★ Belated and Other Stories
Elisabeth Russell Taylor. Kimblewood Press, 14.95 paper (266p) ISBN 978-1-4912-8531-2
The transforming power of love cripples hearts and minds in this dark, enigmatic collection from Taylor (Pillion Riders, Mother Country). In these 16 shorts, the author pierces the facade of everyday life to reveal isolation and helplessness. “Les Amantes” is a farewell to fidelity and sacred memory after a lover’s death. In “Charlotte,” a Jewish woman struggles against ghosts of conscience, need, and loyalty in post-World War II England. The dark fable “Take Care”—in which guests overrun a home—is reminiscent of the work of August Strindberg. A counselor’s security is shattered by a patient in “Supporting Roles.” What is not revealed in these tales is as dramatic as what is, with Taylor hinting at different and tantalizing narrative possibilities. These tales of longing, jealousy, and loss reveal the discomfiting effects of love on the mind, soul, and body.
Ghost at the Loom: A Novel
T. Zachary Cotler. MP Publishing, $14.95 paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-84982-245-9
Colter’s lyrical novel is an evocative, complex, and hallucinatory eulogy for reality. Wandering poet Rider Sonnenreich embarks on a surreal quest across Europe—and into the human mind—struggling to explore borderlands between reality and dream, memory and fantasy, as he searches for his sister Leya. Elegant settings are revealed as spiritual vacuums, as Rider travels Europe in the footsteps of departed poets. As the nature of existence and perception is ruthlessly challenged, so too is logic and the reader’s expectations. The result is both frustrating and heartbreaking—a haunting novel that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. Colter has written a philosophically rich antinarrative that refuses simplistic interpretation and casts doubt on much that we hold dear.
In the Shape of a Man
Paul Clayton. CreateSpace, $11.69 paper (326p) ISBN 978-1-4904-0942-9
Clayton’s (Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam) latest provides a portrait of neighboring families living in the San Francisco Bay area in 1999. Enjoying the trappings of the good life, Allen and Tina Collins find their relationship tense as Tina displays hostility toward Reynaldo, their seven-year-old adopted son, and Allen prefers ignoring the abuse to intervening. Twenty-something neighbors Rad and Tawny, meanwhile, deal with money woes, Rad’s inability to find a sponsor as a skateboarder, his hostile father, and a former roommate’s giant Burmese python, which is living in their garage. Allen’s increasing unwillingness to defend Reynaldo and his patronage of a raucous bar contrast with Tawny’s resolve to take control of her life. At times, Clayton’s novel slams the reader with its message about evil, choice, and responsibility. Tawny and Rad achieve insights about the importance and redemptive prospects of love, while the erratic Tina and the irresolute Allen show the flip side of what “the shape of a man” can conceal. The book’s contrived resolution, however, seems trite and clumsy.
The Book of Extremely Common Prayer
Nathaniel Whitten. Vitally Important Books, $8.95 paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-9774807-5-3
Whitten adapts the ancient practice of prayer to the everyday, anxiety-provoking hassles of the modern age in his humorous collection. Through his prayers, we see a narrator grappling with contemporary problems, from job interviews and finicky Wi-Fi to dieting and losing faith. What emerges is a portrait of our times that is both irreverent and tender. The narrator prays for simple things (getting his lost wallet returned and the wonders of an “automatic outdoor light sensor”) and extravagant desires (“for my screenplay to be optioned by Warner Brothers” and “to run into Scarlett Johansson and have her fall for me big time”) in his brutally honest and unmistakably human voice. Whitten blends his astute observations of modern woes with a search for meaning in the mundane to create a funny, earnest, and poignant collection of appeals.
