republic, eventually to defy Caesar, and despite the natives' ideas of what they want their world to look like.

Touches of humor add spice to the tale as Pompey encounters the Novans, punctuated by interpersonal encounters between Romans and Novans that capture compassion and attempts at understanding.

Another powerful facet of the story is an attention to building perceptions and understanding from different perspectives as Romans and tribes encounter one another. These create thought-provoking scenes of not just physical clashes, but psychological and social conflicts as the different peoples vie for control of their lives and futures, and the societies they will build. Gentry is particularly adept at contrasting these peoples and their ideals through a blend of exciting action and thought-provoking approaches to culture-blending that reflects the thinking and methodology of Roman and tribal worlds alike.

Most alternative histories offer but trappings of possibility based on the melding of history and fantasy. Gentry goes beyond the usual one-dimensional approach to portraying conflicts and emphasizing differences to reveal the heart of what makes disparate peoples join, survive, and adapt to the realities of their very different worlds.

Perhaps this story is also influenced by the author's background, which includes military service and a rural Iowan upbringing, which introduced him to camping and the wilderness. Both facets are incorporated into a history that comes alive under his hand, offering many surprising twists that keep readers thinking. As in the unusually revealing introduction that covers traditional and alternative history choices, Gentry creates an intriguing Postscript to his story that further covers the choices he had and made in tailoring the outcome of this plot. The result is a vivid saga that will draw thinking readers through a finely balanced art of conflict, psychological tension, and social and political reflection.

Ideally, Nova Roma: De Itinere in Occasum will be chosen not just for libraries interested in history and alternative history renditions, but by book clubs interested in a story that goes beyond the physical trappings of historical differences to probe the mindsets and shifts that lead to different outcomes.

Nova Roma 2: Quaestu pro Nova Terra
Anderson Gentry
Crimson Dragon Publishing
9781944644390, $18.99 Paper/$8.99 ebook

Readers of the first alternative history story in Nova Roma (De Itinere in Occasum) will find this second book follows the new Republic-building challenges and processes more thoroughly, continuing the story set in the foundations of the New World with the meeting of minds between the merchant-oriented Roman world and the Native American cultures it encounters in Nova Roma.

Here, the next steps in the saga play out against a changed geographical setting which influences how the Romans will enter and conquer the vast lands of the West. The clashes between the handful of Caesarian loyalists, who followed the emigrants fleeing the Roman Civil War, play out on a larger landscape of ideology and physical might as new forces (the Maya) enter the picture. This introduces further challenges and changes to the cultures intent upon building a new nation in a new world.

The conquest of the American West thus assumes a cloak of many differences as events play out and explorers and natives consider their choices. "Even the gods change in time." But, the wisdom and differences between peoples introduces elements of choice and perception into the story which are thought-provoking and intriguing. Vivid battle scenes embrace Roman attackers and Novan world-building forces as Legionaries, Centurions, and other disparate forces struggle to wield and reinforce their visions of what this new world can bring in terms of riches and nation-building efforts.

Gentry is particularly adept at using these physical clashes to illustrate the evolving and changing ideology of different peoples as they play out their ideals and consider which political and social forces to maintain and which are worth jettisoning. This sets the entire series well apart from books that claim alternative history status, but operate on one-dimension levels of physical battles alone.

Nova Roma 2: Quaestu pro Nova Terra and its predecessor is clearly a very different kind of alternate history that demands of its reader a series of thought-provoking revelations about nation-building ideals and how cultures not just clash, but integrate.

Libraries, readers, and book clubs seeking exciting, fresh, original historical and alternate history insights will find both books powerful standouts from the crowd, highly recommended for their unique blend of creative extrapolation and real history contrasts.

Codename: Parsifal
Martin Roy Hill
32-32 North, Publisher
9798218182496, $3.99 ebook

Codename: Parsifal is a World War II thriller that operates on the stage of religious destiny and historical events. It revolves around the legendary Spear of Destiny, the Roman Legionnaire's lance that pierced Christ's body as he hung on the cross. The holder of this spear is said to be destined to become a great conqueror. But lose it, and all achievements and life will be lost.

Prior to World War II, Hitler stole that spear. Just before his defeat, he lost it. Its promise and power is such that three competing teams struggle to unearth it and wield its powers, but before they achieve their goals, the world will change yet again.

Martin Roy Hill employs a fine blend of military clashes and ideological challenges in his story, injecting revealing emotional facets into real-life characters to heighten the sense of both intrigue and discovery. The process of retrieving this legendary spear is also made more compellingly realistic by the real history that is presented alongside the thriller components and fictional overlay.

From the back-and-forth movements and potential of the elusive and powerful spear to SS interactions and military operations, the thriller component is thoroughly embedded in a fluctuating story of evil, the occult, and true believers.

Readers who like their thrillers steeped in the overlay of real World War II events will find the intersection of fiction and nonfiction to be compelling components in this story of fiery confrontations, changing battles, and ideologies that promote powerful new alliances and perceptions.

Hill is especially adept at capturing the cultural clashes between Germans, Russians, and people who find not only their lives, but their political alliances on the line. The result is a gripping story that is vivid in its presentation, fast-paced in its action, impossible to predict, and hard to put down.

Libraries and readers seeking military intrigue and thriller encounters that are supercharged with action and satisfying twists and turns will find Codename: Parsifal just the ticket for those seeking a thoroughly forceful read. (Note: no prior World War II history is required in order to enjoy this heart-stopping, action-packed story.)

The LGBTQ Fiction Shelf

Trippy Hippy
Atmosphere Press
9781639888580, $16.99

Trippy Hippy blends a rollicking, ribald 1960s Summer of Love romp with a foray into counterculture homosexuality and relationships that evolve against the backdrop of drugs and the feverish certainty that a new social order is being created in the moment. Sebastian excels at capturing the heady feel of those times and this atmosphere with a "you are here" approach from the very start of the story: "That year began as strangely as it ended. It seemed as if everyone had contracted a fever, and the real world was blown away. Everyone lived their fantasy. Normal people you saw at the office or the market left their occupations - a few at first, then suddenly many trucking - yes, trucking - down the streets toward the parks and beaches. Before you could say "free love," little groups were popping up like mushrooms all over Golden Gate Park after a rain."

First-person narrator Arnie Epstein is still working downtown San Francisco in an office, but he's beginning to let his hair grow (not a common front for a CPA firm) and he knows that "The times were a-changing before my very eyes, and I wanted somehow to be a part of it." The creation and growth of Adler's Ashram is chronicled in all of its volatility and hope. As Arnie moves from a closed-door world to one with an open-door policy, he is endowed with the new name of Gator and begins building a new identity that fully embraces the hippy lifestyle. Any modern reader wanting to know more about the emotions, perceptions, and experiences of those days will find the heady hallucinations, attractions, and misadventures capture the evolving 'anything goes' atmosphere of those times, adding in the maturing sexuality of a young man who delves into relationships that involve trips both psychic and physical.

These journeys root the protagonist in a shifting world which supplements the San Francisco Bay Area culture with a personal observational style that is evocative and provocative: "At that hour of the morning, when you're standing exposed to the stiff wind off the bay, the streetcar is named Imaginary, and an hour is an eternity." The possibilities are endless and the relationships evolving and often transitory, but Arnie remains in an active embrace of a hippy lifestyle that feels much more realistic than most novels that attempt to describe these times in San Francisco. Perhaps this is because Sebastian himself is well-rooted in San Francisco counterculture and experiences, and holds the ability to translate these encounters and their logic into the 1960s milieu for a more realistic, candid romp than most novels can represent. Libraries and readers seeking powerful additions to their LGBTQ+ literature that also embrace the flavor and times of hippy San Francisco will welcome the strength of Trippy Hippy's road trips and personal map of evolution and exploration.

The Romantic Fiction Shelf

Beth's Behavior
Maggie Sims
Independently Published
9798890444028, $5.99

In the fourth book of the School of Enlightenment series, Beth Jenkins exhibits both high hopes and hijinks as she balances society's rules with her own free spirit and the oversight of cousin Lady Althea Egerton, who is tired of Beth's ability to flaunt propriety and social mores with equal unconcern. Her explorations of her sexual attractions and strong identity have been reinforced by the School of Enlightenment's teachings, but once let loose in the world, Beth has exhibited a nonconformist attitude that challenges her cousin's training and management. Dalliances aside, Beth is about to receive quite a different education in the form of the enticing and comparatively shy Robert Orford, whose attractions to the unusual are mitigated only by his interest in staying in the background of social affairs and romance, having been bullied in the past. Beth's fiery passions set him on fire and threaten to consume them both as the story plays out.

