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California Bookwatch

Volume 16, Number 10 October 2021 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Biography Shelf Self-Help Shelf
General Fiction Shelf Historical Fiction Shelf Literary Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Poetry Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

Alabama Grandson
Cedrick D. Bridgeforth
Precocity Press
9781737353959, $19.95

Alabama Grandson: A Black, Gay Minister's Passage Out of Hiding details Cedrick D. Bridgeforth's coming out journey, his family relationships, and the processes of both living in hiding and finally revealing the truth to loved ones and those around him. It's a familiar story on one level, and yet the spiritual and social impact of being a black Southern minister adds extra dimensions of dilemma and complexity to the story.

The hard-hitting preface, a letter to his dead grandmother, provides an early inkling of how soul-wrenching his experience is: "On the short walk from my car to your gravesite across the ankle-high Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda strands, I'm consumed with anguish. Would you appreciate who I have become? Would you accept me or would you rebuff me? You were a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin; you were Southern Baptist, working class, conservative. You had a sixth-grade education. You were a seamstress, a midwife, and a great cook. You were impeccable with housework, a wiz in the garden, thrifty, a generous giver. Yet you never came across as a complex person. You were settled and secure in who you were. I crave a similar clarity and confidence in my own life. But instead, I have struggled to embrace my own identities and celebrate my existence. I learned to lie about who I am. I learned to hide in plain sight."

These contrasts between lifestyles, inherent belief systems, social experience, and close-knit bonds tested by Bridgeforth's efforts to stay true to family and self alike make for engrossing reading. While gay readers will readily relate to these experiences (and perhaps will be the most likely audience for this memoir), it's the Southern or black reader who really should be the interested party, here.

Alabama Grandson is as much about being black and religious in the South as it is about a truth the author struggled to reveal, both in himself and to the world. It incorporates his entire experience, from moving to California for new opportunities and the engagement he entered into, to his evolving decision to stay true to himself. As Bridgeforth reflects on his own steady family's heritage and remaining unresolved questions about its legacy, the dissolution of relationships he'd hoped would last forever, and the importance of solid life lessons he absorbed from his upbringing, readers receive an unusually astute consideration of how he comes to live a more authentic life, incorporating this background into not just his development, but his vision of the future.

Alabama Grandson reviews more than just a gay man's coming out experience. It's the story of how family heritage passes along values and approaches to life that remain vivid, relevant, and powerful under the most challenging conditions. It's a powerful story of the South, of love, of black men and oppression, and of self-realization that leaves readers thinking long after Bridgeforth's story concludes, with another powerful letter to his grandmother celebrating his journey.

The Narcissism of Small Differences: A Noir Detective Novel
Dennis Dorgan
9781098392284 $4.99 ebook
9781098392277 $16.99 pbk

The Narcissism of Small Differences is a fast-paced story that opens with a mix-up situation when a different ten-year-old child, Belfast-born Conor, is delivered to Grandmother Raven than the anticipated Ojibwe child Henri. The substitute child is mute, but Grandmother compels Conor to reveal his story to her through a series of blinks. What emerges is a striking account of a conjoined twin separated from his brother, who died during the procedure. His fate was sealed when a bomb planted at a restaurant mixed his identity with that of Henri Bouchard, who remained in a foster home in St. Paul while Conor wound up sent to the Grand Portage Indian Reservation and Grandmother Raven.

Fate is a strange thing. Cody's death has resulted in alienation and suffering. The mix-up between the boys brings with it new possibilities.

The story quickly moves to an investigative probe of a psychopathic serial killer. Delaney is a smart detective with a hidden talent for hypnosis and detecting lies. These twin abilities heighten his effectiveness and will prove a required asset to track a killer whose signature method involves placing an apple in his victims' throats. Henri Bouchard's involvement in the evolving case, a police culture that reduces criminal activity but comes with a heavy price tag in an Agreement between police forces and criminal organizations, and the mystery of who killed Katheen Martin coalesce in a read that embraces different cultures and the forces driving them. Dennis Dorgan is skilled at evolving a whodunit detective piece that works on many different levels. From tribal gifts and abilities to see differing forms of darkness and light to Owl Eyes Conor's realization that "“These divisions are the children born of narcissism and fear. They are the kind of small differences that have led to patriotism, bigotry, cruelty and war,” The Narcissism of Small Differences's messages about fate, psychic forces and abilities, choice, and leftover impacts of childhood experience makes for a gripping story. Readers looking for intrigue and detective stories that operate on many different levels will find The Narcissism of Small Differences more demanding (and thus more satisfying) than your typical crime piece. Its embrace of others cultures, perspectives, and life challenges create a multifaceted read that is satisfyingly complex and thoroughly engrossing.

The Biography Shelf

Lancaster Bakery
Anita Hinson Cauthen
Warren Publishing
9781954614277, $28.90

Lancaster Bakery: Thank You, Come Back to See Us blends a memoir with a cookbook, juxtaposing recipes with memories as it explores the family history of a small Southern bakery that operated during the 1950s and 60s in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Anita Hinson Cauthen's childhood was influenced by this family business, which affected her world and that of her identical twin sister Rita. From the processes, interactions, and personal and business relationships of the extended family that ran this icon of success to its intimate depiction of bygone times and a vanished way of life, Lancaster Bakery pairs sweet memories with bakery recipes adapted for home cooks in a manner that will delight readers seeking more than just another collection of restaurant specialties.

