How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch: The First Novel in the Morrow Girls Series
D. Bryant Simmons. Bravebird Publishing, $17.95 paper (344p) ISBN 978-0-9857516-6-1
When Pecan’s doting father dies unexpectedly, she marries a boxer named Ricky Morrow and becomes pregnant almost immediately. Unfortunately for Pecan, things go from bad to worse: Ricky becomes violent, and she falls into a cycle of pregnancy and physical abuse. But when Pecan meets another man and tries to extricate herself from her marriage, she’s forced to fight for her life and the lives of her children. From the start of Simmons’s novel, readers will empathize with Pecan’s struggles. While the author’s prose is solid, the narrative is somewhat predictable. The plot and eventual outcome of the novel will be obvious to many readers from the beginning. And this predictability will likely take readers out of the story.
Glen Apseloff. Amazon Digital Services, $2.99 e-book (353p) ISBN 978-0-9898461-9-6
Shortly after an injured girl dies at Dr. Jake Warner’s hospital, leaving behind a strange diary and many unanswered questions, the doctor discovers he’s suffering from memory loss. A few days later, he wins a free trip to Europe, and while the holiday comes with some curious restrictions, he accepts, bringing the mysterious diary with him. While Warner enjoys the trip, he can’t shake the feeling that something is terribly wrong, and that somehow it’s related to his memory loss and the diary. This medical thriller is chock-full of fascinating ideas—memory erasure, memory transfer, the military applications of memory—that will hook readers almost immediately. Unfortunately, the novel’s structure and plotting are less successful: engaging plot threads are dropped and the narrative wraps up too quickly. Still, if readers can look past these problems, they will find a lot to like.
Peter M. Wahl. CreateSpace, $10.79 paper (292p) ISBN 978-1-4928-6335-9
Biting satire dissects the myth of the American Dream in Wahl’s thought-provoking novel that exposes the worm in the apple of power. Ballsy dreamer Guy Baxter creates a whirlwind with unforeseen consequences when he declares himself a company—Guy, Incorporated—and sells shares of himself on the stock market. Forced into work as a tennis pro when his stock dives, Guy is shocked when wealthy Ivan Vissar makes him a part owner of a business venture called eCOM. Ignoring his devilish employer’s disreputable background, Guy discovers that he might be a pawn in a cruel game of chance. This seductive rendering of America’s self-made man motif modernizes Fitzgerald’s fable, crafting in Guy a likable yet naïve mirror of Gatsby. In so doing, the author utilizes an original voice and skillfully captures the numbness and amorality of a society in which elegant parties mask debasement, and honesty is crushed by a hungry bottom line.
★ Out There: A Novel
Sarah Stark. Leaf Storm Press, $17.95 paper (238p) ISBN 978-0-9914105-0-7
In this lyrical, evocative novel, Stark summons the possibility of salvation in tragedy. Iraq war veteran Jefferson Long Soldier returns home with a wounded soul and a copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which he carried with him through combat and credits for saving his life. But when neither family nor a psychologist can help ease his transition to civilian life, Jefferson journeys by motorbike across Mexico in search of salvation and the reclusive García Márquez. A tribute to magical realism and the transforming power of fiction, Stark’s novel juxtaposes violence and gentleness and merges logic with sensuous atmosphere to question the boundaries of reality. Jefferson’s struggle for peace reveals an existence as fluid and magical as a dream—but with consequences.
★ Second Hand Stops
Katie St. Claire. CreateSpace, $12.99 paper (346p) ISBN 978-1-4949-9669-7
In this winning novel from St. Claire, six 18-year-olds—all raised together in a manor house in England—are forced to drink a life-prolonging elixir to receive multimillion-dollar inheritances and internships in New York City courtesy of an anonymous benefactor. This promising premise kicks off St. Claire’s Black Moon series, and finds Julia Malone abandoning her sheltered upbringing in England to become vice president of the product research and development firm Van Buren Industries in the Big Apple. Julia’s telepathic abilities help her sustain her lifetime bond with confidante and former housemate Nic amid luxurious Manhattan penthouses, but feed her concerns about possibly duplicitous company staff. The unclear motives of Claude Van Buren, the inscrutable benefactor, in promoting a skin cream that includes traces of the untested elixir, which had ambiguous effects on the teens, leave Julia wondering about its safety and her future. St. Claire’s novel is well plotted and the characters skillfully developed. Her convincing portrayal of Julia’s angst and Nic’s loyalty help make this a lively paranormal fantasy adventure. Julia’s insistence that she is a normal teen, albeit with unusual abilities, makes her a character with which readers—both young and old—can empathize.