As Beth uses her vast network of contacts (both in the Ton and working class) to help Robert and others, their relationship develops. Her ability to contribute to Robert's business through networking and matchmaking is yet another new experience for Robert. Her disregard for rules results in different outcomes as Beth finds her free spirited ways unexpectedly challenged and changing in new directions. Detailed descriptions of interplays between Beth and Robert and some same-sex encounters provide sensual descriptions of physical intimacy that aren't recommended for romance readers seeking lessons in propriety alone. Maggie Sims embeds Beth's character with the same powerful, sensual passions and pursuits as in previous books and characters' lives, but adds the value of a spirited young woman whose outrageous behaviors may ultimately vanquish the very attraction that has replaced her search for conquests. Concurrently, Robert, too, must decide if he can overcome his past and stretch beyond his comfort zone to embrace a love and partnership with a young lady so willing to help him in business and in life.

Threads of ironic observation permeate Beth's sexual discoveries and add a sense of humor to the ribald encounters she experiences: "You can't say you're bored now. She rolled her eyes at her inner voice." The result is another titillating story of discovery, in which a powerful and proactive experimenter meets her match and must assess whether the price of falling in love is worth bowing to convention or maintaining her independence and outrageous reputation. Readers seeking no holds barred sex scenes which evolve in the course of a determined and sexually active young woman's embrace of not just happily-every-after, but satisfied-for-life will find Beth's Behavior just as passionately engrossing as the prior School of Enlightenment characters and scenarios. It's an attraction filled with surprises as Beth's behavior evolves to enter uncharted territory.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

A Divisive Storm
David E. Feldman
Independently Published
B0BF1FKNVV, $3.99 ebook

Fans of LGBTQ+ backgrounds and mysteries as well as prior readers of David E. Feldman's previous five Dora Ellison stories will find A Divisive Storm both a powerful series addition and a stand-alone attention-grabber for newcomers.

Dora Ellison and sidekick Missy Winters, of Geller Investigations, have a new case involving a seemingly random murder in a parking lot. As Dora and Missy investigate, they spark not only another killing, but evidence that these murders are linked to an unsolved crime that took place five years earlier. The one link between the victims is actually a situation that involves Dora and Missy in a racist club's deadly operations, bringing up questions of moral and immoral behaviors, justice and vigilante efforts, and Dora and Missy's own efforts to identify and stop the murderers.

David E. Feldman does more than craft another whodunit. He introduces elements of social inspection, presenting the scenario and killer with an exceptional powerful prologue that draws the reader instantly into a killer's mind: "And there he was. I knew where he'd be. I knew of several places he would be and times he would be at those places. I had all the information. All I had to do was wait for the right opportunity. An empty parking lot or a busy street. Either might do, if they were right. I'd know. I had lived for this."

Terror is a big reason for the killer's particular modus operandi. That, and justice. The satisfaction that comes from killing also enters the bigger picture to paint a personal vendetta with the red-hot colors of not just senseless crime, but a cold purpose that saturates the story with blood and contrasting belief systems from the start.

Feldman's ability to juxtapose the killer's ideals and motives with the equally determined force of those who hold a different interpretation of justice provides just the right balance of gritty moral inspection and intrigue to keep murder mystery readers on edge and guessing. All the characters are strong, not just the investigators. This lends an aura of believability to the plot that not only engages the mind, but challenges the hearts of readers who expected a casual murder scenario, only to find themselves rethinking their own ideals of law and justice.

The human aspects of these engagements emerge from a variety of characters and scenarios, with dialogue reinforcing the stands and choices people take and make in order to survive. If one thing can be said about A Divisive Storm, it's "expect the unexpected." There is nothing singular about its plot, nothing predictable about the outcomes, and little set in stone along the way. Feldman's ability to craft a hard-boiled noir atmosphere in Dora's world, supercharged with further elements of personal and social inspection, creates a story highly recommended not just for libraries and readers seeking compelling mysteries, but book clubs looking for genre reads that provoke discussions and debates about larger moral and social issues.

32 Minutes
Andrew Diamond
Stolen Time Press
9781734139273, $12.99

32 Minutes is the third book in the Freddy Ferguson mystery series, and follows Freddy's inquiry into the disappearance of corporate executive Karl Larsson. From its opening lines, Freddy's first-person inquiry adopts the savvy of an investigator able to take first impressions and run with them:

"My first impression of Leighton Graham? The man didn't like anyone but himself, and he may even have been on the fence about that. Which made him perfect for his job." Freddy's particularly astute ability to sum up the nature of a man with a few succinct insights is confirmed by the resulting dialogue which only cements his inherent dislike of the man who has hired him to find his company's executive officer: "Do you know where he was last seen?" I asked. "And when?"

"Why don't you ask his wife?" Graham was abrupt and unpleasant.

"Do you want to find this guy?" I asked. "Because you're not being very helpful."

"What do you mean, do I want to find him? He's my CTO.

I'm trying to run a damn company here. I got his wife crying in my ear and his whole tech team worried and distracted.

They're not getting anything done. How much do you think that costs me each day? Find the guy, okay?" Find the guy. Should be relatively simple. That's Freddy's area of expertise, after all. But Freddy begins to sense he's at a disadvantage as the case unfolds, because conflicting business and personal special interests dovetail to create a special case in which everyone has part of the answer and yet nobody seems to know the bigger picture. As in his previous Freddy mysteries, Andrew Diamond has crafted a flawed but likeable character whose talents often seem work against him as much as in his favor. Freddy brings a streetwise savvy into his inquiries that lends him a special mantle of knowledge others may not have: "It's hard to know when an addict is lying. Some of the ones I've known lie for no reason at all." But even this personal overlay of expertise proves lacking as Freddy is drawn into a story that holds no beginning and possibly no clear-cut ending, either. Diamond excels in placing Freddy in the center of not just a mystery, but the lives of addicts and survivors who will do anything for and with him in order to satisfy their needs. Freddy's dilemmas evolve on personal and professional levels readers may not see coming. The story adopts many unpredictable twists and turns that continually test Freddy's astute analytical ability as well as his drive to survive and solve his latest case.

Newcomers need no prior familiarity with Freddy's persona and past in order to find 32 Minutes thoroughly compelling, while prior fans will relish the opportunity to follow Freddy through another dilemma that tests his own determination to do his best against all odds. Libraries looking to add to their Freddy mystery collections, as well as new readers interested in an investigation that profiles the investigator as much as his subject, will find 32 Minutes hard-hitting, involving, and personality-driven. Its review of how circumstances and individuals try to force Freddy's hand is thoroughly absorbing and completely unpredictable.

Mainely Wicked
Matt Cost
Encircle Publications
9781645994602, $26.99 Hardcover/$16.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

Mainely Wicked adds to the Mainely series of mysteries set in Maine featuring Goff Langdon. Here, he faces a series of missing person cases that seem tied to supernatural influences in the Church of Satan. Langdon never thought he would be treading on such mercurially dangerous paths in his detective efforts, but this case holds wide-ranging challenges and influences. He enters into a world of human sacrifices, diabolical intentions, and not just one but a circle of missing people who have fallen prey to deadly wicked intentions. The story opens with Liam, who is set to be not just sacrificed, but turned into human stew, before it moves into a chapter where Langdon reflects an interesting touch of real world Maine culture and literature through his endeavors.

As his latest mystery confronts those with " insatiable appetite for human flesh," unexpected levity sparks throughout the story in a way that will be especially appreciated by anyone with more than a casual familiarity with Maine's wry sense of humor: "They have an insatiable appetite for human flesh." "Holy fucking donut," Bart said. "You're saying that some sick fucker is planning on eating Annie Brown on the night of the Blood Supermoon?"

As everyday Maine life blends with impossible scenarios of the wicked undercurrents affecting the state, readers receive both a mystery and an unexpected foray into satanic circles which are always affected by the special community focus that drives many Maine environments and, surprisingly, also holds the power to limit Langdon's abilities. As Langdon and his wife Chabal move ever deeper into probing the community's underbelly, their effort to solve a mystery turn into a struggle to survive the truth of what they discover. Once again, Matt Cost has created a rich interplay between Maine atmosphere, mystery, and special interests that evolve to affect Langdon and Chabal's seemingly familiar world. Nobody is immune to the possibility of becoming human stew as the story progresses.

Libraries and readers interested in mysteries built on the platform of a firm sense of place and local flavor, replete with action and surprises that evolve as the investigators find their trail leads into personal threats and bloodletting, will find the vivid interactions between perps, detectives, and Maine culture to be compelling. Its unexpected developments and conclusions makes Mainely Wicked a fine addition to the series as well as a powerful stand-alone read that will prove especially inviting to anyone familiar with Maine culture, who will find delightful its presence and evolution in the peoples and conundrums of this story.