The memoir is arranged "...into small sections, based on the seasons and my childhood memories, each with its own tastes, smells, and emotions." These digestible pieces allow for easy reading based not on the usual recipe oriented format, but the seasons, experiences, and celebrations that marked special bakery days and processes. Through Cauthen's eyes and memories, readers gain a sense of Lancaster then and now as an 1896 town primed for success with the opening of the Lancaster Cotton Mill changed into a commuter town in 1993 when the mill closed, forcing residents to locate jobs further afield.

Of special note, too, are the vintage black and white photos liberally peppered throughout which mark such notable bakery achievements as Belk's regal birthday anniversary cake, proudly labeled and served with

Famous Tetley's Tea'. The price and personality of the bakery's production and the era are captured in these compelling images of yesteryear. As for the recipes, there are many surprises, from a Japanese Fruit Cake of raisins, apples, and spices to Oatmeal Rocks Cookies...which may sound unappetizing, but which are packed with pecans, oatmeal, and raisins and are based on a vanilla pound cake mix. Bakery best-sellers are arranged in their own chapter, while other baked goods receive profile.

Juxtaposing the accounts of community, business, and social changes are observations of sister Rita, who suffered from epilepsy that led to researcher interest in why one twin had the condition while the other did not, and resulted in her twin leading a socially isolated life. The insights on how busy bakery seasons formed the foundations of family life are particularly well presented, woven into the bakery recipes that will attract cooks interested in regional bakery fare. These bring the recipes to life by adding a special ingredient not usually seen in the ordinary cookbook - the personal touch of experience and loving memory.

Lancaster Bakery: Thank you, Come Back to See Us offers a bit of something for everyone, and will attract memoir readers interested in culinary journeys and local history. But it also holds the fine taste of history for anyone who would absorb the flavor of small-town living in bygone years.

The Married Widow
Diane E. Papalia Zappa
Bold Story Press
9781954805026, $17.99

When Diane Papalia met Bob Zappa, each felt a powerful connection at first sight. There was only one problem. They both were married. And neither would commit to each other and give up their vows and partners. So far, this story feels familiar. But, add the thought that their encounters would continue over a twenty-seven year period and The Married Widow begins to assume a countenance few other love stories can match.

Diane Papalia met Bob in 1986, but it wasn't until 2013 that they could cement their ongoing connection. Before that happened, there was divorce, breakups between them, and a storm of connection and adversity that operated on many different levels. All these are described here, along with family relationships and influences.

Bob Zappa's famous brother, Frank Zappa, and his family are explored in the course of a love story that lives beyond death. Papalia Zappa's experience with psychic Drew, who transmits additional comfort from the afterlife, is equally intriguing, testifying to the timelessness of love's bonds. How does love endure the test of time and the challenges of separation and life experience? Papalia Zappa provides some answers in her story, but she also crafts powerful insights into how this process works long-term.

The Married Widow is an involving account, highly recommended for readers who enjoy love stories, and who are intrigued by the process of connections that grow over decades, leading lovers in unexpected directions that always come back to each other. This memoir of love and faith will reach into many hearts and deserves a place not just in biography collections, but in romance and spirituality sections as a solid segue between romance fiction and life's reality.

The Self-Help Shelf

Move Over, I'm Driving!
Damian McGee
McGee Legacy LLC
9781736882900, $21.00

Reading Move Over, I'm Driving! A Road Map for Reclaiming Control of Your Life is like pressing 'restart' on one's computer. It's about rejecting conventional ways of approaching one's problems and life in favor of cultivating paths that lead away from failure and self-flagellation and onto better roads of success. This approach is especially recommended for self-help readers who already have had some therapy or read some inspirational books, but still feel stuck.

Damian McGee has "been there/done that," and is in an excellent position to tell what makes a difference, what is useful, and how seemingly-helpful advice can serve as an obstacle to growth. As in a cookbook where the heart of the title lies in the main course, the dishes of advice served up here surround the crux of a contention that " approach focuses on the various situations that alter our reality, cause us to lose focus on our goals, and try to shift our priorities from what we want to what someone else deems to be a priority." The key lies in identifying and separating outside forces from one's perspectives about life and the pursuit of happiness and success.

As chapters move through this process of identifying better routes to change, they identify the many typical self-help admonitions that actually can translate to slowing or limiting opportunities for transformation.

Refuting typical self-help guidelines, McGee provides the reasons why so many of these well-meaning approaches don't work. Their limitations lie in how they are translated into action and how they can serve to increase pressure and ennui rather than alleviating these forces. As exercises, real-life examples, and admonitions about reality and change come to light, readers receive a real game plan for personal change, a better vision of what constitutes success, and a course of action rooted not in just ideals, but in clues on how to build a real momentum towards that identifies opportunities and teaches how to keep moving forward.

