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California Bookwatch

Volume 18, Number 9 September 2023 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Science Shelf Folktale/Fairytale Shelf
General Fiction Shelf Historical Fiction Shelf Literary Fiction Shelf
Western Fiction Shelf Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf
Poetry Shelf Christian Studies Shelf Metaphysical Studies Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

The ABC Tour
Jon Udry, author
Ben McCabe, layout designer
Modern Vaudeville Press
9780578410852, $25.00

Juggler and comedian Jon Udry completed his 'ABC Tour' which involved 26 shows in 26 different venues, one for each letter of the alphabet. The ABC Tour: A Juggler's Journey from A to Z captures this remarkable achievement as Udry travels to very different venues, represented by A-Z chapter headings that organize this journey ("A is for Aquarium; B is for Bakery; C is for Castle; D if for Doorshop; E is for Eden Project; F is for Forest; G is for Gallery; H is for Hairdresser; I is for Internet; J is for Jail...").

Jon's rules for the tour, in addition to the consecutive nature of following the alphabet, added additional challenges, including: "One of the most important was that each location had to be a non-venue where you would not expect to see a show."

By crafting and controlling the concept of a tour to make its incarnation even more unusual, reaching places and audiences unused to entertainment, Udry expands the nature of his craft to bring it to the attention of diverse audiences who might not otherwise have been exposed to juggling. The tour took over two years to complete. "The ABC Tour" represented yet another self-challenge, because Udry admits in his prologue that "I am a writer in the same way that someone assembling flat-pack furniture is a carpenter or that someone making beans on toast is a chef. That being said, here I am writing a book."

Even in print, the comedy shines. If readers wonder how a performance artist can properly represent the art in written word, Udry's title serves as the prime example of how different mediums can still capture an artistic endeavor.

From funding an unconventional effort that received only skepticism from business managers to the repeated challenges Udry came up with to accompany each venue visit, readers receive a lively set of insights that highlight the effort. Udry doesn't just provide verbal and photographic images of this tour. He covers the thinking process that went into selecting representative environments for each letter of the alphabetic, such as 'K is for Knitting Club': "I loved the thought of performing to an audience of people that were knitting. It just seemed really lovely to me. Before I could start my search for a knitting club, I needed to define what one was. Is it just a group of people knitting? Does this mean the location doesn't matter? If people are knitting in a church, is that a knitting club? I think yes. If they are knitting outside in a field, is that a knitting club? This feels like a no. If they are knitting in an office, is this a knitting club? I think yes. If they are knitting at a bus shelter, is this a knitting club? I think not."

More than a collection of fun illustrations and juggling descriptions, Udry's book excels in pinpointing the whimsy and logical thinking that went into his tour. While performing arts libraries would of course be the logical group interested in The ABC Tour, it would be a shame to limit its audience to fellow performers alone. Jon Udry's ability to reach a non-juggling, non-performer audience with his wit and explorations of organizing tours and establishing their parameters will ideally reach book clubs and discussion groups interested in the intersection of comedy, sport, and performance worlds.

In and of itself, The ABC Tour is a representation of creative thinking that goes beyond its theme to reach audiences interested in exploring self-challenging efforts and ways of thinking outside the box, and is very highly recommended to a wide audience not just of performers, but all kinds of readers looking for creative, whimsical, and thought-provoking fun.

The Science Shelf

The Evolution of Life: Big Bang to Space Colonies
Richard M. Anderson
Precocity Press
9798985149470, Hardcover $54.95/Paperback $22.95/ebook $9.99

The Evolution of Life: Big Bang to Space Colonies is a scientific review highly recommended for readers seeking an introductory examination of life's origins and future. It provides a step-by-step journey connecting the universe's growth to humanity's evolutionary process, considering how the two have expanded and grown together.

While some might consider the subject either esoteric or too technical for easy access, The Evolution of Life cultivates an approach that lends to its access by lay audiences interested in a sweeping review of the history of life.

Richard M. Anderson uses graphs, references to physics, biochemistry, and psychology, and social inspection to examine the course of human growth and interests. He considers the enigmas and research of a cross-section of scientific disciplines, using language that will especially appeal to readers who have some scientific curiosity and background, yet reside largely outside the usual scientific community.

Anderson's survey does make for heady reading that requires a degree of scientific curiosity, but it cultivates a lively descriptive tone and connections that make any reader's effort more than worthwhile. Libraries looking for science-grounded examinations of humanity's evolutionary process and future potential will find much to like about the wide-ranging approach of The Evolution of Life: Big Bang to Space Colonies.

Its clear connections between science and human nature and its conclusion of the uniqueness and accompanying responsibility that humanity has towards its habitat and its other residents makes for an important message that needs to be heard and discussed: "I believe there is an increasing understanding that humanism, a movement working to optimize our life experience and value to each other, coupled with scientific understanding, can lead to international action to address global problems. Let us hope that action is sufficient to ensure our longevity as a species. Like a fine jewel, our planet, studded with ecosystems and intertwining living beings, is our place in the universe. Like us, it is priceless."