The Demon of Stonewood: Book II of the Stonewood Trilogy
Jeremy Hayes. Northlord Publishing, $13.99 paper (321p) ISBN 978-0-9918642-2-5
In Hayes’s (The Thieves of Stonewood) second installment in the Stonewood Trilogy, Harcourt, the civic-minded and humane leader of the Thieves Guild, squares off with sinister Chief Magistrate Krommel, who, as High Priest Sarvin, covertly leads the traitorous Demon Cult. Krommel and sultry assistant Devi-Lynn plot to restore demon Lord Lucivenus to power, but need certain types of human hearts to accomplish this. Odd alliances, devious plots, and colorful characters, such as court wizard Fezzdin and luscious former pirate Evonne, keep the story moving at a quick pace. And if Hayes’s breathless plot lacks the brooding historical atmosphere or drawn-out conflict of Tolkien, his picaresque heroes not only oppose evil, but offer a rollicking good time in so doing.
The Good Lawyer
Thomas Benigno. Landview Books, $11.66 paper (338p) ISBN 978-1-4636-0481-3
Benigno presents an engaging but diffuse picture of legal skirmishing and moral ambiguity in the saga of Nick Mannino, a young attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York City. The shocking suicide of Dina Rios, who leaps to her death from the courthouse after Mannino successfully defends her rapist, introduces the conflict of a lawyer’s obligation to his client versus the claims of justice. This conflict colors Mannino’s representation of 24-year-old Pedro Guevara, accused of sexually abusing three young boys. While vigorously defending Guevara—at a time when the “Spiderman rapist” is terrorizing New York—Mannino struggles to define his relationship with wealthy girlfriend Eleanor Vernou. The interesting glimpses of courtroom procedure and a cast of eccentric characters will intrigue readers, but do not fully offset the book’s somewhat unconvincing plot.
The Many Loves of Mila
Inna Swinton. Matchgirl Press, $12.99 paper (258p) ISBN 978-0-9899930-2-9
In Swinton’s first installment in her Mila in America series, Mila Simon has a stable but unfulfilling marriage to investment banker Cliff. She finds excitement elsewhere, beginning an affair with theater director Dominic. After Mila tells Cliff about the affair but continues to have contact with Dominic, her husband leaves and she returns home to live with her Russian Jewish parents in the New Jersey suburbs. There, Mila slowly tries to put her life back together, sees a therapist, and returns to the dating scene in a major way. While Swinton delivers snappy dialogue and ably captures the nightmares of the singles scene, her protagonist is underdeveloped—and the novel suffers for it. Mila is, by turns, scattered, hysterical, and unable to take advice, and she acts without forethought, leaving readers frustrated with her character and confused about her motivations and where the narrative is going.
Myths of a Merciful God
Cynthia Celián. Little Feather Books, $16 paper (268p) ISBN 978-0-9913329-1-5
Sarah Miranda is a single mother, working hard for herself and daughter Tessie. But, when Tessie dies in a freak accident, Sarah decides to take a trip across the country to get some emotional distance from the tragedy. Along the way, she meets many people, including Jackson, a schoolteacher who becomes a friend and confidant. Sarah’s journey forces her to confront her past, her feelings, and her inability to come to terms with Tessie’s death. Ceilan has crafted a complex tale of love and forgiveness that forces readers to confront one of life’s most devastating occurrences: the accidental death of a child. Readers will identify with Sarah from the start. And while the narrative lacks dramatic conflict at times, the relationship between Sarah and Jackson is strongly developed and believable.
Abigail Easton. CreateSpace, $14.99 paper (242p) ISBN 978-1-4961-0536-3
Singer and guitarist Grace Taylor, a musical prodigy, is a young woman in trouble. First she is raped by Nicholas, her boyfriend, and then abandoned by her family when she reveals that she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby. Complications at childbirth lead to the downward spiral of drug abuse and a reunion with Nicholas—but also to an escape to the Australian rainforest and a search for peace. Easton puts her heroine through the ringer, but at times the story devolves into cliché. As Grace blunders from one mistake to the next, readers will feel that her problems have less to do with unresolved issues and coping mechanisms and more to do with the author creating elaborate trials and tribulations for her characters. Additionally, many of the supporting characters are too broadly drawn, and the book’s resolution is unlikely to satisfy readers.