It's that last piece that truly sets Move Over, I'm Driving! apart from other self-help books. When momentum is achieved, all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. This guide provides all the tricks and tips and covers all the pitfalls involved in this process, and should be considered a "must" for those who have felt bludgeoned or trapped by their own desires and the typical self-help approach, and who are looking for something different with a better path forward. Self-help libraries will want to consider Move Over, I'm Driving! a key acquisition.

The General Fiction Shelf

Twisted Silver Spoons
Karen M. Wicks
Atmosphere Press
9781637528198, $18.99

Twisted Silver Spoons is an atmospheric story about the legacy of heir George Leibnitz, who struggles with the wealth and power he is destined to control. The prologue, set in 1985, describes this scenario: "The silver spoon lodged in George's throat was choking the life out of him." From this introduction, events circle around "a continent of stifling duty" as George faces an inheritance of power, sinister possibilities surrounding his grandfather's death, and family influences upon the roles he and other family members were born into and are expected to assume.

George's complex relationships receive another layer of possibility when he meets M, who shakes George's resolve and invites him to assume a different position in his family than the path which has been predetermined for him. Can he increase the family's wealth and follow tradition while remaining true to his desire to support philanthropic programs? George operates in a world of yachts and Fire Island and Martha's Vineyard gentry, and is feeling hemmed in. His heart's desire seems to clash with his inheritance. His relationship with M seems to challenge his belief that his future is set in stone and not under his control - but, first, he'll have to deal with an equally powerful, alluring young woman who wields her own power in his life in an unexpected way.

Karen M. Wicks is adept at capturing the world of the rich and politically interconnected. Her portrait of George's dilemmas, relationships (both within and outside the family), and the mysteries and influences which dictate its course is astute and realistic. The dilemmas George faces are not singular, but are many as he looks for a more forceful, engaging approach to life, but finds many of his desires thwarted from unexpected connections in the past and influences on his future. As M becomes George's fiancee, her role in this family also falls into question as inheritance, motivations, greed, and manipulations come into play from many sides.

Wicks provides a satisfying blend of psychological suspense, mystery, and family interactions that keeps readers involved in George's choices and possibilities. Hers is a portrait of wealth and obsession that will especially intrigue women interested in family dynamics and the influence of prosperity and family history on heirs who would change their worlds in a different way.

Twisted Silver Spoons is highly recommended as an intriguing story of George's pursuit of love and meaning both within and beyond his family upbringing. It calls into question what is valuable, and considers how a family's dreams for its future can incorporate different visions of success.

Runaway Train
S.W. Capps
D. X. Varos, Ltd.
9781955065047, $18.95 (paperback); $4.99 (ebook)

Runaway Train opens in 1987 Oklahoma, where young man Bill Stacy receives a job offer that leads him to move across seven states to accept a new career as a reporter, just as a serial arsonist threatens Texomaland. Perhaps even more key to events is the fact that the Fairness Doctrine guiding and limiting reporting has just been suspended, creating an instant, ratings-driven environment in which TV news will do anything to encourage sensational news and viewer attention.

Stacy finds himself in a maelstrom of political and social confrontation as the job becomes one of not just numbers, but challenging ethical and moral conundrums in the pursuit of success. S.W. Capps does a fine job of melding political, social, and personal tipping points, from Stacy's mother's stroke to behind-the-scenes manipulations in the name of better ratings as part of the fallout from the Fairness Act's cancellation. In many ways, the era of honest reporting's transition to an entertainment-value medium is reflected in these pages and Stacy's experience.

This will especially attract and delight media professionals and anyone who has wondered why the news of modern times doesn't hold the same feel and, often, authority of that in past decades. From the investigative suspense story that evolves to the social and political issues that reach into news reporting, Capps is adept at capturing all sides of the story and the dilemmas that emerge when reporter and news become entwined with special interests and the drive for financial reward.

Runaway Train is a novel that is compelling on many different levels, from social commentary to intrigue and personal revelations. It's a story especially highly recommended to anyone interested in media relations and politics, but will equally captivate those who just want a solid, fast-paced action piece in which a newsman author inspects the process and demise of unbiased reporting methods.

Rich Marcello
Moonshine Cove Publishing
9781952439117, $14.00 paperback, $6.99 Kindle,

It seems unlikely that retired do-gooder Ben Sanna and New York hedge fun manager Samantha Beckett would move outside their comfort zones to form a relationship, but in Cenotaphs, they meet in Vermont and marry their disparate interests and concerns in an unexpected manner.

Ben's story opens with a philosophical contemplation of his life: "The parts recur - the son, the lover, the husband, the father, the friend, the citizen. They come in whispers and fragments, in the unwinding of memory. They come in your smile, in the laughter of our children, in nightmares, in bursts of violence against once precious objects. How do you gauge the parts of a life? Did I perform any of them well? How do you summon them into an unfettered whole?"

Ben's longing for "a more structured time" and his attempts to reconcile past with present and his evolving memory and feeling of loss contrasts with Sam Beckett's detour off the highway, which brings her into Ben's world. Sam has developed her own unique method of establishing her power and abilities in any encounter with strangers. She's never met a wise, kind old man like Ben. Ben doesn't think he is either, but he has cultivated the finer art of listening well.