The Folktale/Fairtytale Shelf

Into the Forest
Lindy Ryan, Editor
Black Spot Books
9781645481232, $15.95 Paper/$5.99 ebook

Into the Forest: Tales of the Baba Yaga gathers new short writings inspired by the Slavic witch Baba Yaga fable, gathering works by award-winning authors and new voices. Readers might expect these stories to be steeped in horror (which they do receive), but one of the unexpected delights of this collection lies in not just its diverse takeoffs on the subject, but the disparate tones which each short story takes, from dark fantasy to folklore and reflections on women's powers and the ironies of their lives.

Take the opening "Dinner Plans with Baba Yaga" by Stephanie M. Wytovich. The poem is a dark study in ritual horror that captures subtle nuances in the Baba Yaga legend and figure, bringing them to life in unexpected ways: "You tell me to make a stew, to chop up the/onions, pull the radishes from the ground. I bite/my tongue, let my tears fall into the bowl, the salt/a sealant, a locked door boiling beneath the peas./I stir clockwise to summon you, imagine the rancid/perfume of your ghost."

"Last Tour Into the Hungering Moonlight" by Gwendolyn Kiste, in contrast, is an atmospheric study in ironic observations as the narrator, a 'tour guide', introduces readers to a strange community: "One home after another, we want to show them all to you. Our vaulted ceilings, our vaulted lives. This is our little pocket of paradise, you might say. After all, we have everything we could ever want. Our gleaming white walls as plain and straightforward as each new day in our lives. There's nothing out of the ordinary here, nothing calling to us from just beyond the property line."

The focus on the impact of living shielded lives next to a legend offers intriguing perspectives on the Baba Yaga folktale that are delightfully literary and analytical: "(They say her house in the deep, lonely woods is propped up on chicken legs and filled with a thousand bones. Late at night, we sometimes lie awake and wonder if those bones make her home stronger than ours. We also wonder if maybe we should find some bones of our own.)" Each piece offers a stunning new perspective on Baba Yaga's influence and legend. Each represents a powerful literary reflection that should not be missed by any with an interest in not just horror or this legend, but women's writings in particular.

Outstanding in its diversity and interpretations, Into the Forest: Tales of the Baba Yaga is very highly recommended not just for horror collections, but for libraries strong in women's literature, as well as for reader's book groups who would study the legend and realities of the Baba Yaga folktale as it journeys into the heart and soul of women's experiences and psychology.

The General Fiction Shelf

Higher Education
Dr. Ashley Oliphant
Warren Publishing
9781957723471, $19.95, PB, 358pp

Higher Education: Chronicles of a Dumpster Fire reflects the author's decades of teaching college, but assumes a fictional form to attract a wider audience that includes leisure readers interested in higher education adventures. The story returns to the fictional Clary-Smith University introduced in In Search of Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Revival, serving as a prequel to events which require no prior reader knowledge to prove absorbing.

Dr. Livie Green faces the academic years of 2010-2011 in this story, which continues to embrace the sense of ironic humor and inspections of Dr. Oliphant's prior works: "All of our student athletes have returned to the practice field, and I am certain the Clary-Smith Flying Squirrels are going to soar high again this year." One strength of Higher Education lies in its special form of delivery. From memos to academics to emails between them, the novel's changing format and interactions adds excitement and fun as events play out: "ROGER: And now we can't even choose our own britches. That was their big "aha" moment of the weekend. We should take away the faculty's power to pick their pants.

LIVIE: The hell we can't choose. I'm the program coordinator, and they pay me a stipend of $1,000 a year before taxes to have big ideas. Give me a few hours."This elevates dialogue, adds drama and interest to the story line, and creates a lively interplay between characters, political and social situations, and the college environment and its students and instructors. All these facets keep the story exciting and dramatic.

Readers (especially those familiar with the college environment) can anticipate many laugh-out-loud moments as the confrontations and ironic dilemmas play out to prompt a spate of clashes between writers from all walks of university life. The result is a romp through academia that provides not just much food for thought, but a refreshingly original approach to the academic world which considers the follies and fancies of colleagues, leaders, and professors who would either buck the system or confront its failures.

The expose in the Clary-Smith Clarion (a "covert faculty newspaper" portrayed in the novel) perhaps says it all: "Higher education is a dumpster fire, and we don't have the budget to buy extinguishers." Fiction readers and libraries catering to them will find the ironic humor and university inspections simply delightful, making Higher Education a top recommendation.

Feathers in the Sand
Anne Marie Bennett
KaleidoSoul Media
9798986050317, $10.99 PB/$4.99 Kindle

Readers of women's fiction and literature who look for stories that represent a sense of place (Maine) and change, with flavors of mystery and romance tossed into the mix to spice the results, will relish Feathers in the Sand.

Tess Gilmore is a single mother in her forties. She is so driven to reinvent her life that she's lost touch with her son and daughter, who stand on the cusp of their own life changes as new adults and pre-teens. When the opportunity arises for her to make a move to the small Maine town of Seahaven, the sea change moves her from big-career opportunities and promises to a home life that embraces the thing that is truly important -- family.

The mystery revolves around feathers that begin to appear in strange places. Eleven-year-old daughter Eva thinks they come from angels. They hold intrigue (and also promise) as Tess begins to move in the direction of reframing her family roots and connections. Anne Marie Bennett creates a moving story filled with candid introspections, revelations, and several unexpected twists and turns.

