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Fiction

A Better Man
Audrey Lynn, $17.95 trade paper (404p) ISBN 978-0-615-44968-5
Lynn’s debut proves an intense, emotional, and stunning exploration into the psychological horrors of war. After the decade-long Soviet war with Afghanistan, Vladimir Verstakov returns to the U.S.S.R., the sole survivor of a convoy attack. His memories are vivid and painful, and the slightest sound can trigger a flashback. Skillfully weaving Vladimir’s memories into the narrative, Lynn enables readers to go through the pain Vladimir feels on a daily basis. His loving wife, Vhanna, fears for both her husband and herself, as his violent outbursts begin to drastically alter their lives. After speaking to another veteran, Vladimir becomes fixated on finding an “Iskra”: a purpose in life or something to believe in. Lynn meticulously unravels the raw emotions of post-traumatic stress disorder and the massive destruction war inflicts not only on soldiers but also on their family and friends. Vladimir and Vhanna are sympathetic, true-to-life, well-crafted characters. And Lynn does a spectacular job creating a novel to which all readers will be able to relate.

The Arranger
L.J. Sellers
Spellbinder Press (www.ljsellers.com), $13.99 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-9832138-5-7
Set in 2023, this middling stand-alone futuristic thriller from Sellers (Dying for Justice) paints an America in which economic woes are wedded to reality television via the Gauntlet: a contest in which representatives from all 50 states compete for prize money by undertaking a series of physical and mental tasks. Before representing Oregon in the Gauntlet, cop-turned-paramedic Lara Evans treats a gunshot victim who turns out to be federal employment commissioner Thaddeus Morton. The mystery of his assailant’s identity is back-burnered for much of the book, as Sellers alternates between Evans’s quest for victory and the machinations of sleazy software engineer Paul Madsen, who hopes to parlay his access to personnel databases into bribes. Despite the book’s fascinating premise, Sellers fails to deliver much originality. The contests in the Gauntlet aren’t particularly imaginative; none of the plot twists are compelling; and readers will find maintaining interest an ongoing, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle.

The Case of the Missing Cobras
Kathy Kaye
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $16.50 trade paper (452p) ISBN 978-1-4537-2506-1
A former managing editor at the American Medical Association, Kaye does a superior job of making illegal trafficking in venomous snakes an intriguing premise in this solid contemporary thriller. The mysterious decimation of wild king cobras in Thailand leads that country’s prime minister to believe that unscrupulous American collectors have played a large part in smuggling out the valuable reptiles. That in turn, leads the special operations unit of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch an undercover operation. A young and untested agent, Johnny Lee, is sent to infiltrate a community of collectors in Virginia, despite her lack of experience with snakes. Lee proves willing to go beyond the playbook to maintain her cover, in a manner that the author renders plausible. But the stakes get raised when one of her targets is killed by his venomous specimens. Making the chapters fly by despite the book’s length is an achievement, as is Kaye’s willingness to respect her audience’s intelligence by not wrapping up everything neatly or making obvious plot choices.

The Color of Heaven
Julianne MacLean as E.V. Mitchell
Blue Ocean (www.blueoceanpublishing.biz), $13.99 trade paper (314p) ISBN 978-0-9868422-2-1
Sophie Duncan leads a charmed existence: loving husband Michael, great career, and beautiful daughter, Megan. But all of that comes to a halt when her little daughter is diagnosed with leukemia. Michael becomes distant as their daughter’s illness progresses and, after Megan dies, reveals he has been having an affair with a younger woman who is pregnant with his child. Sophie is devastated and her depression results in a terrible car accident. As she lies dying, Sophie has a spiritual experience: she meets her mother, whom she always thought abandoned her, and comes to terms with her family history. Awakening from her coma recommitted to life, Sophie discovers her high school sweetheart waiting for her in the hospital room. They marry, have a little boy, and live happily ever after. MacLean (writing under the pen name Mitchell) has a deal of experience writing romance novels and that sensibility is apparent on every page. There is a great deal of epic love, crushing emotions, and, sadly, simplistic resolutions. Mitchell knows her audience and her craft, and she handles both well, but with a lack of imagination.