The Second Key
Cheryl Holdefer. Cheryl Holdefer, $9.99 paper (252p) ISBN 978-0-615-97560-3
In Holdefer’s novel, Rachel Matthews, a single mother of twins, is still mourning the death of husband Patrick and finds dating difficult. When she meets her old high school friend and prom date Michael vacationing at Lake Placid, they charge into an affair. But when she sees him kissing another woman, Rachel returns home to discover a key in Patrick’s study that leads to a safety deposit box—and letters from his mistress. While she investigates her husband’s mysterious past and grapples with heartache, Rachel works to love again. Although the author offers up a fascinating premise, her novel suffers from a lack of suspense, predictability, and an unsatisfying ending. Potentially complex plot elements (e.g., the husband’s infidelity) lack tension, and, in the end, readers will have difficulty investing in the characters and their story.
The Thrift Shop Murders
Stanford Pritchard. Springside Book, $15.95 paper (266p) ISBN 978-1-4943-3644-8
In Pritchard’s uneven metaphysical whodunit, brokerage firm manager Selwyn McCandless finds his life crumbling when millionaire Fairfield Dixon is murdered at an elegant dinner party. Soon after the killing, Selwyn—and all the other partygoers—receives an enigmatic letter and poem stating that clues leading to portions of Dixon’s vast fortune are hidden at local thrift shops. Meanwhile, Selwyn’s son, Marvin, a day laborer working to build a museum for the dead man’s art collection, becomes a suspect. Despite an intriguing concept, the plot is convoluted at times, lacking tension or focus, and hindered by relentless inner monologues, meandering pace, and a contrived climax.
Writer: Daughter of Time, Book 2
Erec Stebbins. Twin Pi Press, $16.99 paper (444p) ISBN 978-0-9860571-8-2
As the tyrannical Dram—an advanced alien race—make military advances in this sequel to Stebbins’s Reader, Lt. Nitin Ratava reaffirms his love for New Earth savior Ambra Dawn (a “reader” with powerful visions of the past and future) by joining the Temple Guards. The sarcastic voice of Weapons Sgt. Grant Moore provides a contrast to the often ethereal relationship of Ratava and Dawn and the cool wisdom of her loyal alien protector, Waythrel. With the appearance of malevolent Dawn clones pointing to a powerful new enemy, Stebbins uses the Xix—a benevolent alien race—to present a contrast between the cultures of love and wisdom and of conquest and hatred. While Stebbins’s novel is full of the same adventure and excitement as Reader, it suffers from a disjunction between the action of the story and the rarified relationship between Ratava and Dawn. Additionally, the narrative bogs down at times due to overly long inner monologue from Ratava. Still, fans of the series will likely keep turning pages in anticipation of the next installment.
★ 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession
M. Dolon Hickmon. Rehoboam, $16.99 paper (376p) ISBN 978-0-9911066-0-8
Hickmon unleashes a shocking blitzkrieg of murder, conspiracy, and child abuse in this disturbing, breathlessly plotted murder mystery. When 14-year-old Chris Pesner murders his mother and her boyfriend, Andrew, the media blames heavy metal band Rehoboam’s violent, blasphemous lyrics. But homicide detective William Hursel’s investigation unearths a dark web of child abuse and black market pornography. Merging biblical tales, psychology, and social criticism, Hickmon stares into the distressing abyss of child exploitation with daring honesty. Designed to provoke, scenes of underage abuse avoid the pornographic by focusing on psychological damage—thus rousing pity and disgust, not titillation. Eschewing easy answers for moral complexity, this thriller is unsettling entertainment that offers catharsis.
1914: A Novel
Charles B. Smith. CreateSpace, $21.99 paper (650p) ISBN 978-1-4942-3600-7
Mind and bodies are shattered in this carefully researched yet meandering descent into the tragedy and triumph of war. Set against the allegiances, politics, and shocking trench warfare of WWI, Smith’s novel follows nine men from various walks of life as they struggle to come to terms with war, violence, and themselves. Despite convincing physical descriptions of the agony of battle, a rambling narrative and unfocused plot sacrifice momentum and suspense in favor of exposition. From American Gordon to British friends Arthur and Perry, the characters—many of them underdeveloped—do little to summon reader empathy or interest. While the internal conflicts of characters can fascinate, the stagnant motivations of these combatants are less than engaging. Even German Lance Corporal Hentsch—who provides one of the more interesting perspectives on battle—seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for an author interested more in history than narrative.
Burning Shield: The Jason Schechterle Story
Landon J. Napoleon. Avery Press, $19.95 paper (390p) ISBN 978-0-9886519-4-4
This gripping biography of Jason Schechterle’s battle for life and justice celebrates the resilience of the human spirit while condemning corporate greed. In the telling of Schechterle’s story—from his becoming a Phoenix police officer to the March 26, 2001, auto accident that nearly killed him—Napoleon offers up suspenseful prose replete with all the crucial elements of a legal thriller. Schechterle’s accident—a taxi hit his police cruiser, which inexplicably burst into flames—turned out to be part of a nationwide spate of similar auto explosions. Legal crusader Patrick J. McGroder, who worked with Schechterle in his case against Ford Motor Company, is depicted as a feisty, down-home everyman. This enthralling biography injects the intimacy of fiction into a true story of human endurance. Readers are continuously reminded that Jason Schechterle is flesh, bones, and blood, not a fictional character, and they are invited to experience his terror, frustration, and ultimate triumph.