Throughout the story, Tess is a likeable character whose changing goals and life feels realistic and compelling. Bennett takes the time to explore family relationships from different perspectives. This approach rounds out the characters and their perceptions of events and the culture around them. Accidents happen, and life holds unexpected surprises. Tess and her readers find out more about these as she and son Micah face their own special challenges.

Readers seeking a women's fiction story that is delightfully evocative and gently compelling will relish the moves Tess makes (and the discoveries that stem from her choices) in Feathers in the Sand, a novel which should be in library collections of contemporary women's fiction.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

Price of Passage
Larry F. Sommers
DX Varos Publishing
9781955065580, $19.95 Paper/$4.99 ebook

Fans of historical fiction who enjoy stories about immigration and pioneer experience will find Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation just the ticket for an absorbing tale of evolution and enlightenment.

The story opens in Norway in 1853, where Anders Gunstensen is facing an abusive uncle while dreaming of his imminent departure to new opportunities in North America. When he actually leaves, fleeing the law, it's with the intention of finding the honor missing from his life in Norway. He didn't anticipate finding love on the journey, but boat-builder's daughter Maria is irresistible and is on her own course for a life change, and the two come together and marry.

The other thing they didn't anticipate finding in their new country of opportunity was elements of some of the things they each fled from in their home countries. Slave Daniel, found hiding in their barnyard, draws Anders and Maria into a conflict in their newfound home and land, introducing issues of racism and slavery that test their ability to build a family and make a difference in their new home.

Author Larry F. Sommers provides a different immigrant focus than most. He juxtaposes elements of a new life purpose with social challenges that force Maria and Anders to reconsider their revised roles and attitudes towards past and present obstacles and opportunities alike.

As a blossoming civil war brings with it demands to respond in different ways, each character assumes a role that takes them deeper into the concept of the land of the free and the responsibilities this promise brings. Sommers moves between the viewpoints of Maria, Anders, and Daniel. These are clearly outlined in chapter headings which make the transitions smooth as each character builds an independent image of their influences, interests, and ethical conundrums.

The result is an immigrant story that melds the rise of social change into an arrival experience that holds unforeseen opportunities and dangers. Libraries looking for a vivid story of immigrant experience in a historical presentation that adds the backdrop of Civil War encounters will find Price of Passage a vivid inspection and reflection that takes three seemingly disparate lives and unifies their purpose and drive to not just survive, but make a difference. Ideally, Price of Passage will also attract historical novel book clubs contrasting the similarities and differences between immigrant and slave perspectives in mid-1800s America.

Sherry Ostroff
9798830483568, $14.99 Paper/$9.99 Kindle

Expulsion is a historical novel of the Spanish Inquisition that cultivates a different point of view than most fictional writings of these times. It delivers the viewpoint of a woman charged with surviving not only the Inquisition, but the Edict of Expulsion, imparting a "you are here" feel by employing the first person and adding the observations and experiences of women who surround Basseva, the youngest daughter in a Segovian family.

From the very beginning (which opens with a woman's scream), Sherry Ostroff cultivates the kinds of observations that bring history to rich life. A young bride-to-be is set to enter into an arranged marriage with one she's known about for most of her life, convinced that "My wedding day would be the happiest day of my life. Nothing in the world would alter that." Eventually she realizes that even greater changes are in the wind. Ostroff's ability to create characters that are realistic and memorable, from cooks and washerwomen to those who, like Basseva, operate in higher strata of society, provides keys to understanding the events, politics, and impact of the Spanish Inquisition from a more intimate vantage point than most historical novels on the subject.

Her depiction of Basseva's growing knowledge that the interrogations which have become part of daily life are changing and threatening it, drawing ever closer to her world to transform her experiences and mindset, are particularly revealing. This captures the events of the Inquisition to bring history to life as Basseva finds herself navigating more than marriage and a husband, which were the trajectory of her life before politics and strife changed everything.

From a Jewish father who becomes Catholic, but preserves his Jewish roots in his heart, to a queen who aspires to sainthood and Bassiva's arrest and trials, Ostroff's story embraces the extent of the Inquisition era. It deftly depicts the social and political forces that drive not only inquisitors, but those who bow under them or struggle to survive without betraying their heritages.

The origins of her characters, the facts of their lives and times, and the history all receive added discussion at book's end. This lends to its assignment in classrooms studying this era and these events. Students will appreciate the opportunity to absorb and debate events on a more accessible, personal level than most nonfiction or even fictional accounts offer.

If only one book were to be chosen about the Inquisition experience, it should be Expulsion. Its attention to melding historical facts with women's experiences and viewpoints, and its outstanding portrait of revised lives and struggles for survival, have their roots in many facts about the times, which Ostroff researched in depth.

Bitter for Sweet
Daryl Potter
Paper Stone Press
9781990388026, $14.99 Paper/$3.99 Kindle

If one of historical fiction's attractions is its ability to bring bygone times and old concerns to life for modern audiences, then it's well evident that Bitter for Sweet more than fits this charge. It examines the lives of two very different young women of 76 BCE, which are powered by the influences of Middle East politics and society.

The story opens with a girl fleeing into the desert, pursued by the Moabite raiders who are slaughtering her people. The experience moves from the child's desperate flight to the observations of great carrion birds with wingspans of nine feet who watch as events unfold, creating an intriguing contrast in perspectives that enhances the story as thirteen-year-old Cypros struggles to survive.