In$ured to the Hilt
Charlotte Stuart
Level Best Books
9781685123406, $5.99 Kindle and $16.95 paperback

John Smith is a lowly insurance claims trainee in In$ured to the Hilt, whose working life is not his own. Called on the carpet by the vice president of the company, he feels the need for a two-gulp shot before bracing himself for the storm that will inevitably follow from this meeting. He'll need more booze than this for what's coming, because a perfect storm emerges from his meeting with Martin van Droop which both fulfills his long-time passion to become a P.I. and tests his resolve over his chosen profession of claims adjustor as a poor (but profitable) second choice. Charlotte Stuart injects humor into Smith's wry observations of his situation and those around him. This is one of the hallmarks of a mystery that both titillates the imagination and leaves readers chuckling. As it turns out, Smith has more affection for intrigue than physical dead bodies: "Yes, it might have worked. If she hadn't been dead. Damn. People were dying right and left, and they seemed determined to involve me in their messy departures. Why couldn't they leave me alone to deal with crumpled fenders and sore necks? If I wanted to look at dead bodies, I'd have become a mortician."

As new discoveries, family affairs, work challenges, and personal clauses come to life, Stuart creates a vivid story of insurance, risk, and assessment. These challenge Smith beyond his capabilities or desires, forcing him to tackle not one, but a series of circumstances that feel unlikely and downright impossible. Obsessions with safety, reputation, and alcohol permeate a story that produces a foggy set of affairs in which Smith is continually tested and forced to face various kinds of obstacles to the truth. His ongoing confrontations with the caustic Emma and his ability to constantly elude both unemployment and death make for a delightful mystery that romps through whimsy and serious encounters with the added value of fun.

Unable to make progress on either a settlement or an investigation, Smith faces professional and personal tragedy unless he can muster up better excuses and resolve. Stuart's ability to present a likeable character in a flawed insurance investigator who can't even meet his own company's expectations of resolve creates a mystery as packed with psychological tension and attraction as it is intrigue. Readers seeking a story embedded with the seriousness of a failing insurance investigator who inadvertently becomes the suspect in not one, but two murder investigations will find plenty of intrigue and twists in the tale that keep its outcome satisfyingly unpredictable. Libraries seeking mysteries that excel with multiple layers of possibility will find In$ured to the Hilt a portrait in uncertainty, redemption, and flawed perceptions, whether it is about self, insurance matters, or individuals who always feel they are owed something in life... even when it comes to light that their perceptions are underinsured.

Otobong's Gift
A. Wilson Steele
Mouse Hole Farm Press
9798218224646 $2.99 Kindle

Signed hardcover:

Kindle ebook:

Audiobook: Tantor Media

Otobong's Gift, the third book in the Griegg/Eastwood series, combines history with mystery, building an atmosphere of intrigue through family connections and a puzzle that leads from Mississippi roots back to Africa. When Alana perceives miscarriages of justice in both her family's past and present time, the Griegg team of investigators move in to set things right. With the passion and determination that has carried readers through the first two books, Alana and Sigmund embrace the methods of genealogical research, and investigative clues to reveal unexpected family secrets on both sides of the Atlantic.

A. Wilson Steele's astute development of intrigue within the broader story of family visionaries and the impact of past choices upon present-day decisions and conundrums makes for a riveting plot. Alana grows into her abilities to not only embrace them, but consider them growth opportunities for better understanding her expanded role and influences in life. The stormy encounter between Sigmund and Alana that was introduced in The Trap and expanded into an uneasy camaraderie in Zen develops further in Otobong's Gift, a progression which will make this story especially attractive to prior readers of Alana's adventures. Perhaps the most deeply moving of all is the progressive evolutionary process that builds on prior foundations of relationships to continue to expand into new directions. Steele recaps and builds upon these precedents with an astute eye to drama and discovery. The result combines elements of history, mystery, thriller, and psychological evolution as each character confronts their own past, present, and possible futures, both together and apart.

Libraries and readers will relish the depth and complexity of a story that embraces African and American encounters and culture, moving from the 1800s to modern times in a manner that brings spirited revelations to audiences who might think they know where the mystery is heading. They won't... and that is just one of the delights of this heady story, highly recommended for cozy mystery readers looking for stories that enter uncommon international settings in a search for character understanding, resolution, and acceptance.

Vessels of Wrath
Thomas D. Holland
Independently Published
9798392970841, $14.99

Vessels of Wrath is the third installment in a series of novels centering on the investigative efforts of Ray ("Big Ray") Elmore, who has become the chief of police of the small Arkansas community Split Tree. His encounters arrive in the form of a rough-hewn oral history, which lends the feeling of local lingo authenticity to a riveting story that embraces not just his perspective, but characters who reflect their community's prejudices, secrets, and personalities. Thomas D. Holland writes with a focus on authenticity in representing these homespun folk and their experiences. The dialogue may seem daunting, at first, but is in keeping not just with the atmosphere and setting of the story, but the progressive discoveries of characters who find themselves mired in conundrums that ordinary individuals don't face. From events that led to the gentleman losing his head in the opening salvo of the story to Chapter 1's first-person reminiscences from the perspective of Big Ray, who has returned home to Split Tree after a brief stint in the Navy, and who has no intention of ever leaving again, Holland evolves an intriguing community-based story. Its mystery and interpersonal relationships form the crux of a rawly revealing tale where events unfold in such a manner that "Which one you believe depends on your sense of optimism."

An observation that applies to conflicting signs also evolves to represent disparate viewpoints and circumstances that test Big Ray and various community members. These range from the Trimbles, whose family heritage and impact involves lessons on "how to be a monster," to strange missing cars that may hold clues to perps and processes simmering under the community's veneer of odd, homespun connections. As Big Ray explores these coincidences and conundrums, his unexpected foray into Locust County events holds the feel of history and the powerful development of fiction. There is no Split Tree, Arkansas, except for these pages. Holland's ability to evolve scenarios and entire town political and social developments against the backdrop of a murder mystery that attract, then pulls in readers to a quagmire of relationship issues, makes for a story far more detailed and compelling than the usual genre read. Except for its fictional overlay, the story reads like the history of a real place and people whose interests don't just dovetail, but clash.

All these elements translate to fine tension and powerful characters whose lives and concerns feel larger than life, making Vessels of Wrath highly recommended for newcomers and prior Big Ray fans alike. Libraries and collections seeking compelling mysteries that embrace small-town lives and characters will find Vessels of Wrath just the ticket for thought-provoking reading. It comes packed with unexpected developments and undercurrents of possibility that will keep readers engaged and thinking to its unexpected conclusion.

Beasts of the Field
Alex Webb Wilson
Kelp Books, LLC
9798986946252, $22.00

Beasts of the Field is powerful novel packed with images and photographic references. It opens with a grisly murder and a terrible package of evidence sent to a father, moving into the image-driven world of photographer Robert Ellis, who is in Central America, documenting life. It's not enough that, at age twenty-eight, he was the youngest photographer on his company's masthead.

Robert feels like something is missing from his endeavors: "He had looked at his G5 hard drive, his color-calibrated monitor, his Canon lenses and Hasselblad, and admitted that he might be searching for some concept of success forever, and never find it..." The truths he discovers by challenging himself go further and deeper than anything he's attempted before, sending him on missions around the world that capture matters of the heart and also land him in the heart of danger.

Alex Webb Wilson crafts a powerful story that casts a deep lens of inspection on Robert's attempts to document how much has changed in America since 9/11, and in the world he attempts to capture on film. From self-portraits to sons and strangers caught up in struggle and violence, Robert's profession and perspective moves readers to consider the transition points of life experience that often prove elusive in the moment, but later come back, captured as if on film, to haunt and change the world.

From Central American cartels and murder to connections back in the U.S., Wilson moves the story into uncharted territory as Robert and those he loves become caught up in social and political struggles they never saw coming, from earthquake aftermaths to murders and kidnappings. The rich inspection of reporters on assignment who move between very different worlds, toeing the line of discovery and danger, receives steady and thoroughly engrossing attention in a novel which reflects on the politics, work, and decisions of individuals under fire and in combat in many different ways.

Libraries and readers seeking vivid stories about individuals who find their lives challenged and changed, from documenting life to navigating and reporting the outcomes of its violent struggles, will find Beasts of the Field a powerful study. It should also reach into book club audiences interested in gripping stories of transition, danger, and survival.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

192 Days Missing
Sue Denver
JGF Press
B0BTV5QPL8, $5.99

In 192 Days Missing, P.I. Sara Flores holds an edge over most other detectives and investigators. She is a werewolf. Her special abilities typically lend her unusual perspectives that enhance her ability to problem-solving and find perps - but not in this case. In fact, the disappearance of Alaska Brown from a parking lot may prove Sara's greatest challenge yet, no matter what form she assumes, because Alaska has invited the anger of a billionaire who holds the purse strings to not only make people vanish, but mask any clues about their demise. Readers need not have prior familiarity with the introductory Werewolf for Hire in order to appreciate Sara's background and special abilities in this unfolding mystery. A succinct recap of Sara's world and its influences is provided in a one-page overview which is easy for prior readers to skip and essential for those new to Sara's circumstances.