As the two interact on different levels, their viewpoints change. So does the reader's expectations of their relationship and the process of entwining lives later in life.

Rich Marcello does a fine job of exploring these transition points. Readers can expect a good degree of philosophical reflection on aging and growth as Ben surveys his present and considers the past events that brought him to this point.

He's especially good at presenting perspectives that embrace both the aging process and the evolution of a special brand of wisdom that allow Ben unexpected flexibility and understanding later in life. Sam and Ben are on track to be completely honest with one another - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Their relationship, revelations, and the impact of their choices both in the past and with each other create a powerful story of love, loss, and how friendships and connections evolve. This will attract audiences interested in the aging process and the value of love in later life.

Thought-provoking, poignant, and psychologically gripping, Cenotaphs offers a satisfying emotional inspection that is revealing and passionate: a rare glimpse into platonic love, friendship, and later-life changes.

The Best Thing About Bennett
Irene Wittig
Independently Published
9798746367600, $13.99 Paper/$19.99 Hardcover/$3.99 Kindle/$15.99 Large Print Edition

Bennett Hall is taking early retirement against her will, but she's prepared to make the move with good grace. She's become "increasingly invisible" in her job anyway, so the move, after twenty-seven years with Bancroft, Chandler and Co., is not entirely unexpected. Deemed professionally competent but socially incompetent, Bennett has persevered up to the point that her loyalty to the Company is rewarded by being let go, escorted out the door by a security guard.

Tired of the rat race of familiarity, Bennett decides to cultivate a quieter life. But fate intervenes to introduce her to handsome widower Joe Muir and his two adopted Ugandan children; and with this event, many new possibilities divert her from her plan of self-isolation and quiet living. As Bennett absorbs the poignant story of his losses, his childrens' trials and hidden fears, and how Joe came to end up in Wilmington, she is "shaken by the recognition of her own weaknesses" and comes to feel that her goals in life may be wider-ranging and more important than her quest to isolate and quietly vanish. Bennett keeps secrets of her failures from Joe, yet continues to explore new possibilities that even lead to a new possible career. Her evolution will delight women who look for novels replete with growth and insights into how meaningful connections are formed in later life.

Irene Wittig is especially astute in following Bennett's upward learning curve, showing how Bennett moves from a staid life to one in which risks are taken and opportunities are not only perceived, but grasped with both hands. Bennett's search for left-behind older girl Grace sends her to Uganda on a mission that is about redemption, resolution, and love. Her ability to move far past her carefully construed comfort zone to reach into the world results in rewards that introvert-type readers will especially appreciate for their challenges and difficulty. Readers of women's literature will relish this eye-opening saga of personal and interpersonal transformation.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

The Sword of David
Charles Lichtman
Bombardier Books
c/o Post Hill Press
9781637580066, $28.00 Hardcover/$9.99 ebook

The Sword of David is a high-octane thriller on the level of an Indiana Jones-style international treasure hunt - but with more political subterfuge added, for good measure.

The story opens in 70 A.D., when the Jews are anticipating a reign of destruction by the Romans. 55,000 Jews have already perished at their hands in one month. General Titus is about to lead his army on a final offensive to eradicate them entirely. Mordechai and a temple High Priest are convinced that God will save them...but in very different ways. Their actions to protect the treasured Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments lead to a centuries-old mystery that reaches into the future in Chapter 1, which opens in 2019 Jerusalem. Here, Chaim Klein, an Israeli Special Forces officer, stumbles on a dangerous artifact that attracts Islamic organizations that embark on a modern-day reign of terror designed to destroy Western and Israeli interests alike.

Klein finds himself not only at the center of this swirling controversy, but wielding the Sword of David as he pursues dreams and struggles with nightmares. From Muslims for Peace rallies in London to an effort by Klein and his boss, Dan Beer, to track down the treasures and avoid even greater disasters than are already brewing,

The Sword of David is a story of struggle and the survival of Jews against the forces that would bring down civilization. Charles Lichtman brings a great deal of history into his story, but does so in a way that is inviting, revealing, and tied into the adventure component of the plot. This means that Middle East history, archaeology, religion, and influences are imparted seamlessly to support the blossoming drama, making it easy for non-history readers to absorb while delighting those already somewhat versed in the historic events of the region, past and present. Lichtman also does an excellent job of building tension, mystery, and interpersonal connections as he pits various factions against one another in a cat-and-mouse game revolving around an ancient world's most precious truths and relics.

A host of colorful characters on both sides of the conflict immerse readers in events which revolve around a biblical dilemma and a world-hopping struggle not just between Islamic and Western political entities, but between religious groups. How these groups either support or vie with one another, Khaled's growing position of power (which leads to a choice of whether to destroy world leaders in a single gesture or await the opportunity to take out some of the most revered religious icons in history), and a network of cells involved in deadly pursuits that is awakened and set to detonate makes for heady description and nonstop action.