Daryl Potter creates an intriguing disparity not just in perspectives, but in lives as he weaves unusual approaches to both into his descriptions: "She intended to marry a Jewish governor's son next year. Eight raiders pursued her."

He also takes the time to thoroughly capture the environment and its dissimilar peoples, setting the stage for political and social conflicts that evolve in the course of the story to create a satisfying "you are here" feel to its narrative. This is part of what separates an engrossing historical fiction piece from one which is so fact-centered that it teeters on the dryness of nonfiction. Potter's ability to place readers on firm ground in this era, even without any prior familiarity with its events, history, or peoples, makes for a story that is compelling both for those familiar with the ancient times and readers who may hold little prior interest or expertise in the era.

As lessons in old Hebrew and Jewish traditions are surveyed and passed down, readers receive an education in Jewish history and Middle East peoples alike, as seen through the eyes of two very different women. Matters of family, home, and political alliances emerge, powered by the logic of history and the emotional connections of women who face many changes and conflicts over their roles in life.

As the two young women move towards a confrontation with these forces (and, eventually, one another), readers who look for powerful female-centered perceptions and experiences will especially appreciate the strong presence of both in a story steeped in these times.

Bitter for Sweet is an example of historical fiction at its best, firmly resting on facts, but powered by the dilemmas and strengths of characters faced with transformative encounters that change their life trajectories and their relationships. Libraries looking for historical fiction able to attract beyond its genre readership will find Bitter for Sweet a strong pick recommended not just for historical novel readers, but followers of women's fiction, history, and experience.

Neil Perry Gordon
Independently Published
9781732667747, $16.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

As the third and final book of a trilogy, Denali: The Alaskan Adventures of Percy Hope holds the promise of resolution to the story, which is set in the early 1900s.

Percy Hope is on his way to New York in search of his missing son Walter and his fugitive mother, Peggy Greenburg. This mission is diverted when he stumbles upon the journal of former friend Magnus Vega, who drowned a year earlier in the Bering Sea. It chronicles a voyage of discovery and riches that promises the same to Hope and his best friend Liam. They decide to travel into this uncharted wilderness, map in hand, for certain riches and adventure.

The story's action and adventure ramps up from the moment the toy boys deliver Magnus's legacy (six pieces of gold) to George Magnus, a grieving father who appears to be a drunken mess. The duo uncovers a journal of mystery and promises, quickly attracts the attention of the nefarious Diamond Jim, faces George's disappearance with the gold, and embarks on a journey that soon becomes one of not just gold-seeking fever, but metaphysical revelation.

Readers seeking either a historical action piece or a tale of riches won't expect this injection of spirituality, but Neil Perry Gordon realistically portrays its rise, possibilities, and impact on Hope and Magnus's lives as a cave exploration turns into a quest for proof of an unimaginable spiritual realm. Gordon moves between Hope and Magnus with first-person descriptions that juxtapose the journal entries of the past with Hope's present-day obsession.

The atmosphere of the times comes to life as these events evolve, from San Francisco and New York to Knik, Alaska and beyond. One reason why Gordon's story is so vibrant and realistic is the observations and experiences of the social milieu of the late 1800s. Gordon weaves this atmosphere so deftly into dialogues and reflections that readers absorb the feeling of the times without even thinking.

As Hope comes full circle in many ways, readers will find the story completely engrossing as he returns to his original quest with newfound wisdom. Yes, Denali: The Alaskan Adventures of Percy Hope represents the concluding volume to a trilogy that will primarily attract prior readers of Hope's adventures. But it will also appeal to newcomers with its ability to build upon past events while moving forward into the next phase of Hope's life.

Libraries strong in fiction that holds a strong historical backdrop but comes to life with action and adventure, especially those interested in turn-of-the-century Alaskan backdrops, will find Denali: The Alaskan Adventures of Percy Hope a solid acquisition that is highly recommended for its unique brand of action, adventure, and character evolution.

The Literary Fiction Shelf

Something Dead in Everything
Lannie Stabile
ELJ Editions
9781942004400, $20.00

Flash fiction is exceptionally short fiction that packs a punch using as few words as possible. Lannie Stabile's works certainly fit that bill, as they offer diverse, digestible pieces that even the busiest reader can't claim to be too frenzied to absorb. The length of their presentation doesn't belay their impact. In fact, the collection opens with a trigger warning disclaimer: the contents include subject ranging from "domestic abuse, sexual assault, infanticide, SIDS, postpartum depression, death, murder, suicide, dismemberment, and profanity."

Fragile readers should look elsewhere, but those who find such subjects fodder for consideration and not a nervous breakdown will find them treated with astute and powerful insights under Stabile's hand. "To Wash and Dry a Vessel" opens the collection with an observational piece that introduces a simple ceramic mug of memories, a mother's most prized possession. The love for and ritual of using the mug follows the narrator throughout her childhood and into her mother's illness and subsequent death, when the mug appears to introduce the relief of a death after a long illness: "Death meant I could open the windows, let the fresh air in to sweep through the mummified halls. Death meant I could pause and breathe, and maybe even relax. Death meant I could say good-bye..."