Sara's heightened nose for trouble indicates that far more is going on here than one disappearance alone. There's a simmering sense of evil about the entire affair that leads her on a dangerous journey. Her werewolf condition doesn't always give her an advantage: "Better eyesight is not one of my gifts from my wolf. Just the opposite - I think my vision is worse than it was before my transformation." Navigating her new abilities is only one conundrum Sara faces as her case keeps getting bigger and more puzzling. Her adversary not only has the money to evade justice, but the foot soldiers in place to reinforce and protect his position. It turns out that Alaska Brown's disappearance is only the tip of the iceberg of adversity that draws Sara ever deeper into truths she (and her readers) doesn't see coming.

Sue Denver's ability to make Sara's condition a part of the action rather than its central focus will delight readers who enjoy stories with supernatural elements, but really look for the mystery component to be prominent. She develops a fine tension between Sara's skills and the case at hand and keeps evolving in new directions, creating a character whose moves, logic, and reactions are both rational and memorable. Cross Sara and she becomes an animal - literally. But the fine line drawn by her investigation forces her to confront other elements of her personality and deductive abilities which invite readers to become involved in her life. A fine undercurrent of humor also traces lines of special interest as Sara candidly narrates events and her reactions to them: "Mason guided me, unerringly, to the cameras and then to the computer running them. Then he told me to do one thing after another, almost none of which I understood. But, hey, I do know how to follow directions. No matter what some people might say."

Libraries and readers interested in a follow-the-money saga that also follows Sara's heart and her ability to dig out the truth will find the mystery and psychological draw of 192 Days Missing to be impeccable. Its exploration of decisions made for the greater good, romance, and financial entanglements are as riveting as its protagonist's struggle with her inner werewolf and all-too-human reactions and abilities.

The Queen of Pohjola
David Allen Schlaefer
DartFrog Plus
9781953910813, $4.99 ebook

The Queen of Pohjola, the third and final book in the Far Northern Land Saga, is an epic fantasy about wizards, witches, and power struggles set in the semi-mythical world of Iron Age Finland and inspired by Finnish folklore. Familiarity with the prior books (The Mark of the Bear Clan and The Heir of Lemminkainen) would be optimal for a seamless appreciation of the setting and characters David Allen Schlaefer developed previously, although recaps of both books are included to help newcomers enter this latest adventure.

As Ulla's power continues to grow against all odds and oppressors, she and the famous wizard Vainamoinen embark on a spirit journey to hell itself in search of tools to kill the relentless Witch Lohi. This leads them to Pohjola, Lohi's dismal realm, as their quest forces them into impossible circumstances and confrontations not only with good and evil forces, but their own hearts. Schlaefer cultivates a fine blend of psychological depth and action that creates a powerful interplay between nonstop twists and turns that lead the characters to question their choices and outcomes.

As trials of mortals, survivors, healing, and spectacles of death confront the sojourners, readers receive an engaging, heartfelt saga that builds on previous books with new action and conundrums and represents a rare instance where the trilogy's final installment is as compelling as its first.

Schlaefer is at his most powerful when crafting descriptions that embed poetic drama and life into their words: "The old man could feel the change happening everywhere in the Far Northern Land. It ran through the cold rivers as they rushed down to the lakes and sea. It ran through the forests as green leaves opened beneath the gentle sun. The wind sang a new song, a song the Vanhalaiset prepared for the newcomers. Ulla would sing that song, and little Egan when he came to manhood, but not old Vainamoinen. A new age had come to the North, an age that the Erilaiset could never fully know."

While The Queen of Pohjola may be considered by libraries that don't have the previous books and new readers who haven't read them, it's best consumed as part of the entire trilogy. Fantasy fans will find the ongoing epic quest, intricately-detailed world building, and Finnish-based mythology to be compellingly hard to put down. This audience will especially appreciate the special blend of classic mythology and traditional characters with new original characters like Ulla that bring this story to life.

The Zone
Stu Jones
Dropship Publishing
c/o Vesuvian Media Group
9781954386099, $14.99

The Zone is a cyberpunk thriller that incorporates sci-fi and elements of military engagement in its story of the future. It revolves around tech addiction and law enforcement in the city of Neo Terminus, where nano-boosted gladiators (Enforcers) fight to the death in the Conglomerate-controlled event known as The Zone.

Chance Griffin has become an Enforcer for the Conglomerate, driven by the health needs of his child. He rises quickly to professional success, then is invited to compete in a coveted Zone event that promises further wealth and an end to all his problems. It's anything but. In fact, it portends a revised and new form of oppression which will result in the complete enslavement of the citizens of Neo Terminus, and which also will cement his own reliance on the Conglomerate without its promise of solution and redemption. As Chance trains for his big event, he becomes immersed in the underlying motivations, politics, and scenarios the Conglomerate has struggled to keep hidden. Stu Jones peppers these realizations with the step-by-step training process that keeps Chance on his toes and learning new skills that he'll eventually apply in unexpected ways.

The action-packed descriptions simply sizzle with exciting "you are here" impact. Chance's search for answers leads readers into scenarios filled with confrontation. The surprise realizations will prove delightful challenges even to seasoned cyberpunk and thriller readers who usually see patterns unfold and scenarios unwinding far in advance. Not here. As The Glom's real purpose comes to light, readers will find many thought-provoking moments keep them immersed in a story of political influence, confrontation, and manipulation that continually reinvents who the bad guys really are, in this scenario. The result is a cyberpunk production that holds the ability to reach beyond its roots in sci-fi and into thriller audiences seeking edgy, action-packed descriptions and delightful twists they won't see coming.

Shards of Light Bundle
William Hahn
Independent Bookworm
9783956811418, $14.99 Paper/$7.99 ebook

Shards of Light Bundle is an epic fantasy collection that embraces four books and the evolution of a world rich in political strife, secret missions, and the impact of hidden lives and choices that simmer to the surface to confront a world's threat. This gathering includes the books of its four component titles: "The Ring and the Flag," "Fencing Reputation," "Perilous Embraces," and "Shards of Light." As such, it's the first and last place to go to absorb the breadth and depth of a four-volume story that holds a disparate cast of characters, from elves and humans to halflings, demons, and horses. Reading this collection back-to-back allows for a journey that moves smoothly from individual to world-confronting circumstances. The heroes featured within don't fall into a predictable pattern; for each is flawed in some intrinsic manner, forced to operate outside their comfort zones and familiar patterns of action and reaction. They take on decisions and new perceptions of the world that ultimately affect not only their place in it, but the ways in which it is challenged or preserved.

Justin, a new imperial officer, is on the cusp of entering a new time in his life, but ironically sees no future in his pursuits. Living legend Stealthic, Feldspar, is a master of every disguise but the greatest challenge - presenting himself. Church leader W'starrah Altieri also perceives no set course in her future. Being a visionary, all she sees coming is either heartbreak or death. These three forces clash, interact, and intersect in unpredictable ways as their stories unfold, bringing with them the disparate forces that reflect rich sources of confrontation and change.

William Hahn's bundled stories are not light reads. They demand from their readers an attention to detail, disparate paths and perceptions, and absorbing the entwined lives of individuals who view their worlds and place in them in very different ways. The choice of descriptions written in the second person offers readers a "you are here" experience to place them in the center of a maelstrom of social and political events that swirl around the characters and their concerns. The people of this time and place are both recognizable and intrinsically flawed, both in their perceptions of their places in the scheme of events and in their reactions to set courses of action which are, in fact, fluid and ever-changing. The three main characters come to their realizations about the evil growing under their noses in different ways, with parallel timelines introducing a complexity which takes time to absorb. This effort is rewarded with an exceptionally rich scenario that places the reader in the position of being audience, judge, and participant as they walk alongside each character and consider courses of action that are both in keeping with and outside of their usual choices. There is not just one problem buffeting the city and its characters; not just one hero who faces transformation and growth; and not just one outcome to their different lives.

Hahn embraces military clashes, social inspection, and psychological revelation at many levels as he unfolds a story exceptionally rich in its world-building paradigms. Libraries and readers seeking the epitome of epic fantasy, holding the complexity of Lord of the Rings and the psychological depth that can only come from a detailed contrast between characters and forces that operate at different levels of realization and self-interest, will find the Shards of Light Bundle thoroughly engrossing, satisfyingly rich, and hard to put down.