Destined: A Novel of the Tarot
Gail Cleare
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $12 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-4610-0776-0
Each chapter of this unassuming novel is illustrated with a card from the tarot, and the contents of each section are loosely related to the meaning of the corresponding card. Cleare’s narrative follows Emily, a young woman on a path of self-realization and awakening. She quits her unpleasant art gallery job and begins working at a mysterious rare-book store, whose owner, the eccentric Mr. Paradis, encourages her to explore her own psychic powers. Emily makes a new group of female friends in the neighborhood and meets a “tall, dark and very handsome” stranger, with whom romance seems sure to bloom. The story is a little slow moving, and there isn’t much in the way of conflict; nevertheless, the novel is well plotted. Readers already interested in the tarot and its uses for divination will enjoy Cleare’s serious meditations on the meanings of the cards, and the way the tarot plays out in Emily’s life. What’s more, Cleare offers a little bit of self-help and a little bit of chick lit, packaged together with a positive, make-your-own-destiny message: a pleasant, comforting read.

Fire in the Henhouse
Frances Grote
Rule Bender Press (www.rulebenderpress.com), $19.95 trade paper (474p) ISBN 978-0-9833341-0-1
In Grote’s debut, widowed New Yorker Maggie—with her teen son in tow—relocates to her hometown of Dooleysburg, Pa., a move that triggers memories of abuse and mental illness. Amid encounters with frequently winsome characters (an Irish nanny, a comparative anthropology professor, a local deli owner, and the police chief), Maggie discovers the extent to which she has excluded people from her life, while an act of public violence causes simpler problems to shrink in importance. Fans of large casts replete with eccentric and memorable locals will appreciate Grote’s novel with its overlapping subplots, the strongest of which emphasize the importance of forgiveness and embracing the flaws of others. Clever banter and a flair for over-the-top scenarios compensate for occasionally melodramatic confrontations and rapid emotional denouements. A novel brewing with tension, lightened by warm humor.

The Grand Mirage
Darrell Delamaide
Barnaby Woods Books (www.barnabywoodsbooks.com), $13.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-0-9839958-0-7
In the early 1900s, scholar and Orientalist Lord Richard Leighton is enlisted by the British government to travel to the Ottoman Empire and investigate Germany’s involvement in the construction of a railroad. Almost immediately, Leighton—who partners with American spy William Morrison—is caught between a number of factions: Germans intent on preserving the secret military purpose of the railroad; bankers who want the railroad to bring trade to the region; the Turks running the Ottoman Empire; Arabs who want independence from the Ottomans; and the Armenians who have been subjugated by the Turks. Delamaide provides a fascinating look at a little-examined period: the Great Game period before WWI. Leighton and Morrison are unlikely heroes (neither is particularly physically imposing or possessed of military prowess), and this makes them all the more likable. However, the novel’s plot is needlessly complicated, and the twists and turns sometimes make very little sense. Readers will find this interesting, but not particularly memorable.

Hunt of the Sea Wolves
John E. Chadwell
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $10.99 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-4637-6687-0
When terrorists commandeer a vessel shipping spent nuclear material, four brothers launch separate attacks against the West. After a cruise ship is destroyed by a nuclear weapon, the Department of Homeland Security puts together a team to stop the remaining three brothers. Chadwell’s debut—with its abundance of brutal but beautiful fight scenes and excessive historical and political exposition—is hampered by a lack of coherence and an underdeveloped narrative arc. The author is unafraid to show death from the gritty perspective of the dying and, as a veteran of the U.S. Navy, his knowledge of the subject adds tremendous detail and creditability. However, Chadwell fails to produce nuanced characters, and his attempts to give them emotional depth come across as halfhearted and read more like addendums. Unfortunately, the well-choreographed action sequences fail to adequately mask the barren emotional landscape, indulgent exposition, and unconnected plot lines.