As a haunted mug stirs memories, guilt, and brings new possibilities, readers are drawn into the life of a caregiver who finds herself marked and changed not just by death, but by life afterwards. "Dreamers with Empty Hands" is both in stark contrast and a familiar sigh of experience as the narrator shares close quarters with a couple and cultivates her own form of appreciation, angst, and longing from the experience: "I wish I could reach out and rest my hand on her shoulder, give it an empathetic squeeze. Show her someone's listening, someone cares, even if it's some lost soul with a permanent beehive congealed with blood."

Replete with themes of loss, love, discovery, and recovery, Something Dead in Everything represents vignettes of life experience and observation, blending powerful metaphorical images of the ghosts that hang around the living with the embedded sorrows and hopes of the living. These thought-provoking works of flash fiction deserve not only a place on literary shelves, but in the discussion groups of readers who would analyze and examine the presence of longing, love, and hope in life and death alike.

The Western Fiction Shelf

Three Days Under the Sun
Charlie Steel
Condor Publishing
9781931079020, $12.95

Three Days Under the Sun (And Other Tales of the Old West) joins other Western classics of storytelling lore by Charlie Steel with an intriguing blend of black and white illustrations and short fiction. These present diverse characters that experience trials and tribulations as they struggle for survival in the West. Besides employing the powerful "you are here" atmosphere that Steel successfully utilizes to best advantage, each story contains a moral and ethical message.

Readers of Westerns will find them thought-provokingly embedded into description, experience, and mindset. The title opening story "Three Days Under the Sun" demonstrates this flavor from the start as it captures the experience of an ambush that portends death with an astute observation from the first-person narrator, that "This was Sioux land, we were the invaders, and they were fighting for their survival." As the struggle to survive continues for a ragtag wagon train band led by the first-person narrator, readers interested in the thrill of action combined with the observation of greenhorns who are well out of their league in the Wild West makes for an engrossing story.

Romance is the last thing that should arise. But, it does. Steel excels in injecting the unexpected into traditional Western confrontations, scenarios, and experiences. This ability gives his short pieces an engrossing, memorable flavor of unpredictability that will especially delight seasoned Western genre readers looking for something different. Take "A Running Gunman Makes a Decision," for example. A thirsty outlaw running through the prairie comes upon a house that offers refuge and then danger, as illness has fallen upon its inhabitants. The gunman is on the lam. But is he running from life, as well? His decision leads to perils he'd never anticipated from his prior actions...and a moral dilemma: "I am a fool to think of staying. Best to get on the mustang and ride hard and fast away from this sickness. Surely, these folks are beyond hope and are all going to die."

Each story is steeped in the atmosphere and trappings of the West, but each offers a twist in perspective and judgment to keep readers thinking and surprised about decisions, outcomes, and this wild Western world. These elements make for stories that are hard-hitting, both in their action and in their outcomes. Readers of Western literature may be used to formula genre reads, but Charlie Steel steps out of the way of traditional approaches just a bit, giving each tale the added value of surprise with thought-provoking dilemmas. The result is a powerful collection highly recommended not just for the usual reader of the Western fiction genre, but for those who normally eschew these types of stories, who will find much to attract in this powerfully compelling gathering.

Three Days Under the Sun is also recommended for book clubs looking for literature that pushes the boundaries of their genres, especially groups that would contrast the traditional approaches of L'Amour and others with Steel's original, astute form of inspection.

Crippled Jack
Boston Teran
High-Top Publishing LLC
9781567031010, $22.00

Readers of Western fiction well know the tendency towards formula writing that this genre holds. Perhaps more so than most genres, that tendency has created a set of expectations about not only what its fiction will hold, but the presentation and progression of its characters and Western settings. That's why Crippled Jack by Boston Teran is such a standout. It's revisionist writing at its best, turning the Western genre on end with a story that is delightfully unexpected and evocative. The satisfying blend of historical fact and revolutionary concepts come alive under Teran's hand.

The story opens with a young boy who has been tied up and abandoned on a trail, left behind with a cryptic note attached to him to await death or God's intervention: whichever comes first. Salvation arrives in the form of twenty-eight-year-old Ledru Drum, who is making his way south, following the Chihuahua Trail, when he stumbles upon the terrified, beat-up child who will change his life. The child grows up to be the marksman known as Crippled Jack, forging a name and reputation that belays his disabilities and places him in a powerful position. His coming-of-age and connections with equally forceful personalities who belay their sex and heritage to make names for themselves during changing times creates a Western of a very different ilk. The story follows its characters through social, political, and psychological lawlessness and into worlds where their inherent weaknesses prove to be uncommon strengths.

Author Boston Teran is skilled at presenting and contrasting the experiences of men and women alike, injecting the psychological self-inspections with social reflections that lend realistic drama and dilemmas to each character's world: "Nola stared out into the night to where the smelter furnaces looked like huge open mouths of fire, ready and willing to feed on you. She began to cry because she could not escape feelings that had power and authority over her. Her humanity was in a struggle with hard moments, and how this would play out she could barely imagine." As struggles, intrigue, and confrontations immerse Nola Dyle and Matthew Drum in situations which both set them apart and make them notoriously different figures in the West, readers will especially appreciate the attention Teran gives to evocative scenes built on mercurial relationships.