The Cyborg's Crusade
Benoit Lanteigne
9781777900250, $3.99 ebook/$12.99 print

The Cyborg's Crusade features an unusual format in a six-book series of novels designed to mimic a television series. It consists of some seventeen episodes following the adventures of an ordinary man transported to extraordinary circumstances involving aliens, angels, and a guardian overseer who may not bring him the support he thinks he needs. In Book 1, James Hunter mysteriously teleports to another universe, where he finds himself in the country of Nirnivia, which is embroiled in a cold war with another country called Ostark. The people in this new world hate him for an unknown reason. Luckily, a winged woman named Rose helps him adapt. James Hunter was just an average man on his way to a date. But something extraordinary changes the trajectory of his life when he's teleported to another world and must navigate the land of Nirnivia, whose inhabitants are familiar with humans, but don't especially like them. James has survived through honest work, although he hated his job. He's long felt like a failure. Even though his successes were many, these were small achievements that didn't meet the bigger-picture expectations others had for him. Is it possible to disappoint an angel? If so, James believes he's well on the path to failing her expectations of him, too. With expanded choices come added responsibilities he's not sure he's prepared to face.

Benoit Lanteigne injects the first-person thoughts of James into the story line, which leads to better understanding and deeper reflections as the adventure unfolds. Angel Rose's perspective, the religious dilemmas that evolve, and her role as Melkar, who charges others with not harming James, makes for an intriguing examination that operates on both spiritual and psychological levels. It's unusual to find a story that moves through monsters and Scripture alike, juxtaposing reincarnation and priestesses with prophets and angels who are anything but predictable. All these elements (and the length of the episodes) combine to create a series of multifaceted, complex stories of an extraordinary journey that one man undertakes. Soldier Janice Ricdeau and a cast of supporting characters each hold their own special interests and influences, adding depth to the plots.

Book 2 ups the stakes as the president of Ostark, the titular cyborg, contacts James to warn him he can't trust Rose. This causes major panic, as it implies a security breach for the military complex that both James and Rose live in for Rose's safety. This book releases in November of 2023. In Book 3, the cyborg contacts James again about how Rose is lying to him. This leads James to investigate his benefactor, with questionable results. This tale releases in January of 2024. Book 4 sees Nirnivia preparing a secret mission to assassinate the cyborg. Chances of success are low - survival, even less so. Readers will learn more on the book's release in June of 2024. In Book 5, the cyborg reveals his real identity to James. This sparks a devastating chain of events, leading to a dangerous choice by Rose. Book 5 releases in January of 2025. Finally, Book 6 explores the consequences of Rose's decision and serves as a conclusion to previous events while also hinting at possible future stories. It releases in 2025.

It's hard to neatly peg the audience for The Cyborg's Crusade. Elements of spiritual investigation, wry irony, decisions and their consequences, and confronting human connections with the earth create a multifaceted story that will appeal to sci-fi, fiction, and literary readers alike with a format and evolution that is at once complex and unpredictable. Readers invited into this tale of truth, illusions, connections, and adversity will find The Cyborg's Crusade a thought-provoking episodic novel that creates mini-series scenes with different characters, and then links them all in unexpected, enlightening ways. This story of transformation and confrontation will appeal to any thinking audience interested in tales that hold compelling structures and unusual, interrelated characters whose lives are transformed. The Cyborg's Crusade is especially highly recommended for metaphysical and spiritual readers, who will find its premises compelling.

River to the Multiverse
David Gittlin
Entelligent Entertainment, LLC
9798985860535, $3.79 Kindle

David Gittlin's latest addition to the Silver Spheres series offers prior fans a happy surprise, because the original books were billed as a trilogy, and River to the Multiverse is the fourth book. The space adventure opens with an alien coming to earth with a peace plan in mind, to help humanity avoid the destruction that eliminated her world in an intragalactic war. Because the story picks up where the third novella, Promise of the Visitor, left off, this continuation will especially be appreciated by prior fans who wanted more (though newcomers will find it equally accessible and compelling). Successful mystery author Jacob Cassel, his new bride astronomer Amy, and the telepathic AI Arcon return in a story that centers around the arrival of Aneleyan scientist visitor Silenna, whose vested interest in helping Earth is quickly thwarted by a distress call from the last survivors of her race.

Gittlin incorporates a wry sense of humor from the start, which adds value to the story by expanding its characters and injecting comic relief into many serious moments. Moral and ethical dilemmas in solving problems, prioritizing the survival of a mission of mercy over a rescue attempt, and interacting with aliens, AIs, and adversity permeate a tale that excels in not only vivid descriptions of extraordinary encounters, but equally vivid color illustrations that provide visual embellishment. The humor continues as AIs and humans attempt a series of impossible problem-solving beyond their experience or imaginations. Admittedly, the science portion of the sci-fi tale is a stretch. But, no more than many other sci-fi writings whose intrinsic value lies not in sterling scientific concepts, but in the interactions between characters who each find their values and perceptions challenged ... even the AI bigger-thinker.

Gittlin provides a fast-paced story based on the premise of an alien's goodwill and legacy and the events that accompany her initiatives to change the world. As a companion to the Silver Spheres stories, it further expands the actions and relationship of Amy, Jacob, and Arcon, but adds the value of a new mission that challenges each character to change course for the greater good and survival of the world. Action-packed and thought-provoking, River to the Multiverse represents a journey that should not only be in any library seeing popularity with Gittlin's other books, but in sci-fi circles seeking stories suitable for book club debate and discussion.

The Covenant Sacrifice
Lee Allen Howard
Three First Names
9781733700948, $19.99 (trade paperback), $4.99 (ebook)

The Covenant Sacrifice is a novel of horror that covers death, rebirth, and an ages-old curse that returns to life. There are many 'trigger' moments to this story as it unfolds in disparate, satisfyingly unpredictable directions, from blood and bullying to addiction, abuse, and occult operations. Readers who are sensitive to these themes may wish to look elsewhere; but those able to accept their injection into the plot as part of what keeps its developments rich and involving will find The Covenant Sacrifice a powerful novel of faith, sacrifice, and endurance. "You were brought here, together, for a bigger reason than finding a little girl." Jarod Huntington's return to his rural roots in the town of Annastasic Creek leads to not just personal growth, but new revelations about missing persons and the mandate of a defrocked pastor who has gone astray in more than one way.

As homophobia and horror dovetail, Jarod's mission becomes one of not only self-discovery, but redemption and rescue as he and Scott interact, fulfill their destinies, and find in each other both promise and threat. As The Covenant Sacrifice unfolds, it reveals new possibilities between the "man who never came home" and he who wants to settle down and start a family, couching personal interactions and revelations within the larger picture of community involvement, straight and gay relationships, and family struggles. "Who are you living for?" This becomes the central question in Jarod's world as he considers alternative possibilities for his life's course, coming to realize that alternate realities exist under the veneer of everyday life.

Replete with strong characters whose interactions reflect social pressures, mores, and choices, The Covenant Sacrifice couches its horror component in a strong sense of social inspection. The plot demands from its characters a newfound vigilance as ancient curses are evoked and modern dilemmas unfold from them. Whether readers choose The Covenant Sacrifice for its paranormal promise or its social inspections, one thing is certain: its draw and thought-provoking scenarios are powerfully rendered attractions. They are designed to appeal to a wide audience, surprising those who expect formula products with bigger-picture thinking that goes beyond supernatural or horror realms to delve into matters of the human heart and soul.

Libraries and readers seeking a story that holds disparate threads of attraction will find The Covenant Sacrifice a winner.

Kevin Cox
9798986636849, $13.99 Paper/$3.99 ebook

As the third book in the Bewilderness series, the fantasy Neverscape continues both building and shattering worlds and paradigms as thief Malidora escapes the shadow realm, only to find the Shadows present and threatening the end of the world on the planet Kandom. This time there is no escape, because the universe-gobbling Shadows plan on an invasion and consumption of all energy, giving them access to all dimensions and realms. The darkness isn't just all around her and everywhere in the universe, either. It's also within. Thus, Malidora becomes a target as well as an adversary in more than one way, forced to assume the unlikely role of a hero as she confronts both her self and the darkness bewitching and consuming everything around her.

As she confronts an affliction of the mind that pits Brightlanders against each other as well as the forces that would manipulate everything, Malidora becomes both a beacon of hope and a threat that represents challenges to beliefs, changes, and peoples struggling for survival on many levels. For some, the threat contains a dreadful opportunity for power beyond conventional thinking. To others, it's a force to be reckoned with. Malidora's task becomes that of both acknowledging and turning side personal desires in favor of achieving a greater purpose in her life. Newcomers to Kevin Cox's Bewilderness series would do well to imbibe of the prior books to gain a fuller feel for the setting and milieu of this universe, but they will also find that starting with Neverscape is not an impossible task. The story opens with a compelling bang, the characters and confrontations that evolve are presented in a logically understandable manner, and Malidora's pursuit of something greater than her own desires is both thought-provoking and compelling.