The Rule of Ranging, Book 2: Into the Valley of Quietus
Timothy M. Kestrel. Timothy Kestrel Arts & Media, $33.95 hardcover (332p) ISBN 978-0-9886660-2-3
In Kestrel’s uneven sequel to Eclipse of the Midnight Sun, the elderly Mr. Morton continues telling journalist Henry Raymond of his experiences as a wanderer named Finn in 18th-century America. As the British and French struggle for influence with Native American tribes and fight each other, stalwart militia leader Robert Rogers contends with incompetent British officials and leads his rugged Rogers Rangers—of which Finn becomes a member—in irregular warfare. Amid the turmoil, Finn enjoys the company of friends Fronto, Gus, and Daniel, and mourns the loss of his love, Rosie, while finding occasional solace elsewhere. Much like the previous volume, Kestrel’s novel is full of adventure, battle, derring-do, and excitement. However, underdeveloped characters and poorly constructed dialogue—along with the occasional anachronism—will take readers out of an otherwise engaging story.
The Savant of Chelsea
Suzanne Jenkins. CreateSpace, $10.99 paper (214p) ISBN 978-1-4923-8694-0
This gripping novel from Jenkins delivers complex twists and turns from start to finish. Alexandra Donicka is a talented but unstable brain surgeon living in New York City. When her mother dies, Alexandra travels to New Orleans to face the tragedies and secrets of her youth. These include childhood abuse and the birth of a child, who was taken from Alexandra by her mother more than two decades ago. As Alexandra searches for her daughter, she must grapple with long-hidden emotions and discover her own humanity. Jenkins creates fully realized, believable characters and ably portrays mental illness in this dark tale that provides nonstop thrills and culminates in an explosive and unexpected finale.
Spell on Me
Serge Smith. Amazon Digital Services, $0.99 e-book (150p) ISBN 978-1-310-63196-2
An unnamed man takes a walk on the beach and feels he grasps the essence of eternity, only to be struck by how meaningless his life has been, with its pursuit of material successes. The man keeps a diary of his efforts to understand this life-altering experience and reconnect with his previous sense of contentment, as he struggles to cope with his new worldview. Smith’s novel probes issues such as the meaning of life and the possibility of life after death—but doesn’t come up with any new answers. Readers will likely find themselves reflecting on their own lives. But because the author’s everyman never becomes a fully realized character with whom readers can identify, they may ultimately find Smith’s novel uncompelling.
Tribulation: A Novel of the Near Future
Thomas A. Lewis. CreateSpace, $9.95 paper (250p) ISBN 978-1-4947-6845-4
Lewis’s winning apocalyptic novel follows the lives of William Trent, a former U.S. president, and his journalist son, Brian. Over the years, Brian has accumulated enough information to be certain that climate change is irrevocably impacting the environment, and that the U.S. is careening toward a certain reckoning. Despite his family’s doubts, Brian builds a sustainable compound in West Virginia—and when the reckoning does come, Brian and his family hunker down to ride out the environmental and economic devastation. At the same time, they must confront the world they have lost and work to rebuild a new society. Lewis’s novel reflects the realities and dangers of climate change in a way that is deeply disturbing. His narrative—and its apocalyptic scenario—is so deftly constructed that readers will clearly understand the real stakes of climate change and the myriad skills necessary for survival. Thankfully, Lewis is never didactic with his message. Instead, he provides a quickly paced story replete with compelling characters that will stay with readers long after the final page is turned.