The depth added by religious and historical insights, paired with a close attention to detail, makes The Sword of David a powerful thriller. The story draws from the start, builds a solid foundation based on historical and religious facts, and leads to a fiery conclusion that leaves the door open for more while firmly resolving the dilemmas created by missing treasures and ethnic groups locked in a centuries-old struggle.

Thriller readers who like strong characters, solid explorations of history and belief, and an action-packed treasure hunt driving disparate forces will relish the powerful twists and turns and events of The Sword of David, which should be a mainstay in any thriller collection.

Pursuit: The American Way
Thomas Holladay
Cinema Enterprises
B098KZCZSG, $4.99

Pursuit: The American Way is sequel to Deliberate Justice: The American Way and brings back that novel's main character, Major, the Count Mikhail Diebitsch-Zabalkansky as Mike Zabel (Count Mike), a San Francisco Family man. He holds the limelight as a relentless killer operates against the backdrop of early post-Civil War San Francisco. Pursuit takes place on many levels, from Mike's pursuit of a murderous cannibal who threatens Mike's family and home to the hunt of justice for immigrants of different races while he fights old foes who arrive in San Francisco seeking vengeance for perceived wrongs of the past.

While familiarity with Mike's history in the previous novel will lend a special appreciation for the background that leads to events in Pursuit, newcomers will easily fall into the story's present circumstances and references to past history as they absorb Count Mike's latest adventures. No longer a Russian immigrant learning about American ways, he's found a solid place for himself in San Francisco, and is respected by many. His involvement in the social and political issues of his times is personalized by confrontations with friends, enemies, and a social order shaken by a sadistic killer whose objectives are forever changing and deadly.

Thomas Holladay neatly walks the line between history, action, and adventure as he narrates the story, incorporating early California history and personalizing events through the eyes of the Count, his family and friends, and those who oppose him. The result is a fine, multifaceted story that brings the times to life without requiring any knowledge about the era or the prior book's adventure. Pursuit: The American Way is historical fiction at its best. It's lively, replete with changing dilemmas, and features a central character who continues to find his way in America's culture, introducing a broad spectrum of special interests and approaches that influence San Francisco's growth. This compelling story provides just the right amount of psychological and social inspection to keep the tale vivid and fast-paced to the end.

The Price of Betrayal
Phillip Otts
D.X. Varos, Ltd.
9781955065061, $18.95 Paper/$4.99 ebook

Historical fiction readers who choose The Price of Betrayal will discover that Phillip Otts spins another fine tale set in Civil War times. It's especially recommended for those already familiar with and following the prior Harvey and McCrary series titles because its grand finale ties in so well to these prior events, providing a satisfying conclusion to the saga of brothers John and Martin, who share a father but very little else.

Indeed, John and Martin represent the epitome of the nation's divide. Harvey is a freed slave and John is white. When a shipwreck throws them together, their heritage and the backdrop of war changes their lives and perceptions.

In The Price of Betrayal, the brothers' experience at Fort Sumter is long over, and they have parted. Years later, McCrary's daughter locates her uncle, who is hiding and living in the Caribbean where the family narrative he relates continues to affect and change new generations. Harvey's dream of making a new life for himself and his family hasn't come to fruition, and murder has left him isolated with dreams that never came true.

The arrival of his niece awakens the pain of these losses, and as he and Anne McEachen share their family stories and make new discoveries about truths they hadn't known before, their lives and perceptions of past, present and future changes.

The stories of heroes, traitors, and American involvements in the Caribbean move from American soil to international waters as Harvey becomes involved in rebellion, attacks, and the lasting impact of America's slavery actions and history. The fight in Charleston has followed him to the Sea Islands. Will he ever find peace, and will the conflict ever subside? From Reconstruction politics and processes to how life in the Caribbean was affected by events on American soil, Phillip Otts brings all the social, political, and personal facets of change to life.

Readers who want a much broader inspection of the Civil War's effects at home and abroad will find Otts especially adept at translating this history into personal lives and perceptions. His focus on loyalty, courage, betrayal, and the lasting price of civil war brings the times to life, adding the final piece of the puzzle for prior fans of the two brothers and their tumultuous times. As a powerful conclusion to the story, The Price of Betrayal should not be missed.

The Literary Fiction Shelf

The Pursued and the Pursuing
A.J. Odasso
DartFrog Books
9781953910875, $17.99 paper/$4.99 Kindle

Readers of LBGTQ romance will find much to like about The Pursued and the Pursuing, which builds upon F. Scott Fitzgerald's literary classic The Great Gatsby. Quite a different turn of events takes place when Jay Gatsby survives the bullet to take on a very different life and pursuit of happiness - with a man. Gatsby is not the only Fitzgerald character to return from the dead. Daisy Buchanan, too, reappears...only to find that Nick and Gatsby are a couple who have built a life together - a beacon of hope for her teenage daughter, Pam, who envisions a different life than the one toward which her parents are trying to steer her.

Narrated by Nick, Jay's companion, The Pursued and the Pursuing romps through Gatsby's world with an attention to social norms, changing ideals and values, and a brand of honesty flourished by Pam that challenges the adults around her. Wry humor, observational ironies, and social inspections embrace the diverse personalities of Gatsby, Nick, Pam, and Daisy, producing thought-provoking conversations and delightful moments. As Pam and Daisy change Nick and Jay's lives, readers who have recently reread The Great Gatsby will, in particular, delight at AJ Odasso's ability to stay true to literary precedent while formulating a very unusual take on Gatsby's evolution.