Jane of the Jungle
Jane Baskin
iUniverse (www.iuniverse.com), $16.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-4620-0292-4
In Baskin’s comic debut, Jane, a 60-year-old widow and former nurse, is offered $30,000 to fly a plane to Mexico with mobster and Air Force veteran John. Together the unlikely duo poses as a tourist couple and, in a time-honored twist, fall in love while completing their assignment. Gunfights, turf rivalries, kidnapping, a romantic interlude in Cozumel, and a faked death all combine with rapid-fire narration to create an engaging yet sometimes meandering tale. Subplots about the aging process, an encounter with a sentient Siberian tiger, and the impulsive purchase of a roadhouse complicate this novel of second chances and spiritual self-examination. While scenes featuring a talking fox, a flying bus, and familiar character types (e.g., bumbling henchmen) often seem excessive, Baskin presents an entertaining search for magic in the underworld that concludes with a spot-on assessment of people’s need to reconcile past lives with future promises.

Jokers Club
Gregory Bastianelli
JournalStone (www.journalstone.com), $11.95 trade paper (202p) ISBN 978-1-936564-30-9
A failed writer reunites with a group of former childhood miscreants in order to clear his troubled conscience in this neatly sewn-up horror tale. Geoffrey Thorn, 30-something, single, employed at a textbook company, and newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, returns to the picturesque New England town of Malton for a gathering of the Jokers Club, a band of local boys who used to play pranks such as removing corpses from the cemetery and putting bubble bath in the municipal fountain. But when the boys were 12, they went too far, punishing a new member by locking him in an abandoned refrigerator for the night. The results were lamentable, but no one ever discovered the truth. Now grown men, the group’s members reconvene at a local inn and are picked off one by one by a murderer. Bastianelli does an excellent job of creating distinct identities for the former members of the Jokers Club. However, some of the book’s ominous details (e.g., Shadow Drive; a funeral director named Mr. Under) are merely corny. Overall, the work is as tidy as the town and as pat as a familiar horror film.

Meeting the Business: Journal I
Hollie Delaney
AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com), $25.99 (308p) ISBN 978-1-4567-4511-0
Victoria Hamilton is satisfied with her life. She owns a successful real estate company, and has a beautiful condo and children who are grown up and on their own. But without warning, a strange man begins appearing everywhere she goes. Whether she’s on the street or in the library, Victoria suddenly sees a long-haired man mysteriously staring back at her. But when the man enlists Victoria to help him purchase a home worth millions, they becomes caught up in a passionate affair. The truth behind the animal attraction is far more fantastic than the buttoned-down businesswoman could have imagined: the couple have been lovers for 700 years. In this debut novel, Delaney uses her knowledge of the real estate business to develop a well-plotted story. However, the book alternates often between scenes rooted in reality and scenes that depict an alternate reality, and while this juxtaposition can be appreciated, it is also surprising and often jarring. The novel would have benefited from more realism and less paranormality.

Memoirs of a Eurasian
Vivian Yang
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $15.95 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-4610-1341-9
In 1944, a young Chinese teenager falls in love with a Russian exile in Shanghai. She dies in childbirth, leaving an orphaned girl, who in turn becomes pregnant as a teenager and gives birth to a daughter named Mo Mo. Even as a child, Mo Mo is entrancing and exotic because of her Russian heritage, but she is also mistrusted for the same reason. Mo Mo travels from Shanghai to Hong Kong and back again during and after the Cultural Revolution and through China’s economic reforms, along the way grappling with both racial prejudice and a strained relationship with her mother. This latest novel from Yang (Shanghai Girl) is an engaging exploration of a world unknown to most Westerners. Yang navigates Hong Kong and the insular Chinese world of Shanghai with equal ease, convincingly charting Mo Mo’s life from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. And while Mo Mo isn’t always likable, she always offers a unique perspective. Readers will find this fascinating novel very enjoyable and readable.