The action is nicely tempered by a focus on what drives individuals to rise above their circumstances and training to walk improbable paths of personal and political empowerment, with characters such as Malidora holding the torch of revelation and growth alongside battles that test their moxy and motives. The result is a powerful, action-packed bend of personal and paradigm clashes and struggles that will appeal beyond young adult readers. Neverscape reaches out to all ages interested in epic journeys that embrace a touch of romance, growth, and the dreams and nightmares of ordinary individuals who step up to become leaders against all odds.

Tim Rayborn
Armin Lear Press
9781956450767 , $22.95 Paper/$9.95 ebook

The fourth and final book in the Qwyrk Tales world, Faytte, is highly recommended reading for prior enthusiasts of Tim Rayborn's special form of urban fantasy. Here, a peculiar encounter begins with a key. Qwyrk, Holly, and other characters from prior adventures return to face a new situation in this story of mystical surveying and the residual magic which could come from imagination, but probably represents yet another sea change in experience and outcomes. Tim Rayborn excels in crafting a fitting conclusion to his series that follows the ongoing magical and real-world encounters between and among a group of young misfits whose special abilities come to represent a positive force in the world. This latest saga continues the relationships fostered in previous books while expanding elements of magic and intrigue that permeate the characters' lives.

From goblins and talking animals to efforts to reclaim the world from humans that involve small mortals in grand schemes and roles, Rayborn crafts an involving, riveting fantasy powered by shockwaves of love and change, all tempered by an undercurrent of humor: "Just stay by the obel-, obli-, the big rock thingie, all right?" Qwykk ordered as she continued her uneasy orbit around said thingie." As Qwyrk and her companions confront not only world-changing forces but the reasons why they are ineffective and Qwyrk's group is so successful, readers of all ages gain an appreciation for the power of friendship, magic, and proactive thinking that lead an unlikely, ragtag group of participants to tap their humanity and strength.

Rayborn is particularly adept at evolving further challenges to friendships and growth which keep all the characters learning more about themselves, each other, and their revised positions in life. What they ultimately will choose to keep their lives and roles relevant is a subject that lends particularly well to young reader book club discussions. The action is fun and unpredictable, the characters multifaceted, flawed and powerful all in one, and the plot evolves some satisfyingly unexpected twists that will keep prior fans and newcomers engrossed and wondering at the ultimate outcome. Libraries and those who have enjoyed the prior Qwyrk Tales adventures will find all the elements of the previous books (magic, adventure, friendship, and warmth) present and powerful in this final event, which involves the end of one world and the evolution of something better in its place.

Darkness to Light
David H. Maring
9798350908534 Paperback: $17.95/ E-reader: $8.99

Readers of dystopian sci-fi have an ever-expanding list of books in the genre to enjoy, but David H. Maring's Darkness to Light is perhaps the most appealing over many, offering a unique perspective and social and cultural inspections of the long-term aftermath of a nuclear war that destroys civilization. Where most dystopian sagas present a relatively simplistic view of barbarian versus civilized remnants of survivors struggling for control, Maring chooses to view the revitalization and evolutionary process from disparate sides. These include a young female Wo archaeologist who discovers the cryogenically frozen John in a basement, revives him, and introduces him to this strange new world and Messianic Jews who control a portion of the former U.S. and have built their own force in the Northern Zone, staving off barbarians who would destroy their achievement. These different perspectives and experiences enter into the bigger picture of social control, forbidden actions, and efforts to accept the results of two rogue nations who introduced physical and mental breakdown on a world-wide level.

Beth 20A lives After Great Catastrophe and works at uncovering remnants of the past and indicators of light that she might use to dispel the dark age which evolved after the world-changing conflict ended. The efforts of these new orders to control their environments and prevent the chaos that altered their world forever are thought-provokingly presented. Raised both with the history of destructive choices and the possibility of becoming an unorthodox force in an overly ordered, regimented world, Beth 20A has long learned to keep her insights to herself. Neither mental illness nor aberration is tolerated in her world, and yet the creative force that stems from diversity cannot be denied. Beth 20A is a survivor who harbors secrets. And in a world of order and control, this is a dangerous habit indeed; especially when her work uncovers new potentials for revising humankind's future yet again.

Maring captures the perhaps-predictable clashes between these forces, but the real meat of his story lies in the examinations of social and political interplays that evolve from a newly structured world still struggling out of its self-imposed darkness: "...martial law was hardly noticeable in a society already operating under such a regimented lifestyle. In fact, it only brought more focus on the current leadership and its inability to wield the reins of power effectively." From conspiracies and rescues to managing survivors without sparking rebellion, Maring interplays characters and disparate interests with a strong eye to revealing and contrasting different forms of darkness and enlightenment processes.

Readers interested in dystopian scenarios that incorporate but move beyond conflict into moral and ethical realms of managing survival and growth opportunities will find plenty of discussion topics throughout the social strata in Darkness to Light. As moments are seized and changes instigated, the story becomes a thought-provoking series of insights into many facets of civilization and survival tactics that will motivate libraries to include Darkness to Light in their collections not only for its dystopian attractions, but for its opportunities to reflect on how societies rise, fall, and achieve balance between control and creative evolution. All these elements make for a gripping saga that is unpredictable, action-packed, and hard to put down.

Black Wing Sky
Kaylin McFarren
Independently Published
9798372293366, $13.95 Paper/$3.99 ebook

Prior fans of Kaylin McFarren's Gehenna series will find her epic story expands and blossoms in Black Wing Sky, the fourth book in the series, which follows Samara Daemonium's ongoing struggles between Lucifer's battles and the peaceful life she so desires. Indeed, she seems on the cusp of achieving her goal. Lucifer's soldiers have captured his brother, the Seven-Star General of the Archangel Army of Heaven, leading Samara to predict that the outcome will be a revised, peaceful life with her uncommon soul-mate Damian Hunter. When a different army of fire-breathing dragons led by Vetis Kidadl ("The Black Dragon") threatens the newfound peace and future of Earth's sister planet Nexus, Samara is tapped for her warrior abilities and likely ability to fight this threat. Given this new mission, will Samara ever see Middle Earth again?

Kaylin McFarren crafts a powerful story in which Samara once again is charged with rising into her powers and applying them to yet another conflict. At stake are kingdoms and peace for all - but how often can she arise from the ashes like a phoenix to relive her destiny when the only future she wants to walk into is one devoid of adversity? Prior fans of Samara's world will find Black Wing Sky not just a story of new threats and the charge to rise above personal ambition to address them, but a supercharged, action-packed drama that probes just as deeply into matters of influences on relationships that fall to the lure of evil-inspired temptation. The juxtaposition of relationship-building with world-building changes promise surprises, revised purposes, and challenged perceptions as Samara and Damian struggle with Lucifer, one another, family influences, and the tides of political and planetary change. The graphic sexual scenes that pepper the story as Samara and Damian fulfill both their love and destinies are nicely crafted to prove both titillating and revealing as an angel bares herself emotionally and physically.

McFarren keeps her story fast-paced, her characters appealingly human in their desires and anticipations, and the overall tension in their disparate lives, influences, and missions thoroughly engrossing. Damien faces Lucifer's daughter, the warmongering Lucinda, and the monsters she's created even as he also faces the impossibilities of his relationship with Samara. As the "wiley queen" of Lucifer gone astray, Samara should be forbidden territory; especially since Lucifer has a vested interest in rejoining his family and has a seemingly ironclad plan to do so: "It was the best way to bring his son back to Hell and his unconventional family together again." Even the plans and plots of demons and angels can go awry, as this story proves as unexpected twists keep Lucifer, Damien, and Samara on their toes and further embroiled in matters beyond even their special abilities and ken. The family ties that link Samara, Crighton, Arial, and sons and daughters are also nicely explored in a story that doesn't just unfold. It explodes with action and simmers with psychological interplays and unpredictable revelations on all sides.

McFarren's ability to build character tension based on surprises, transformations, and shifting alliances keeps the action swift and the predictability of the outcome satisfyingly mercurial. Fantasy libraries and readers who have appreciated the previous three books in McFarren's Gehenna world will find the same astute attention to detail and character development evolves a companion story that is riveting and hard to put down.

Baen Books

Lord of a Shattered Land by Howard Andrew Jones (9781982192723, $25.00) opens the Chronicles of Hanuvar with the first book, about a conquered land's rising hero, Hanuvar, the sole surviving general of Volanus, whose interstellar empire fell to the Dervan Empire. Hanuvar is driven to bring his scattered people together and give them freedom, but how can one aging man fight a powerful empire? A vivid, action-packed story of reunification and redemption will please sci-fi readers who seek world-building stories.