Readers of the classic who want a contemporary twist and the same attention to social inspection, but carried a notch further, will find The Pursued and the Pursuing an excellent tour de force, and a fun extrapolation of events.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The Reversible Mask
Loretta Goldberg
MadeGlobal Publishing
9788494853951, $21.99 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Readers of historical mysteries will appreciate the Elizabethan backdrop of The Reversible Mask, as well as its vivid portrait of 1500s life. Sir Edward Latham makes the difficult decision to turn his back on family heritage, title, and political position in favor of following the Catholic religion, traveling to continental Europe. As Europe's religious wars rise to threaten his Protestant family in England, Latham must choose between religion, country, and family in a difficult decision that leads him to accept the role of being a spy for Queen Elizabeth.

Loretta Goldberg does an exceptional job of depicting Latham's uncertain balance between loyalty and belief. Her ability to inject suspense and thriller components into a historical setting and then add elements of social and philosophical reflection for a broader mix of dilemmas and subjects creates a full-faceted story that nicely captures the times. Goldberg is especially adept at portraying conflicting matters of the heart that keep Latham second-guessing his decisions and their consequences. He occupies a unique and tricky position in the world that affords him many opportunities as well as unprecedented conundrums. This is as starkly portrayed as the actions that place him in jeopardy in a world of spymasters also working behind the scenes.

Both dialogue and setting are compellingly written: "Elizabeth turned in front of a gilded heraldic falcon on top of a striped pole. She eyed her spymaster without sympathy "Dour thoughts, Master Moor. Is hatred of this Dutch/Spanish truce braiding your gut? You'll have to stop shrewing me to send English troops, the perils of which you won't see." From battle strategy to pirates, Spanish warships, and political manipulations, Elizabeth's rule is shaken by spies, intelligence, and complex missions on both sides.

While readers might expect that some basic familiarity with the times is a prerequisite for enjoying this historical thriller, Goldberg provides all the background needed, winding it seamlessly into a series of encounters that test her protagonist's resolve, religious convictions, and political savvy. Sit back and enjoy the cat-and-mouse games which play out in 1500s Europe. It's a story that will prove as engrossing to newcomers to the times as those already well versed in its culture and setting.

American Conspiracy
M. J. Polelle
Lido Press
9780960086320, $14.95 paper/$3.99 ebook

Imagine you are in charge of protecting the President of the United States. Picture that a quick lapse in your attention resulted in his assassination. Wouldn't you try to make amends for your terrible failure? American Conspiracy takes this scenario and turns it upside down as Chicago police detective Jim Murphy struggles to address his failures, his ruined career, and a new case involving the disappearances of several Chicago gang members. But there's more going on than redemption and ruin, here, because young vice president Dallas Taylor is thrust into power to confront the likelihood of a conspiracy that continues to threaten not just the highest levels of political circles, but America herself.

M. J. Polelle creates a tense thriller that explores both political and personal circles of challenge within two very different individuals who both struggle with their vastly revised roles and duties. As Sebastian Senex and his gang plot a coup that will change the face of America, perceiving Dallas Taylor to be a threat to the nation, D.C. politics and personalities clash in efforts which should be uniform, but often work against one another. Polelle builds tension through fine characterization and quickly changing circumstances that intersect the special interests of the Chicago Police Department and Capitol cops. From issues of trust to international influences on America's politicians and criminal influences, Polelle creates a multifaceted journey which holds no predictable conclusion as it traverses many complex relationships that operate on different levels.

Many experienced thriller readers won't see many of these twists and turns coming. And even the most seasoned genre fan will find American Conspiracy replete in a social and political arena and investigation that is as much about ideals and perceptions as about solving a murder mystery. With the added injection of romance into the story, American Conspiracy becomes a close inspection of idealism, values gone awry, and good intentions turned bad. Its political suspense story and mystery will thoroughly engross readers seeking a solid examination that embraces different generations of Americans and the chasms between their beliefs and commitments. This becomes a solidly thought-provoking, action-packed story that's hard to predict or put down.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Powers Revealed
C. T. Fitzgerald
Emerald Books
9781954779105. $14.99 Paper/$2.99 Kindle

Powers Revealed is the second book in a series, provides an introduction of the story's main players, which helps newcomers absorb the setting, in the opening preface, and cements the action with a mission by ship captain Torvyn Lok to learn what is happening to his country. His decision to sneak into a small fishing village with a few men to gain information leads them straight into danger on the island nation of Athlan, which is in the throes of tearing itself apart. Stellar Angeals Cath and Dorchada, power brokers for the Celestial Travelers, have unleashed their forces to stir the pot of rebellion and battle. What has Athlan come to?