Murder in Vienna
Irene Wittig
LuLu (www.lulu.com), $19.50 trade paper (214p) ISBN 978-1-105-09426-2
The author’s ambitious scope—the book spans five decades—isn’t matched by her execution in this unwieldy historical novel with a few mystery elements. In the waning months of WWII, Polly Huber loses her two closest friends. First, Helene Grünbaum goes out to run an errand and never returns; she’s abducted by someone driving a white car and found dead shortly afterward. Then Liese Hellmann is killed in a train accident in the U.S. before she can return to Vienna and reunite with Huber. Tragedy continues to mark Huber’s life, but Wittig’s failure to imbue any of the characters with depth will make it hard for readers to feel for them. The action jumps abruptly from 1975 to 1988, but the lacuna makes no difference as the story wends it way slowly to revelations that most readers will anticipate. The opening section, depicting a devastated Austria trying to recover from the Nazi regime, presents a different perspective than is usually portrayed, and had the story been set there, the book would have been greatly improved.

My Sweet Saga
Brett Sills
Admiral J Press (www.admiraljpress.com), $16 trade paper (462p) ISBN 978-0-615-53213-4
In Sills’s novel, 30-year-old Brandon is unfulfilled and stuck in both a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship with Clarissa, whom he seems to hate. Clarissa may have a “hot rack,” a successful career, and a tendency to put up with Brandon’s worst behavior, but she is also, the reader is told, a moron: she lets her Prius run out of gas, doesn’t know who Anton Chekhov is, and doesn’t understand Mad Men. Readers will find it difficult to empathize with—or even like—Brandon, particularly when he consents to marry Clarissa only after she agrees (finally!) to have anal sex with him. Despite these shortcomings, the novel is occasionally funny, with some bad taste, offensive language, and many pairs of pert breasts thrown in for good measure. In the end, though, it’s the narrator’s way with words that is sure to stay with the reader, e.g., “the girl seemed icy cold and I figured she’d be hard to handle, like an Otter Pop on a cool summer night.”

Out, Out
Kim MacQueen
Jungo (www.jungobooks.wordpress.com), $15 trade paper (214p) ISBN 978-0-615-48182-1
The narrator of MacQueen’s burbling, unorthodox love story, new mother Deb Soloman, is overwhelmed with life at home and ambivalent about her husband. So she takes an administrative job at the Southern University Primate Language Lab, where she falls for Dr. Soraya Baldwin-Ruhl. However, it’s not long before Deb finds her smoldering feelings for Soraya affecting her personal life. Meanwhile, Soraya is becoming increasingly obsessed with her work and unable to understand the dangers of ape escapes and attacks—not infrequent occurrences at the lab. As the project takes a turn for the worse, Deb finds her life spiraling out of control. MacQueen’s past-tense narrative robs this novel of some of its dramatic potential. However, Soraya is drawn with strong, ferocious strokes, and the details surrounding the primate lab are compelling and authentic. Overall, this novel is definitely worth a read.

Photo Shoot: A Will Porter Mystery
Louis Barth
Vantage (www.vantagepress.com), $14.95 trade paperback (264p) ISBN 978-0-533-16397-7
When ex-crime scene photographer Will Porter is asked to shoot a wedding, he’s enticed by the large commission and takes the job. However, Will soon discovers that this isn’t a typical ceremony: Joey, the groom, is the son of a Brooklyn, N.Y., mob boss, and Laura Lee, the bride, is the heir to a Southern fortune. Neither family supports the marriage, and hits have been ordered against both bride and groom. Barth’s characters are pure stereotypes: the well-armed men are stupidly violent and the women are sex objects. When first meeting the bride and maid of honor, Will remarks, “I consider Gina built for comfort, Laura Lee was definitely built for speed.” Lily, a sexually precocious teenager, was molested by her father when she was 11, but her family explains that she “enjoyed it” and blame her for the nearly constant aggressive male attention she receives. Despite Will being a self-described pudgy, balding 60-year-old, young, attractive women throw themselves at him. Barth’s novel is at best a dull mystery and at worst offensive and distasteful.