Charles E. Gannon's Endangered Species (9781982192716, $25.00) returns Caine Riordan to the limelight as he and twelve of his crew find themselves adrift in deep space, far from any familiar signposts to home. They have on 48 hours before the decaying alien ship they are stranded on burns up in a planet's atmosphere. Even if they manage to free themselves, the planet holds further threats to survival which makes their mission seem impossible. Or, is it? Both books represent vivid writing filled with unexpected twists and turns that make them highly recommended to a wide audience of sci-fi readers.

Baen Books

Baen Books is a premier publisher of fantasy and science fiction.

My Brother's Keeper by Tim Powers (9781982192860, $28.00) comes steeped in supernatural forces, from ghosts and werewolves, and provides an engrossing story of the Bronte Sisters, whose world becomes entwined with demons and possession. When Emily helps a wounded stranger on the Yorkshire moors, she finds her life, romance, and world dangerously entwined with a confrontation that takes them both across the demon-laden world. The powerful blend of literary allusion, supernatural encounters, and imaginative drama will engage readers who enjoy stories that are hard to easily categorize or predict.

Eric Flint, Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett's 1638: The Sovereign States (9781982192877, $26.00) continues expanding the alternate history series by offering a focus on how the United Sovereign States of Russia struggles to find its place as a bizarre blend of monarchy and democratic opportunity. From its internal civil war battles to the making of a repressive form of control that threatens this vastly revised Russia, the politics and nature of this world are compelling and especially interesting for prior 1638 series readers.

The Poetry Shelf

Beautiful Son
Ken Buhr
Garden Oak Press
9798987953228, $15.00

Beautiful Son is a tribute collection of poems about and dedicated to Ken Buhr's 42-year-old son Gabe, written during the year when Gabe became seriously ill with cancer and died. The experience of helplessness, grief, and struggle mingles with the admiration and celebration Buhr feels towards his son and puts to paper, creating this tribute. From the first poem in the collection, the fits and starts of medical dilemma are juxtaposed with questions and anguish that bring son and father's experiences to life:

"This train we're on moves fast -
passing signs cannot be read.
We suffer flashes of who are we?
where are we? who is with us?
how far might we have to go?"

Another reason for writing (and reading) this kind of tribute, with its raw pain and experiences, is that it serves as a touch point for others who are on the same journey. As this 'anchor for the heart' unfolds, readers who are survivors (as well as those in the throes of a battle with cancer) receive enlightening, surprisingly hope and thought-provoking chronicles of the chaos and possibilities in a journey that manages to celebrate and acknowledge beauty even after life ends.

Libraries and readers seeking memorable, literary accounts of a year of cancer struggle and the aftermath of survival will find Beautiful Son a wrenchingly enlightening tribute.

Faster, Annihilators!
Travis Hupp
Atmosphere Press
9781639888924, $16.99

If its unusual title, Faster, Annihilators!, doesn't pique interest, the LGBTQ+ poetry will. Written over a period of some twenty-four years that follow Travis Hupp's evolution as a gay man from high school into adult circles, they provide enlightenment, humor, and social observation that moves beyond autobiographical reflection and well into the field of psychic awakening and struggles with social expectations and mores. Poetry readers can anticipate vivid pieces of interpersonal and life connections that are wide-ranging in nature, from a grief process involving a cat to gender identity and community involvements. Each poem chronicles survival tactics, both on a humanity-wide and a personal level: "We still debate/exactly what happened/as if the madness was alien to us/when in fact we were the madness..."

The microcosm/macrocosm juxtaposition of these works provides satisfyingly thought-provoking opportunities to reflect on cause, effect, and the impact of repression, yet undercurrents of hope permeate many of the pieces to add new possibilities to the forces of oppression and repression that evolve from inner and outer influences: "No clocks in this fortress/that protects the world/from my wounded heart/Once branded a criminal/time means nothing at all/You just get wrung out/trying to wash the stain off/Still I choose wild hope/in the face of creeping torture..." It's that "wild hope" that keeps these poems entering into realms of new possibilities and options. It's that sense of "turning the angry blue/of my latest bruise" into vigils of transformation that will attract readers into Hupp's life and the literary forces that permeate his exploration of his world and place in it.

Rarely does LGBRQ+ literature hold the ability to reach traditional readers, but this vivid piece extolling the challenges and possibilities of social change and personal transformation is clear in its message of hope and opportunity, which will reach a wider audience of poetry and social issues readers than the usual work. When rationale, social observation, and personal evolution collide, the result is powerful indeed. Libraries seeking poetry works that toe the line between memoir and social examination will find Faster, Annihilators! just the ticket for book clubs and readers exploring bigger-picture thinking about life trajectories, choices, and social influences.

Under Her Eye
Lindy Ryan and Lee Murray, Editors
Black Spot Books
c/o Vesuvian media
9781645481379, $14.95 Paper/$4.99 Kindle

Under Her Eye: A Women in Horror Poetry Showcase, Vol. II is a literary gathering of women's horror poetry writing. It complements the first volume and adds new insights about women who struggle with particular forms of horror that include abusive and dark situations at home and in society.

This wide-ranging definition of horror allows for an equally broad inspection of its identification and incarnation, creating a powerful anthology of horror and its concurrent antonym, hope. Vivid scenarios and strong emotions mark a literary prowess on the parts of each contributor to this anthology. This translates to a focus on physical and psychological incarnations of horror experiences, as well as the kinds of disparate responses that lead to survival. Just as there is no set definition of what constitutes horror, so there is no singular path towards mitigating its impact, as these pieces demonstrate. As for the works themselves, their complexity, diverse subjects and approaches, and strengths create a unified interpretation of horror that will both enlighten and intrigue readers on many levels.

Take 'Plain White Cotton Dresses' by Emma J. Gibbon, for one example. The seemingly mild title and the image it conjures are tempered by the tragedy that evolves as a town's women awaken to discover "When they woke up that morning in the mist and green,/in every yard, a plain white cotton dress./Hanging from a wire coat hanger on the tree, fence, on the washing line./Pure and white and cold/and on each dress, a small note pinned/a white square piece of notepaper./In formal handwriting, in gray-black ink,/two words:/Why not?" Why not, indeed? Their uniform response to this discovery turns a mild event into a form of rebellion readers won't see coming.

Each poem holds the power to provoke thoughtful, strong reactions from its readers. Each embraces the quiet, feral, or forceful reactions of women to horror in a different way. Another example of this diversity lies in Christina Ladd's 'Burn It Down': "I will drill holes in my own strong bones/To fill them with fire/I will pluck out my eyes/And set the sockets with flint/So that when I scrape my gaze/Over this place/It will catch./Do you know what twenty years of fear/Will do to a person?" No easy read, these poems of rebellion and agony - but, an essential one for survivors and women navigating their own life currents of horror. Ideally, Under Her Eye: A Women in Horror Poetry Showcase, Vol. II will not only be included in women's literature and poetry libraries, but will be profiled for group discussion by book clubs, women's groups, and psychological circles focusing on abuse, empowerment, horror, and recovery. It's that important. (As an additional note, the Under Her Eye series represents charity showcase developed in partnership with The Pixel Project, a global non-profit organization focused on eliminating violence against women worldwide.)

The Christian Studies Shelf

Hidden Price Tags V. 2: Works of Art
C.J.S. Hayward
C.J.S. Hayward Publications
9798376516492, $2.99 Kindle, $12.24 Paperback, $20.24 Hardcover


C.J.S. Hayward's intersection of science, spiritual thinking, and technology receives an uncommon and powerful focus in Hidden Price Tags V. 2: Works of Art, which operates as both a supplement to his prior treatises on technology and spiritual thinking and a unique intersection between elements of Orthodox Christian works and an analysis of technology's impact on spiritual thinking in the world. Hayward builds a case for caution and outright abstinence as the ever-increasing list of new technologies affecting daily lives promises not only revised visions of reality, but impacts on spiritual thought and choices. This, in turn, reflects a more reasoned approach to choosing and employing technology's assets based on its long-ranging impact rather than just its artificial allure. He tackles some heady subjects, indeed: "'What is good for us as human beings?' This in turn includes 'What use and abstention from technology is good for us as human beings?' That question drives this whole series. I do not write to reason you into being Orthodox, but I would be mistreating you to use anything less than the best resources I know to answer the challenges of technology and using technology without burning yourself."