Trinity Stones: The Angelorum Twelve Chronicles
L.G. O’Connor. She Writes Press, $18.95 paper (366p) ISBN 978-1-938314-84-1
On her 27th birthday, investment banker Cara Collins learns of a $50 million inheritance from her grandmother. The only condition of the bequest is that Cara can tell no one about the windfall—doing so would put lives at risk. Cara, who is struggling with her feelings for two very different men, also learns that she is a Soul Seeker: a human with special powers and a key role to play in the battle between Good and Evil. In this first book in the Angelorum Twelve Chronicles, O’Connor tackles important worldbuilding, while also kicking off the story with bang. Readers will have to contend with the book’s confusing plot, however. While the idea of a modern war between angels and demons is fascinating—particularly as it plays out in urban areas—readers will have trouble digesting the book’s many concepts and plot points. Still, fans of the genre able to move past their initial confusion will find this an entertaining read.
Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief
Jill Smolowe. She Writes Press, $16.95 paper (258p) ISBN 978-1-938314-72-8
In under a year and a half, Jill Smolowe lost her husband, her mother-in-law, her sister, and her mother. Here she mostly focuses on husband Joe’s diagnosis of cancer, his progress through chemotherapy and remission, and his eventual death. In the process of telling her story of love and loss, she reflects on grief—our narratives about grief, our responses to it, and how we recover. Smolowe cites the work of psychologist George Bonanno extensively, and, in sharing her story, offers thoughtful and compassionate guidance for people going through the grieving process with loved ones. Her story is heartbreaking and heartwarming, incisively written and extremely clear. Readers will find themselves sympathetic and eager to hear how Smolowe coped with her losses and how she negotiated societal expectations of grief with grace and dignity. This is an absolute must-read for people struggling with loss.
★ Hair of the Corn Dog
A.K. Turner. Fever Streak Press, $12 paper (220p) ISBN 978-0-9913759-2-9
The third book in the Tales of Imperfection series from Turner (This Little Piggy Went to the Liquor Store, Mommy Had a Little Flask), a mother of two from Idaho, provides another hilarious account of parenthood. A self-admitted neat freak, the author details the important distinctions between paper towels and dishcloths, and wishes she could “conduct a class highlighting these differences and then create a test with various scenarios.” Also a lover of travel, she signs up for HomeExchange.com—a house-swapping service—in hopes of a family holiday to an exotic locale, while pondering the headline “Idaho: Just Like New York, Only Different.” With her characteristic good-spirited, self-deprecating humor, Turner describes taking her kids to a children’s art camp on the Jersey Shore and surviving a back-to-school night “ice cream unsocial.” Well paced, entertaining, and full of endearing stories on parenting, this new addition to Turner’s popular series will leave readers looking forward to the next installment.
A Million Steps
Kurt Koontz. Kurt Koontz, $15.95 paper (212p) ISBN 978-0-615-85292-8
In 2012, Koontz, a retired sales executive, set out to walk the 490 miles of the much-traveled Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. He joins numerous other authors in writing about his steps along the famous path and attempting to extrapolate some life lessons from his journey. But here, Koontz provides more of a set of personal journal entries than a revelatory and deep reflection on life, chronicling in detail the various hostels where he stayed, food that he ate, and friendships he formed along the way. Unfortunately, Koontz’s prose is flat and fails to draw readers into his story. Additionally, while on his trip, the author worries about his relationship with girlfriend Roberta, but fails to paint the sort of vivid picture of their life together that would result in reader investment. In the end, Koontz simply observes, “I had no eureka moments on the Camino.... Instead, just like life, I experienced a series of meaningful and small insights. I believe we all have an internal light, and the Camino acts as a rheostat to greatly increase the intensity.”
Pathways to the King: Living a Life of Spiritual Renewal and Power
Rob Reimer. Carpenter’s Son Publishing, $14.99 paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-9883962-0-3
In this forthright and sincere call to revival, Reimer, the founder and lead pastor of South Shore Community Church in Bridgewater, Mass., details a plan for Christians to experience and expand “God’s kingdom on Earth.” The first step in this process is to personalize one’s identity in Christ by meditating on scripture, seeking God for revelation, and renewing one’s mind. Next, Reimer advises individuals to pursue God, because, “if you understood who God was, and how much you meant to Him, nothing would keep you from pursuing Him with all your heart.” From there, Reimer suggests individuals continue their spiritual renewal via purification, praise, prayer, and persistence. Reimer’s tendency to sermonize makes his prose repetitive at times. And despite the author’s heartfelt passion and conviction, his book is likely to be lost in the flood of similar Christian titles.