The Prospect of My Arrival
Dwight Okita
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $14.95 trade paper (277p) ISBN 978-1-4609-5989-3
Prospect, so named, he tells us, because “people have high hopes for me,” has a lot on his young shoulders. As the embryonic star of the “Pre-born Project,” a scientific venture funded by “Big Farm Technologies,” he has three weeks to preview the world before deciding if he wants to be born. To help in his decision, Prospect gets to meet five people: his mother; a happy person; someone who wishes he were never born; etc. Despite his in-embryo tutoring from the “CyberSavant,” Prospect (incarnated on Earth in a borrowed 20-year-old body) is a naïf, and much of the book consists of people explaining things to him: the project, adoption, empathy, the wonder that is coffee, the wonder that is sex, the complexities of love. For real-world readers, many of these narratives are less than new. Meanwhile, everyone Prospect meets has an agenda—and Okita, busily planting all kinds of improbable scenarios and life lessons in Prospect’s path, is, unfortunately, no exception. At the end, when Prospect makes his decision, it’s hard to care; he’s sweet, but his pre-born experience seems a little too prefab.

Public Information
Rolf Margenau
Frogworks (www.frogworks.com), $25 trade paper (378p) ISBN 978-1-4581-7478-9
Wylie Cypher is a young man who joins the army during the Korean War, intent on becoming a Russian translator and avoiding combat. However, as he proves to be a superior marksman, Wylie gets sent to Korea. Once there, he catches a lucky break and becomes a journalist, writing mostly “color” pieces: propaganda to give comfort to the soldiers and their families at home. While in Korea, Wylie falls in love with a young American, Amelia, who is doing work at an orphanage. However, she dies in a fire, and Wylie returns home, sadder and wiser. Margenau clearly has some experience of the Korean War, for the sense of place he creates is strong and true. He also ably fleshes out his supporting characters and brings the disparate elements of his plot to a satisfactory conclusion. However, surprisingly little happens to Wylie in this war novel: he’s a marksman who hardly sees battle and a journalist who never confronts difficult truths. And while this may be an accurate depiction of life inside Korea after the armistice, it doesn’t make for a compelling read.

Rain
Leigh K. Cunningham
Vivante Publishing (www.leighkcunningham.com), $12.95 trade paper (316p) ISBN 978-981-08-8280-8
The Wallins are a wealthy and influential family in the small Australian town of Maine. After eldest daughter Helena marries Michael Baden, a local boy from the wrong side of the tracks, things begin to go poorly for the Wallin family. The mill that is their livelihood burns down in a fire; the insurance that should have protected them was never mailed; and the family loses everything. This tragedy is followed by more sorrow: death, dementia, adultery, drug use, more death, rape, and cancer. Cunningham’s sprawling epic covers four decades and three generations. However, the book’s many characters never prove particularly interesting. Horrible things happen to them, but they don’t rise to the occasion or even fail in dramatic ways. Cunningham’s prose is also unnecessarily flowery and descriptive, qualities that don’t mesh with the starkness of her narrative. Overall, this is a slow slog of a tale, and readers will wonder why they bothered.

Red Right Return: A Buck Reilly Adventure
John H. Cunningham
Wheatmark (www.wheatmark.com), $15.95 trade paper (316p) ISBN 978-1-60494-704-5
Cunningham’s winning debut, a modern-day thriller with a Key West hero, will make readers welcome the prospect of additional Buck Reilly adventures. Reilly has come down in the world since the failure of e-Antiquity, his Internet auction site; instead of gracing the cover of the Wall Street Journal, he now struggles to run his new business, Last Resort Charter and Salvage. His relatively sedate life is unexpectedly upended after he gets $500 to deliver an attractive woman to a ship at sea. He’s then hired to locate three missing members of a church delegation en route to Cuba, who were lost at sea in a storm earlier that day. The writing is crisp and punchy, making this suitable for a one-sitting read. Cunningham flavors the pot with stolen treasure maps, Santeria, and run-ins with the FBI. The satisfying ending demonstrates that Cunningham knows how to keep track of all the balls he’s thrown in the air.

Safely Buried
John Pesta
CreateSpace (www.create space.com), $15.95 trade paper (388p) ISBN 978-1-4563-4447-4
Smalltown newspaper editor Phil Larrison picks up a hitchhiker and agrees to drive to her friends’ house, where they soon find a pair of corpses rotting in a bathroom. This discovery leads Phil to launch an investigation that reveals a larger mystery with higher stakes and far-reaching implications. Pesta moves his plot forward adeptly, if slowly, and the book’s final revelation is a surprise. However, the author’s characters—particularly Larrison—are unconvincing and hampered by unbelievable dialogue and incongruous actions. But what truly sinks this mystery is Pesta’s prose, e.g., “My stomach, intestines, pancreas and gall bladder felt squashed from sitting at the desk”; “My eyes felt stiff, like dried-out meringue.” Perhaps Pesta was aiming to create a hard-boiled hero, but, as with the rest of his endeavor, he was not successful.