Hayward adopts a wide-ranging, freestyle approach to his subject, injecting analysis of such disparate works as Damon Knight's thought-provoking short story "To Serve Man" and Douglas Adams's "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." These readings are linked with key facets of technological choice and perception, with personal reflection and group debate encouraged through questions that promote readers to link their literary pursuits with concurrent reflections on choices in technological employment (or deployment, as the case might be). Few other treatises would juxtapose subjects ranging from Louis Carroll to vaccines, Einstein, and Biblical scholarship. Few, also would tackle the wider-ranging applications of Christian Orthodoxy to matters of public health, mental acuity, and the dark side of technological developments. Though some might critique the wide-ranging nature of Hayward's connections here, indeed, their ability to enlighten, educate, and provoke discussion and debate is one of this book and the series' strengths. It examines a seemingly-disparate collection of artistic and literary works as they relate to issues of choice, spiritual pursuits, and ultimate impact.

Perhaps the greatest application of Hayward's rambling and revealing discourse will be to spark debates among younger generations who view technology as a given part of their lives without fully understanding the wider-ranging impact of their choices. In this, Hayward offers particularly thought-provoking food for thought: "Technology has its uses, but when technology is a drone, noise in the background that prevents silence from getting too uncomfortable, then it is a spiritual problem, a tool to medicate experience. And there are some technologies, like video games, that exist to medicate experience."

The title Hidden Price Tags comes with a caution: entering the book's title on Amazon and other places results in too many 'hits' for similar-sounding 'price tag' guides. Those interested in Hayward's specific book would do well to utilize the ordering link to go directly to his title. Libraries, readers, and book groups either familiar with Hayward's previous writings or interested in works that are heady, revealing, potentially controversial, and immersed in Eastern Orthodoxy's connections to modern life will want to include Hidden Price Tags V. 2: Works of Art in their collections and on their reading lists. Its ability to draw creative connections between Orthodoxy, modern thinking and beliefs, and underlying spiritual connections makes it a standout of vast importance to thinking readers.

A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism
CJS Hayward
CJS Hayward Publications
9798393853952, $5.99 Paper/$2.99 ebook

A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism: A Selection of Poems is a selection of poems chosen by CJS Hayward from his "Best Works" series. It will particularly appeal to spiritual-minded thinkers who appreciate reflections centered on "embracing heaven and earth." This gathering of forces invites a form of spiritual inspection that reflects a quest for God and connections to religious service and perspectives. Hayward's quest embraces the fallacies and possibilities of spiritual thinking, and will prove both thought-provoking and controversial in many of its contentions and observations:

"the poisoning of our spiritual diet
has moved us
from knowing the mind as the heart that meets God
to growing and over-growing that which reasons,
so that it is at the heart of our lives,
in Christians as much as the atheist..."

From better understanding how frustration leads to spiritual revelation to receiving works that assume the perspective of God in interpreting spiritual roots and questions, Hayward's diverse canticles and free-spirited poems offer the rare opportunity to delve into the intersection of God and humanity to better understand the processes, paths, and promises of both.

Religious and spiritual thinkers interested in literary expressions of the search for God, understanding, and the greater gifts of God will find A Canticle to Holy, Blessed Solipsism both resonates in the soul and should be elevated to greater reflective discussion in book clubs and spiritual literary circles. Its inclusion as a mainstay in a Christian thinker's library would be appropriate and important.

The Buddhist Studies Shelf

Reflective Meditation: Cultivating Kindness and Curiosity in the Buddha's Company
Linda Modaro and Nelly Kaufer
Precocity Press
9798987776674, $15.95

Reflective Meditation: Cultivating Kindness and Curiosity in the Buddha's Company encourages and provokes the concepts of conversation and reflective meditation. This offers a different perspective and approach to not just enlightened thinking and feeling, but dialogue.

A fine prologue synthesizes the practice's results by narrating the experience of Kim Henderson, who observed her good friend Linda Modaro's immersion in a practice she called 'recollective awareness'.

As Kim observed the impact and life-altering results of this meditative process, she was encouraged by her friend to pursue the practice through mentor Nelly Kaufer, a fellow recollective awareness meditation teacher and the founder of Pine Street Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

The candid story of how this initial observation and interest turned into participation in an easy, yet life-changing experience, opens with an introduction that informs spiritual seekers about the opportunities and processes of a different form of meditation.

The first unusual aspect to this approach is the authors' collaborative focus on the meditative experience. They gather the voices and insights of others around them, sharing collective wisdom in an accessible and lively manner. The dialogue portion of the practice is just as essential for understanding and success as the meditative process itself. Conversations about experience, intention, mindfulness, and more permeate insights about the bigger-picture thinking meditation can unfold in a dance of mental origami.

From considerations of Buddhist concepts of vulnerability and suffering to how meditators grapple with challenging characteristics of existence and experience, Linda Modaro and Nelly Kaufer craft a dialogue of possibilities that ultimately transcends much of the average reader's concepts of what meditative practices can reveal.

The result is a powerful dialogue that, in turn, deserves not just library acquisition and individual thought, but hopefully results in conversations and interactions among different types of communities as thinkers, spiritual seekers, teachers, and ordinary people come together to explore elements of growth and kindness in their lives, and its incarnation in the world.

The Islamic Studies Shelf

The Essential Martin Lings
Reza Shah-Kazemi, Editor
World Wisdom
9781936597741, $19.95

The Essential Martin Lings gathers chapters from a compendium of his works that address spiritual and philosophical subjects, including those on Islam and Sufism as well as questions about religions and literature. It is especially important and nicely presented, given the editor's grounding in Islamic studies and Comparative Religion, and contrasts life objectives, experiences, and perceptions with broader questions that dovetail the spiritual ideals of different thinkers with Lings's own reflections. Any library strong in Islam examinations and philosophical intersections between belief and ideals will find a satisfying synthesis of materials that flows from subject to subject quite nicely in The Essential Martin Lings.

The Religion/Spirituality Shelf

Wisdom of a Yogi
Rizwan Virk
Bayview Books
9781954872103, $14.95 Paper/$9.99 ebook

In 1946, long before 'new age' was a term, Indian wisdom was largely acknowledged in Western circles, or Paramahansa Yogananda was known to the world, the publication of Autobiography of a Yogi reflected his life and evolution as a spiritual thinker and young man. Over the decades, the book became a worldwide classic filled with the monk's paradigm-changing and challenging thoughts that brought the ancient lessons of karma, yoga, and meditation to Western minds. Wisdom of a Yogi is a much-needed book that re-envisions the lessons in Autobiography for a modern audience. It comes from an unlikely source - a technologist and entrepreneur who incorporates internet and video game technology's modern focuses into the finer art of synthesizing and interpreting the Yoganada's fourteen lessons for modern audiences. How do stories of miracles in the Himalayas and acts of psychic and physical transformation apply to modern technology-laden (but spiritual) readers?

Just as Yogananda's spiritual lessons reached into the hearts and minds of generations, so Virk's Wisdom of a Yogi presents these reinterpreted lessons in a manner that modern audiences can more readily understand and apply to their lives. The contemporary references allow greater access to the basic underlying concepts of the original work than one might think, with chapter headings as varied as "Go Out of Your Way For... Pilgrimages" and "The World is Like a Movie, a Dream..." Key to understanding and absorbing many of these new perspectives are links between traditional yoga and current thinking: "While traditionalists will say adapting yoga to other traditions is not really yoga, if you use Patanjali's definition, then any practice that helps to smooth out the whirlpools in the river of consciousness is a type of yoga. And there is no greater authority than that ancient sage. Yogananda himself wrote: 'Anyone who practices a scientific technique for divine realization is a yogi.'"

Especially intriguing are analyses that could only come from a writer such as Virk, the founder of Play Labs at MIT, who here applies his technology focus to matters of spiritual enlightenment and intention. Why consider this overlay to be so essential? Because, as Virk points out, "Assuming we develop some of those technologies, which are the crux of what's now called the Metaverse, it's likely we will also develop a 'full immersion' mode for ourselves within a few decades." It's refreshing to view a new age spiritual focus that doesn't necessarily eschew technology, but reconsiders its place in the larger scheme of humanity's evolutionary processes. The fourteen lessons Virk synthesizes from the esteemed Swami's original reinterprets his ages-old advice, taking his classic stories and examples and providing new focus by adding stories of modern seekers, teachers, and students. What does karma, yoga, or meditation have to do with video games, social media, and avatars? Plenty, as Virk points out in vivid chapters that will appeal to a new generation of readers and thinkers. This group needn't have prior familiarity with Autobiography of a Yogi (although this is preferable as either a preface building even stronger appreciation for Virk's approach, or as an adjunct to remind prior fans of the importance of staying relevant to modern times and technologies).

Libraries and spiritual thinkers seeking a path to new interpretations of traditional yogi wisdom would do well to consider Wisdom of a Yogi a mainstay in their collections. The book synthesizes and reinterprets the original tales and lessons in a manner that promises its wide accessibility and discussion to seekers of all ages.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

Diane C. Donovan, Editor & Senior Reviewer
12424 Mill Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
phone: 1-707-795-4629

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