Lok wonders about the source of its struggles as he faces giants with strange powers and comes to acknowledge that Athlan's strength in the face of them may fall far short of anything that could bring success. Sith-ast, one of the Mighty Twelve, servant of the Bas Croi, Soldier of Darkness, seems to be invincible, and the microcosm of the island's conflict portends a broader battle in which the struggle for Earth seems doomed. As Lok faces dire circumstances and the impact of his decisions, the battle appears to be heavily weighed in favor of the forces of darkness. C. T. Fitzgerald takes the classic good-versus-evil confrontation and gives it a satisfying twist.

Epic fantasy readers who appreciate vivid battle scenes juxtaposed with thought-provoking considerations of how good intentions can win over evil forces will relish the action and insights featured in Powers Revealed. Fitzgerald excels in depicting a range of characters affected by the battle for the planet and the dilemmas faced not just by those who oppose these devastating forces, but those who operate under the Angeal's direction. The result is an especially delightful conflict strengthened by the questions presented on both sides as events unfold, blurring the line between good and evil with a gray area that keeps readers involved and guessing about outcomes and motivations.

Powers Revealed is an epic fantasy especially recommended for prior readers of the first book in the series, as well as those who like battle scenes marked by massive struggles between humans and non-human opponents who all become caught up in the machinery of war; puppets, perhaps, until the end.

The God Question and The Galapagos Colony
Stan Freeman
Hampshire House Publishing Co.
9781734438444, $13.95

The appearance of two novellas under one cover in The God Question and The Galapagos Colony assures that readers receive a thought-provoking juxtaposition of hard sci-fi and spiritual philosophy that dovetail nicely with one another.

What would you ask an all-intelligent being if you had only one question? "The God Question" presents a supercomputer AI that, when brought on line, attacks the internet and status quo so much that it is shut down as a threat. What isn't stopped is mankind's determination to find answers to the biggest question of all. This means restarting a singularity that could change not just human beings, but their perception of their place in the universe.

Sci-fi and religion are on a collision course, here. As IVAN attempts to impart the truth about the biggest question of all, a human-computer interface develops which questions the wellsprings of humanity itself. As IVAN keeps resetting and the question and its answer remain oblique, readers receive a satisfying blend of thriller, philosophical and spiritual reflection, and social consideration that takes an unexpected journey in questioning who is the top dog - humans or machine? Who really holds the answers? And why ask a machine without emotions about the sources of human love, pain, and longing? What is really being asked?

Stan Freeman's novella offers thought-provoking inspections, suspense, and surprises throughout. It will particularly delight hard sci-fi readers looking for an AI story of a different ilk. In contrast, "The Galapagos Colony" takes place not on Earth, but in space in 2242, where a lost spaceship finally finds a hospitable planet, only to have all the adults die from a disease. With only a few pamphlets and directions at their disposal, the young survivors build a colony that turns in a direction very different from what the adults would have dictated.

This is brought home when, two centuries later, a probe learns of their presence and a space ship is sent to the colony to discover what this group of survivors has become, generations later. What kind of colony has grown without knowledge of human history or any cultures that were human? Will those who are cut off from humanity evolve in a different direction? As Freeman explores these questions, his fascinating story of evolution also adds issues of spiritual direction and faith to compliment a scientific process that probes an extraordinary event's outcome and impact. Both stories are interrelated, in that they consider fundamental issues of what constitutes the essence of humanity, faith, and systems of living and inquiry.

The appearance of both novellas under one cover provides an exceptional opportunity for thinking sci-fi readers to consider broader philosophical, social, and religious ideas. The two presentations compliment and support these concepts in different ways. The God Question and The Galapagos Colony is highly recommended reading for sci-fi readers who look for thought-provoking scenarios and stories.

The Girl In The Toile Wallpaper
Mary K. Savarese
Indignor House
9781953278210, $19.95 SB
9781953278203, $29.95 HB
9781953278227, E-book

Fantasy readers of all ages will find The Girl In The Toile Wallpaper an intriguing story that opens Book 1 of The Star Writers Trilogy with a bang. Twelve-year-old Tyler Charles lives in the modern world. The girl he loves, Callalyly, lives in the past - two centuries ago, to be specific. When Tyler is pulled into the two-dimensional world of the toile wallpaper and finds her there, his life changes and is never the same.

His journey into the past opens with cracking a wizard's spell. Where most stories would end on this note, it's only the beginning of Tyler's journey as he encounters Lyly, bonds with cats, and comes to realize that he'll be forever trapped within the wallpaper unless he can rescue Lyly.

Mary K. Savarese is adept at description; the details of which make this book recommendable not to middle grades, but to high school readers and older, who will appreciate the detail and complexity of her words. Fantasy readers will find Tyler's discoveries and adventures thoroughly engrossing as he encounters Lyly, considers the physics and facts that have entrapped them both, and absorbs the culture of the Houses that rule this past world and offer Lyly both hope and threat. As changing points of view ripple between humans, cats, and a range of characters, readers will delight in the conundrums that come to light from different vantage points.

Savarese is skilled at contrasting medieval and modern worlds, flowing between them in a manner that is enlightening and creates no confusion in the transition process. This creates a seamless story based not just on one or two main characters, but a host of special interests and objectives. Fantasy fans of high school age and older who look for a blend of mystery, history, and spell-binding intrigue will relish Tyler and Lyly's journeys and discoveries which defy time, space, and death. The complex story comes alive in a manner that is satisfyingly unpredictable, firmly rooted in strong characters that each draw readers into a story that is hard to put down.