Face to Face: Cultivating Kids’ Social Lives in Today’s Digital World
Kathy Masarie, Kathy Keller Jones, Ruth Matinko-Wald, Jody Bellant Scheer, Cassandra Dickson, and Monique Terner. Family Empowerment Network, $34.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-9819504-4-0
This parenting guidebook, intended for parents, educators, counselors, or discussion groups, reads like it was written by a committee—and with six author credits, it likely was. Although the book’s title suggests a focus on digital technology, readers will find a surprising shortage of practical information, as well as little coverage of cyberbullying and organized sports. Still, the authors address a host of important topics—everything from cliques and resiliency to cultural identity and creativity—and include an early exercise to kick things off, as well as questions or additional resources at the end of chapters. Charts, photos, and graphics also work well to reinforce ideas. However, because the book strives to serve multiple audiences, it sometimes struggles to effectively reach any of them.
Italy: Beer Country
Bryan Jansing, illus. by Paul Vismara. Dog Ear, $24.99 paper (188p) ISBN 978-1-4575-2655-8
This enthusiastic and informative celebration of Italian craft beer profiles the principal brewers—and describes the clash between tradition and change—in a country where beer often takes a backseat to wine. Among the many key players covered by Jansing are Teo Musso, whose discovery and love of European beer led to his creation of Le Baladin, a bar famous for its beer in Italy; Agostino Arioli, who operates a brewery called Birrificio Italiano and creates “beer for beer lovers,”; and Birrificio Lambrate, whose brewpub prospers through local publicity in Milan. Illustrations, photography, and promotional materials add to this thorough examination of Italian craft beer, revealing the influence of culture, taste, and food as well as the aesthetic passions and business complexities in the art of brewing.
Letting Go into Perfect Love: Discovering the Extraordinary After Abuse
Gwen Plano. She Writes Press, $16.95 paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-938314-74-2
“Logic itself cannot restore us to a place of joy; we need the direct experience of love,” Plano counsels in her gripping memoir of surviving domestic violence and coping with the sexual abuse of her daughter. Raised to keep a stiff upper lip when challenged by adversity, she ascribes her long-term post-traumatic-stress disorder to hiding her pain and misinterpreting the Roman Catholic concepts of sin and redemption she absorbed as a child. Her deeply disturbing narrative relates how she separated from a mentally ill husband only to land in a physically and emotionally abusive second marriage, followed by her daughter’s victimization by a prostitution ring ensconced in a seminary. Plano also chronicles her struggles to re-establish a healthy relationship with the Catholic Church and a series of transformative events that helped her heal. Ultimately life affirming, her journey will ring true to readers familiar with domestic violence and anyone who feels trapped and crippled by shame and self-blame.
Stress Less: 10 Balancing Insights on Work and Life
Amy Freeman. Daylight Press, $14.99 paper (84p) ISBN 978-0-9641971-2-1
Educator and parent Freeman—who holds a doctorate in workforce education—tackles the difficulties of juggling work life and personal life in this slim volume, encouraging individual reflection rather than proposing a one-size-fits-all prescription. Freeman urges readers to fight stress by doing less, rather than more, but fails to go beyond offering personal anecdotes and general bromides. The author’s emphasis on gradual progress and individual pace matches the reflective tone of her prose. Perhaps Freeman’s strongest insight is that slowing down and talking with others can help people put their lives back in order. Readers won’t find a cure-all, and Freeman’s book is unlikely to stand out in the crowded self-help market.
★ To the Survivors
Robert Uttaro. CreateSpace, $12.95 paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-4909-3166-1
Rape counselor Uttaro draws upon his years of experience to warn that sexual abuse is far more prevalent than most people suspect, and provides a moving series of survivor stories. Uttaro persuasively argues that each survivor’s story is unique—and this militates one-size-fits-all advice. The surprising revelations of the survivors Uttaro interviews corroborate his claim that justice is an individual concept that depends on what redress survivors seek. Uttaro’s assurances that survivors are not defined by sexual abuse offer the possibility of a positive resolution. This book is both informative for the general public and supportive for those who have suffered sexual abuse. It is hard to imagine that members of either group will not gain from reading it.