Children’s Picture Books
Abayomi, the Brazilian Puma: The True Story of an Orphaned Cub
Darcy Pattison, illus. by Kitty Harvill. Mims House (www.mimshouse.com), $13.99 paper (32p) ISBN 978-1-62944-001-9
Pattison and Harvill, who collaborated on Wisdom, the Midway Albatross, return with another real-life animal survival story. This one focuses on a puma cub, born in Brazil in 2012, who was orphaned after his mother was captured by a local chicken farmer. Pattison briefly discusses the problems that human development poses for Brazil’s pumas before moving on to the cub, named Abayomi (“happy meeting”) by his rescuers. The writing alternates between poetic moments (“How does a puma cub survive without his mother? He must hunt”) and reportorial passages, including an account of how Abayomi’s mother was captured, which bogs down with extraneous detail (“Suddenly, at 2:15 a.m., on November 27, she was caught in the chicken coop trap”). Tense changes distract, and Abayomi’s story ends inconclusively, drawing murky parallels between the invisibility of wild pumas to humans and scientists’ need to remain out of sight while caring for the cub. Harvill’s muted, realistic portraits of Brazilian fauna and flora give a strong sense of the pumas’ threatened natural habitat. Endnotes provide addition information and resources. Ages 6–12.
Orion Poe and the Lost Explorer
Will Summerhouse. Shake-A-Leg Press
(www.willsummerhouse.com), $8.99 paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-9860614-0-0
Summerhouse draws on the real-life historical mystery of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic exploration to fuel this fast-paced middle-grade adventure. After 11-year-old Orion Poe helps a wounded stranger who appears on the beach near his grandfather’s lighthouse, he winds up in possession of an old dispatch box, in which he finds a mysterious map. After taking the map to Professor Meriwether, an explorer, Orion is invited to join an expedition to the Arctic, in search of an uncharted island and Franklin’s final fate. The trip is plagued by troubles, and Orion fights for his life against the hostile environment, a traitor among the crew, and a hidden society whose members are bent on maintaining their secret existence at all costs. Summerhouse delivers a rousing story filled with action and tense moments, but Orion’s idiosyncratic voice lightens the overall tone. As a protagonist, Orion is a bit too good to be true—overly resourceful and resilient, and subject to enough death-defying circumstances to lay low people twice his age—but most young readers should find it easy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Ages 9–up.
Eric Kim. Inkskratch (inkskratch.storenvy.com), 99¢ e-book (22p) ISBN 978-0-9865747-1-9
Kim, the illustrator of Love as a Foreign Language, tries his hand as a writer with an entertaining, thinly veiled homage to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It’s been 10 years since the Nitro Battlers arrived on the crime-fighting scene, but only one, Nitro Red, remains. After getting trounced by a toothy monster that talks like a stereotypical frat boy, Nitro Red hitches a ride with a timid barfly named Ben and explains what led the Nitro Battlers to disband: the gruesome death of one of their own (“We were handed these powers and told to go save the world. It never occurred to us that we might die”). Working in black and white, Kim creates polished scenes of melancholic angst, full-throttle battle, and campy humor with equal skill. Other 1980s and ’90s influences pop up, too: intrepid reporter Mary McMeal is a ringer for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ April O’Neil, and the (reunited) Nitro Battlers’ vehicles combine to create a mecha that owes a bit to Wheeljack from Transformers. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, nostalgic read with some emotional heft behind it. A limited print edition is also available. Ages 12–up.