The result is a Western story that is actually a literary piece that employs all the trappings of the Western, but elevates the plot to a higher level entirely. This will appreciate appeal to literary readers looking for something different. Libraries looking for standout Western-centric novels, as well as book clubs reading Westerns who seek reads both satisfyingly complex and outstandingly unique, will both find Crippled Jack absorbing and refreshingly original writing.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The Cat's Paw Murders
Frank L. Gertcher
Wind Grass Hill Books
9781735145983, $29.95 Hardcover/$11.49 Kindle

The Cat's Paw Murders is the fourth book in the Caroline Case Jones mystery series, but while it builds upon the characters created in prior books, it requires no familiarity from newcomers in order to prove independently accessible and compelling.

An introductory author's note defines the broader concept of a cat's paw situation: "A cat's paw is a person or organization used by another as a tool to achieve some end, especially in a duplicitous or cynical manner. For example, an espionage agent may become the cat's paw for a government in secret conflict with a foreign power." This is essential to keep in mind as political situations and subterfuge evolve in the course of the story where Caroline is kept on her toes.

A prologue indicates that this presentation is the fourth volume in a diary chronicling her adventures, reviewing past events in a succinct roundup that sets the stage for prior fans with reminders, and for newcomers with important backdrop information. With these notes in mind, The Cat's Paw Murders proceeds to the latest mission, beginning in 1929 with espionage training that will take Caroline from being a sleuth to becoming a spy. From the start, Caroline harbors doubts about the demands that her new profession will introduce to her and Hannibal's lives. She has "...qualms about learning new techniques for killing. The veneer of civilization is not very deep over my primitive inner self, and on several occasions, I have demonstrated unrelenting, hardened talents with regard to subduing villains. However, I know that a killing experience, even if it's gratifying at the time, would trouble my dreams forever."

These are challenged by the events that affect their wealthy facade of life in Paris, and by a mission that demands their compliance with sometimes-uncomfortable choices and politics. Readers receive diary entries that follow Caroline and Hannibal from 1929 through the 1930s as they operate in privileged circles of the wealthy while maintaining focus on their secret mission and directives.

Some might anticipate that a diary format couldn't capture the sense of intrigue or cat-and-mouse adventures that a different form would cultivate, but Frank L. Gertcher captures first-person "you are there" moments to fully capture the drama, tension, conundrums, and discoveries of Caroline's life. Whether she's moving through privileged circles or spying on those around her, her involvement in a murder mystery spurs her to make changes in her own life focus and perspectives. As four and a half years of adventure play out, readers will find themselves engrossed in Caroline's descriptions of confrontations and her discovery of a European milieu vastly different from her familiar American roots.

Mystery libraries looking for stories of international intrigue, inner demons unleashed, and the world of a woman whose notes describe the evolution of a couple destined to murder in the course of being paid espionage agents, will find The Cat's Paw Murders a satisfying blend of moral conundrums and intrigue. Readers seeking a fine interplay of class, culture, and self-discovery will find the intersection of all these forces captivating and revealing in a story more than worthy of pursuit.

The Shadow of the Mole
Bob Van Laerhoven
Next Chapter
9798412767628, $36.49 Hardcover/$12.61 Paper/$5.99 Kindle

It's rare to see mystery and history wound into what is basically a military thriller, but The Shadow of the Mole accomplishes all three goals by stretching its story to appeal to diverse audiences with different interests. A prologue neatly sets this stage, focusing on Jean Dumoulin's work in "Satan's Lair," the tunnels dug by the French Infantry under those created by the Germans in 1916. Another body has just been uncovered ...not a rarity during times of war. But what is unusual is Jean's reaction when he touches it.

Readers move from this underground discovery to above-ground conundrums in the first chapter as the infamous mystery 'Mole' receives further attention. The Mole is convinced that he's died, and that the world he awakens to is the afterlife. The military believes that he is a deserter, worthy of the firing squad. And physician and would-be psychiatrist Michel Denis believes that the mystery man is the victim of shellshock. The truth is even stranger than all three could guess as The Mole begins to write his story, creating a cathartic experience which awakens memories that prove stranger than anyone could have anticipated.

Bob Van Laerhoven's story of intrigue, amnesia, and discovery is compelling on many levels. History buffs interested in World War I will find the novel steeped in military references that chart the progress and politics of the war. Those interested in mystery will find the intrigue woven into the tale from the point of discovery to its increasing puzzles about The Mole's real identity and purposes. And readers who choose The Shadow of the Mole for its thriller components will find that action and tension abound in a riveting story packed with satisfying twists and turns.

Readers won't expect footnoted references in a fictional presentation, but these are peppered throughout to define non-English phrases or succinctly explore setting and historical reference, even including poems and literary insights that enhance the progression of the story without detracting from it with too much information.

The real heart of this story lies in injured physician Michel Denis as he explores not just his patient's identity, but his own disability and reactions to it. War changes identity and life trajectories, often forever. Its participants never emerge unscathed. The psychic and physical traumas experienced in battle resonate throughout time and place, stretching beyond the battlefield to affect the hearts and minds of anyone with any connection to the war. In this case, it's the world. In this case, it's Van Laerhoven's attention to capturing the details of desperation and revelation that powers The Shadow of the Mole, compelling it to become something more than any of its characters foresaw.

The exquisite balance between reality, insanity, and the emotional twists and turns of love and war create an especially gripping story that's thoroughly unpredictable in its evolution and unique in its focus. Libraries strong in thrillers, military fiction, psychological inspections of reality and fallacy, and historical mystery will find that all these elements (and more) will attract a wide audience.