999: A History of Chicago in Ten Stories
Richard B. Fizdale. Ampersand, $79.95 hardcover (260p) ISBN 978-1-4675-4528-0
Chicago native and former CEO Fizdale offers up both a lively history of the Windy City and a somewhat ponderous biography of a condominium at 999 Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. In the first half of this well-researched book—replete with archival photography and illustrations—Fizdale provides an arresting depiction of the formation of Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood and the colorful characters involved in the process. Less interesting, however, is the section of the book devoted to the building at 999 Lake Shore Drive, despite the author’s best efforts to imbue its apartments with beguiling notoriety. While the escapades of architect Benjamin Marshall, the avant-garde costume parties of Elizabeth McWilliams, and Muriel McCormick’s bizarre marriage are engaging, and the presences of notorious gangster Terry Druggan, influential philanthropist Elizabeth Paepcke, and disgraced auto manufacturer Preston Tucker are noteworthy, the many pages documenting every person who ever lived in the building quickly become tedious. Still, for residents of Chicago, Fizdale’s unequivocal affection for his home and city will be contagious.
C.O.B. Grey Line Press (www.greylinepress.com), $1.99 e-book (224p) ISBN 978-0-9830028-3-3
Two disaffected seventh graders decide that the solution to their troubled lives is to build a rocket ship in an offbeat adventure that toys with science fiction and magical realism. Together, Gary and Lincoln design the ship and attempt to collect needed materials, while dealing with bullies, dismissive adults, and curious classmates. When word of their scheme to reach the Moon spreads, they find they’re not the only ones looking for an escape from reality. Soon, the project is a communal effort, one that challenges their resolve. Told in an almost dreamlike fashion in present-tense narration, the story unfolds with painstaking leisure, weighed down by minute details and philosophical asides (“Middle school is where the molding begins, smoothens, and then hardens, and the cafeteria is the potter’s wheel. It’s a good thing there is chocolate milk, for every explorer and discoverer knows that it is, most definitely and undeniably, a good thing”). With such purple prose and ambiguous subtext—how much of this is real, how much is fantasy?—it’s a story that’s hard to categorize. Ages 9–12.
Teresa Williams Irvin. HeartChild Inc. (www.teresairvin.com), $16.95 paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-9799395-5-6
Irvin (Seeds of Rebellion) spins out the story of a couple who must overcome emotional wounds and learn to love one another, set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War in 1755. Still grieving the death of her husband, 17-year-old Rebecca chafes at living at home and once again being treated like a child. When the handsome Blanton Moseley offers to marry her to take her away from it all, she accepts, willing to try life on the frontier despite the hardships. Their relationship is tested by a lack of communication, Indian attacks, and Blanton’s decision to join General Braddock and Colonel Washington on their campaign; the separation
allows them to come into their own and realize what’s important. While Irvin thrives in the historical details and accuracy of the setting, the plot lacks energy and her leads have little chemistry, making for a passionless and chaste romance that barely resolves itself by the end. As an adventure set in tumultuous times, it’s capable, but as a character piece or drama, it’s fairly mundane. Ages 12–up.
Shane Morgan. TSW Books (www.shanemorganwrites.com), $12.50 paper (286p) ISBN 978-0-615-94581-1
Morgan’s convoluted, soap operatic novel introduces 21-year-old Julian to the family she never knew, and a world of high stakes and hard decisions. When her estranged father dies, Julian travels to Narragansett, R.I., to attend the funeral against her mother’s wishes. When the will is read, Julian is astounded to hear that she’s inherited her father’s estate, angering other members of the family. While Julian tries to extract herself from the legacy she never wanted, she discovers things aren’t what they seem. Her father may have been murdered, there are several different copies of the will floating around, not all of her family can be trusted, and she’s attracted the attentions of two very different guys—one of whom may be more trouble than he’s worth. As Julian’s mother urges her to return to New York, Julian tries to uncover her father’s killer and locate the true will. Clichés abound in this drama, which relies on stock characters, tired twists, and even a climatic confrontation on the edge of a cliff in the rain. There’s potential, but it’s lost amid overused tropes. Ages 12–up.
A Quest of Heroes
Morgan Rice. Morgan Rice
(www.morganricebooks.com), $10.99 paper (234p) ISBN 978-1-939416-20-9
In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer’s Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin “Thor” McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king. Though initially rejected for his youth and inexperience, a chance meeting with the king’s Druid, Argon, prompts Thor to leave home and try again. Against all odds, he is allowed to join the Legion as a squire-in-training. Thor quickly proves himself time and again, earning honors, recognition, and even the eye of Princess Gwendolyn. Simultaneously, he discovers a mysterious magical ability building within him. As Thor struggles to tap into his potential and prove himself as a member of the Legion, he becomes embroiled in political intrigue and drama. While Rice’s writing is solid and the premise intriguing, there’s an overwhelming amount of wish fulfillment packed into this initial installment, with Thor’s successes and rewards piling up at an unbelievable rate in an impossibly short time. The predictable plot is packed full of fantasy clichés, the pacing is rushed, and character development is hasty. Ages 12–up.