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

These three new sci-fi presentations will appeal to sci-fi readers who relish new stories by Baen authors, and are highly recommended picks.

Larry Correia's Monster Hunter Bloodlines (9781982125493, $25.00) presents another Monster Hunter International story; this one about a powerful Eard Stone that has been auctioned, but could be the one weapon that can destroy the chaos god Asag once and for all. But the Stone is stolen by a thief that pitts MHI with more monsters and other special interests that introduce a new threat in the jungles of South America. A fine world-building/destroying story comes to life in another adventure especially recommended for prior MHI fans.

Travis S. Taylor and Les Johnson's Saving Proxima (9781982125509, $25.00) is set in 2071, when a radio broadcast in an unknown language is detected coming from Proxima Centauri. A debate about following up on this first contact opportunity also is complicated by the notion that the Proximans are facing extinction unless Earth can help them. Can humans conquer time and space in time to effect a rescue...and is the human race ready to share space? An engrossing story emerges that operates from many satisfying moral, ethical, and hard science foundations.

Eric Flint, Walt Boyes and Joy Ward's sequel to Flint's 1632 Ring of Fire series, Granville Grazette LX (9781982125455, $25.00) features short stories by Flint and many others who use the alternate history theme to add more adventures and encounters. Survival and history-changing dilemmas come to life as each story reveals more events and historical adventures, each with a satisfying twist. Sci-fi fans will find each of these books a strong, appealing series of adventures.

The Poetry Shelf

Granddaughter of Dust
Laura Williams
Atmosphere Press
9781637528778, $16.99

Granddaughter of Dust is a poetry collection of works that explore and expose the timeless, interconnected nature of human experience. It presents these works using a literary style that both deviates from the normal free verse and supports it in a fine, original manner.

Take the opening "The Horse Fair," which was inspired by a painting by Rosa Bonheur. The painting was "massive; precise," but what lends it life for audiences who may not have seen the image is the juxtaposition between observer and reality. There are also religious inspections which defy convention with challenging reconsiderations such as in "Mary, Mother of God": "i wonder how you,/Mary, Mother of God,/felt when the Spirit/tore through you, not even/seeking permission,/invading you/in the rape of rapes - /did you feel anger, for even/a moment, or merely pain?"

Each piece cultivates a different flow, meaning, and impact. Each offers startling contrasts between perception, experience, and belief systems. Together, the poems in collection form a representative series of questions and insights about collective experience and the dance between life and death.

Readers seeking diverse free verse formats and expressions that are as startling as they are delicately woven will find much to like and discuss in the evocative words of Laura Williams, which should be included in any modern poetry collection.

Last Call
Randall McNair
Bits of Steak Press
9781735108087, $10.99

Last Call is a poetry collection like few others. It offers a view from the barstool that gathers thoughts and experiences from the streetwise, gritty atmosphere of the saloon. Those who tend to view poetry as staid, incomprehensible, or dull will find this vivid collection of life inspections quite the opposite.

Take "The Beer at the Swinging Door Saloon (Projacked from The Swan at Edgewater Park by Ruth L. Schwartz)," for example. The poem actually opens with its title, to continue: "isn't one of those warm, half-ass beers/wouldn't be at home in some swanky, uptown joint/chooses the hefty confines/of its frosty 30 oz. mug,/prefers the parched mouths of mechanics/who pour it past their lips like engine oil/into the great tanks of their guts,/swilling it with little bits of pretzel and steak,/fermentation of grain with bouquet of hops,/while churchgoers walk by saying Look/at those giant drunks!"

These pieces are hard-hitting inspections of the writer's life, often incorporating elements of humor into their descriptions, as in "At My Funeral": "I want a girl to sing/Van Morrison's Into the Mystic/while playing the violin/and dancing around/my stiff corpse/in a skimpy white bikini,/stopping from time to time/to sprinkle my cold, dead,/blue lips with whiskey/straight from the bottle.//Not my wife - /I want my wife to sit in the front row/and stew." The surprise concluding lines to this piece explain the writer's impeccable logic in wishing for such a conclusion to and celebration of his life.

Readers seeking circumspect literary pieces should look elsewhere. Last Call's language can be course and flagrant, its descriptions challenging, and the poetic inspections anything but politically correct. Conversely, Last Call is a lesson for those who think poetry is largely inaccessible to the masses. It draws connections that blend vignettes about the writer's life with broader ironies and inspections of the world at large, often couching these poems in a sense of place to cement their themes and meaning, as in "Looking for a Lost Book When I Should Have Been Enjoying Ireland."

The purpose behind this book's inexplicable disappearance is presented at the end of an absorbing acknowledgment of the impact of a preoccupation with capturing "nuggets of wisdom" in the margins of a book. Anyone who wants a hard-hitting, sometimes raunchy, vivid poetry collection that defies convention while describing life from the barstool will find Last Call a compelling, thought-provoking read.

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

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

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