Deven Greene
Black Rose Writing
9781685130121, $21.95

Unforeseen is the third book in the Erica Rosen MD trilogy, and will especially be appreciated by prior thriller readers who enjoyed Dr. Rosen's prior medical conundrums.

Erica is a pediatrician who faces a medical mystery when two of her young patients don't respond to their medication. When others begin to succumb to a mysterious illness, Dr. Rosen finds her expertise (and heart) shaken by a series of circumstances which challenge both her medical training and abilities. At the same time, she's faced with a competitor for her job as the clinic's director. Not only is Dr. Nilsen possibly after her position, but his nefarious moral behavior comes to light as she discovers that he is cultivating a romantic relationship with a co-worker at the clinic. Is Dr. Nilsen also involved in a dangerous scheme that compromises their patients, the clinic, and the mandate of the medical profession to "do no harm"?

Deven Greene creates another engaging, engrossing thriller that tests Dr. Rosen's experience, perceptions, and investigative abilities. As Erica embarks on a search that leads her down unexpected paths of medical and personal conundrums, readers follow her into a rabbit hole of complex moral and ethical dilemmas which are paired with a solid attention to investigative problem-solving. Dr. Rosen's ability to tackle many kinds of issues again comes to the forefront in a medical thriller filled with unexpected twists and turns that continues to expand Dr. Rosen's life and abilities.

The result is a powerful escapade about saving not just one clinic, but herself and the world. Libraries strong in medical thriller novels, and discussion groups that look for powerful female protagonists, will find plenty to like in Unforeseen, which ends with the promise of love and, perhaps, the threat of something further to evolve in Erica's life and her readers' eyes.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

The Jigsaw Assassin
Catherine Asaro
Baen Books
9781982191962, $16.00

The Jigsaw Assassin follows a futuristic serial killer whose work implicates those in political power, causing a ripple of response that threatens the political party and calls upon Major Bhaajan to solve the crime. As Bhaaj and her crew delve into political and criminal worlds beyond their usual ken, readers receive an action-packed story of interstellar politics, intrigue, and science fiction that proves satisfying fast-paced, creatively world-building, and hard to put down.

Keeping the Stars Awake
Matthew J. McKee
Atmosphere Press
9781639883462, $18.99

Keeping the Stars Awake is a sci-fi novel that blends surreal atmosphere with ironic observation, introducing readers to a dystopian world where sleep and the futile pursuit of respite leads to dangerous avenues of despair and disquiet. It's a world at once familiar and alien.

The first thing to note about this story is that Matthew J. McKee takes the time to cultivate a special brand of metaphorical examination that results in especially vivid scenes: "The cicadas have all gone to sleep, their restless wings broken and shorn. The chestnuts have all freed themselves from their sheathes, fat rotting carapaces littering the ground like discarded candy-bar wrappers. The wind is serene, quiet, yet steady in its determination to find succor and haven in the hearts of brave evening saunterers - and no amount of huddling will turn it away. The rain is furtive, yet omni-present. The land is muted and the roads, slated. Above, on thinning branches, frost sleeps, withered birds of ice, shadows drowsing like fish in torpid ponds pooled at their roots."

Readers seeking fast-paced introductions will find the story builds slowly from these roots, which are essential introductions to the heart of this tale's strength: its ability to pull readers into a parallel world in which demons and the divine co-exist side by side.

One doesn't anticipate the sarcastic jokes "mocking the infectious nature of religion" and the chilling descriptions of place that permeate this thoroughly engrossing read, but McKee's language at times reads with the evocative description akin to poetry as the narrator describes a Sacrifice Tree: "I had been horribly mistaken: the autumn foliage was not made bloody by the moon; it was simply bloody to begin with. The tree we had been sitting under had blood-red bark, the leaves that hung from the vein like branches pitch black."

Dialogue, too, is well done and unexpectedly vivid. Witty, ironic, sarcastic, and filled with horror and realization, Keeping the Stars Awake is a work of literary excellence that deserves a place not just in sci-fi, but in literature collections.

Matthew J. McKee has created a refreshingly original and unpredictable story of the mirror world of Oh and Sen, with flawed characters that represent questionable morals, rude awakenings, and startling perspectives. Libraries and literary discussion groups will find Keeping the Stars Awake a compelling exploration that pushes the boundaries of the definition of sci-fi and ironic inspection alike. "'Twas truly a story worthy of keeping the stars awake - one hell of a ridiculous ride - however!"

The Poetry Shelf

One for the Road
Randall McNair
Bits of Steak Press
9798986089515, $24.99, HC, 138pp
9798986089508, $11.99, PB, 137pp

Poetry enthusiasts who choose the fourth book of Randall McNair's Bar Poems series should anticipate one thing in advance: prepare to be amazed. These aren't your usual literary philosophical blends, but gritty observations of life that test the heart, mind, and literary soul of its readers. One for the Road offers poems about booze, babes, and the world of drinking problems and solutions. Sometimes it's a cocktail of love, and sometimes it's a beer of busted dreams.

McNair reflects his own proclivity for the honesty of drinking versus teetotalers who eschew the bottle: "I'm so tired of/people who are sober every day./I can't understand those who are just/going through the motions of living- /they never hallucinate/they never go mad/they never puke on their bosses/in the middle of the sales meeting./They just go around drinking milk/with their steak/potatoes/green bean casserole,/they never get up..."