Search
Jan Widgery
Mystery Bay Press (www.mysterybaypress.com), $19.50 trade paper (260p) ISBN 978-1-257-93970-1
After the death of her foster mother, Chris McMann—known as Judy Viereck in her childhood—begins to search for the mother she lost when she was kidnapped by her abusive father as a young child, in Widgery’s latest. Alternating between Chris’s present search for her family and reminiscences about her troubled childhood, the book’s tone shifts awkwardly between the stark and the melodramatic. Additionally, the relationship that adult Chris—who fails to grow emotionally throughout the novel—begins with Jim Hochstedder is stilted, forced, and develops far too quickly, given that Chris, in the name of self-preservation, has always eschewed intimacy. Widgery makes a show of dealing with childhood trauma and sexual abuse without truly investigating the depth or intricacies of either.

The Shadow of the Staff: A Wizard’s Revenge
M.A. Haddad
Vantage (www.vantagepress.com), $13.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-0-533-16111-9
A grammatical catastrophe, Haddad’s underdeveloped and monotonous debut borrows heavily from Tolkien, creating a cast of characters reminiscent of the denizens of Middle Earth—but lacking any real depth and sharing an awkward voice: “It is like I am beginning a new chapter in my life and that a great adventure awaits me”; “A warrior you are”; etc. When Burton Brew, the hobbit-like protagonist, is taken to the Elf city of Fallquint to celebrate his ancestor’s role in the defeat of evil wizard Porttia hundreds of years earlier, his life changes. An army of Orcs is again terrorizing the land, and it’s up to Burton to use the mysterious powers and battle skills he suddenly develops to deliver a message from Elf king Mindeloria to the dwarves of the Mystic Mountains, urging them to abandon their homes and join the battle. Haddad’s overly simplistic prose relies heavily on cliché while offering minimal descriptions of characters and setting.

Tree Soldier
J.L. Oakley
CreateSpace (www.createspace.com), $15 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-4538-9647-1
This vigorously researched historical novel set during the Great Depression tracks the life of the leader of a Civilian Conservation Corps group working in the forests of Washington State. John “Park” Hardesty heads a motley band of teens thrust into road and construction work. But unlike his crew, Hardesty, while college educated, is fairly familiar with hard work. Breaking in his squad at Camp Kulshan, Hardesty must also confront his past while falling for the fetching, independent-minded local naturalist Kate Alford, with whom—after she saves his life in the forest—he shares his shameful family secret: after a terrible argument with his brother that resulted in a car accident, Hardesty was cast out of his family by his father. Oakley constructs this rugged romance with tremendous care, fully developing its characters, particularly the honorable Hardesty, and building moments of tension in an engaging and entertaining novel.

You Don’t Die of Love: Stories
Thomas Thonson
Exterminating Angel (www.createspace.com), $11.99 trade paper (254p) ISBN 978-1-4609-2874-5
Ten loosely interconnected shorts by screenwriter Thonson reveal the insular, sordid, and somewhat touching world of Hollywood, its insiders, and those who prey on them. In “Western,” former movie star cowboy Lee Rockwell, now the owner of a successful clothing store, returns to the scene of an earlier scandal in the Hollywood Hills after his erstwhile lover, Harry Dare, dies suspiciously. In the title story, Nick and Nora Dare, Harry’s estranged children, plan a memorial party in their father’s honor, despite their mother’s affair with a neighbor and other shenanigans. With edgy humor, Thonson also explores film noir in “Two Noirs,” tracking the transformation of a police detective into a budding writer via the love of his dancing instructor, and science fiction in “Clips,” in which the pool man serves as a kind of nutty grim reaper who foretells the death of his client. Dark, pointed details and heavy atmosphere haunt these engaging tales.

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