While AA members may reject some of the observations and reflections in this collection, One for the Road isn't written for them. It's written for the non-poetry reader who thinks the usual staid verse and its high-falutin pretension precludes the kinds of emotional honesty represented in this book. It's written for the drunks who normally don't see their lives reflected in art; for the streetwise who find the normal poetic effort alien and unconnected to their lives; for the rapper and poet used to musical interludes who will find equal power in written words that touch upon matters of the heart.

Written to offend and inquire, such works as "Prayer for a Drunk Mediocreite" defies the logic and usual progress of the poetic form and content to reach those whose lives resonate with similar threads of anger, loathing, and disappointment: "Our Father who art/disappointed in me,/what's your name again?/I've had a few/and seem to have forgotten." Even Death doesn't take a holiday in this collection, but is right there with the reader and author " Dot's Coffee Shop pushing his eggs/from one side of the plate to the other/his coffee cold and black inside his cup/his scythe leaned up against the coat rack/his head bowed in sadness."

While contemporary poetry collections will want to include One for the Road for its real-world subject and style, ideally the book won't just repose alongside its genre companions, but will be chosen to enlighten and amaze the younger generation with the possible routes poetry can employ to connect with real-life experiences.

Poetry discussion groups, especially those including topics rappers and contemporary artists would enjoy, will find One for the Road a unique collection that doesn't just demand attention, but promises to revise opinions of what poetry is and the types of audiences it can reach who reside outside the usual literary circles. It's very highly recommended for its unique voice and ongoing connections between drinking, life, and death.

The Christian Studies Shelf

New Testament Readings & Devotionals, Volume 2
C.M.H. Koenig (compiler)
C.M.H. Koenig Books (through IngramSpark)
9781956475272, $14.99 Paperback

Having completed his devotional guidebooks for the Old Testament of the Bible, C.M.H. Koenig continues his structure and its accessible, meaningful outreach to Bible students with the second volume of New Testament Readings & Devotionals. As with his other study guides, selected Biblical passages are interpreted and considered by Robert Hawker, Charles H. Spurgeon, and Octavius Winslow. These three scholarly thinkers add the critical inspections and considerations that connect Biblical passages to daily life. In this volume, readings come from most of Acts, James, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. This covers Christ's ascension into heaven, Pentecost, and events through Paul's third missionary trip. The books of each are the chapter headings, making it easy to link the devotionals with Biblical readings for scholars seeking further cross-referencing and enlightenment.

Each reading is generally a chapter, with the excerpted devotional accompanying those providing deeper inspections that encourage Biblical students to analyze and savor Scripture in a different, more studious manner. Footnotes provide further Biblical references for students who would continue their studies prompted by the passages and devotionals designed to test reader knowledge and spiritual reflection. The opportunities for enlightenment and better understanding of not just the Word of God but its presence in daily life are many. Throughout this connection between Scripture and devotional, readers receive admonitions and rich encouragement to link Christian concepts to daily living.

From the heart and soul of a believer to what it means to walk in Christ's footsteps, led by the Biblical guides represented in the Book and interpreted with joyful reflection here, readers receive a rare opportunity to conduct in-depth studies even if they are not of the scholarly ilk. Meanwhile, Bible reading groups and study circles receive a guided devotional that helps them better absorb the full meaning of Christ and God's word. The second book of the New Testament comes to life under Koenig's organizational prowess and the analyses of these three contributors.

Bible students who would conduct guided independent study or work in discussion groups will find New Testament Readings & Devotionals Volume 2 and its predecessors an ongoing opportunity for better spiritual understanding and enlightenment.

The Metaphysical Studies Shelf

The Kabbalah of Light
Catherine Shainberg
Inner Traditions
9781644114742, $19.99

The Kabbalah of Light: Ancient Practices to Ignite the Imagination and Illuminate the Soul links ancient Jewish mystical traditions with modern-day lives in a step-by-step guide that helps readers understand the practice of Kabbalah. It's the perfect item of choice for those that would base their modern choices and approaches on time-tested techniques. It provides well over a hundred short exercises and practices designed to help readers tap their subconscious in new ways that lead to transformational experiences.

Catherine Shainberg's focus on fast techniques allows even the busiest modern reader access to the Kabbalah of Light, originating over 800 years ago, to use the modernized practices that will help them address being stuck in any life situation, helping direct choices using ancient traditions. These are meditative, inspirational directives that not only encourage visionary experiences, but add the insight and intentions that help guide readers. The solidity of daily life "doesn't have concreteness."

In contrast, the dream state offers freedom. The trick lies in learning better techniques for accessing, experiencing, and interpreting its wisdom, and that's where the Kabbalah of Light and this guidebook come into play.

Meditators and metaphysical readers, as well as those interested in self-help psychology, will find these practices accessible and encouraging. Indeed, anyone who feels "stuck" in life and who searches for routines that bring wisdom and enlightenment will find The Kabbalah of Light the perfect starting point for transformation, whether they are Jewish or not. Spirituality and inspirational libraries will find the book holds only one prerequisite: the ability to not just accept a different path for accessing subconscious patterns, but the willingness to self-examine and change.

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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