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The Nature of Things: 24 Stories About Embracing Reality

Brigid Elsken Galloway. Flamepoint, $12.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-5371-5266-0

Self-professed Southern Buddhist Catholic Galloway has reported for NPR’s All Things Considered and is an instructor at the Institute for Conscious Being. Here, she reflects on her life and shares her personal path to dealing with a “D- (death, divorce, disease, downsizing)” life. She was raised as a Catholic but turned to Buddhist practices to gain perspective about her life; she also joined a 12-step program that she credits with enabling her to accept and not resist reality. This memoir has 12 chapters with themes such as awareness, honesty, and practice, each featuring two stories revealing how Galloway learned these lessons. In “Awareness,” Galloway realizes that her meltdown at McDonald’s had nothing to do with her son’s Happy Meal, but was about her own rage toward her mother’s late-stage degenerative dementia. In “Honesty,” Galloway shares her early childhood dream of becoming a saint and how she was punished for praying in a chapel; years later, after her second marriage failed, Galloway felt cynical about religion but still turned back to spirituality. In “Practice,” Galloway learns to accept responsibility for her actions after dealing with a car crash at a Buddhist monastery. These relatable stories of hardship are funny and moving and will appeal to those who are open to Galloway’s guidance. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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For the Record: Confessions of a Vinyl-Soundtrack Junkie

Bruce K. Hanson. CreateSpace, $11.99 trade paper (164p) ISBN 978-1-5349-9706-6

Hanson (The Peter Pan Chronicles) describes a fascination with musicals and their recorded soundtracks in this charming and informative story of his life as a “record geek.” Growing up in the 1960s, Hanson spent “joyful afternoons studying album covers and reading liner notes.” At age 12 he sold his comic books (Batman, Superman, etc.), making a beeline to a Manhattan record store to spend half his $200 profit. Hanson guides readers through his life and his treasured record collection, segueing neatly between recording trivia and anecdotes from his formative years as a “soundtrack junkie.” His parents didn’t expect this “dreamer” to amount to anything. Hanson adored singer Rosemary Clooney when he was eight, later moving on to follow Judy Garland, June Allyson, Barbara Cook, Debbie Reynolds, and other performers of the time. He also shares an interesting interview with Mary Martin, who played Peter Pan on Broadway. He attended high school on Staten Island, N.Y., and later continued studies in theatre arts, pottery, and sculpture, eventually becoming a visual arts teacher. Collectors will be entertained by Hanson’s impressive knowledge of records, including their graphics, cover art, and production details; his well-crafted and often humorous prose deftly conjures up the bygone era of musical theater’s golden age. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Overnight: Book 3 in the Stella Reynolds Mystery Series

Libby Kirsch. Sunnyside, $12.99 trade paper (299p) ISBN 978-0-9969350-3-6

TV journalist Kirsch puts her knowledge of her industry to good use in her entertaining third whodunit featuring Stella Reynolds, a reporter for a Knoxville, Tenn., TV station (after 2016’s The Big Interview). A routine assignment takes Stella to the police department just as officers are bringing in a murder suspect. When Stella asks handcuffed Cas Rockman if he shot Oliver Bennet, Rockman admits to it on camera. Despite the confession, Stella is warned to disregard it by a stranger, who turns out to be Rockman’s father, Harrison Keys, a convicted murderer who served 20 years in prison. These odd encounters prove to be just the beginning of an extremely challenging case, in which Stella investigates Rockman’s possible innocence. Romance fans will enjoy passages detailing Stella’s love life (“She launched into him, ripping his shirt off in one rough movement, and the ping of buttons as they bounced off the bedside table and lamp was the only thing that broke the silence”). (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Grim: Dark Fairy Tales for the Psychologically Minded

Joseph Burgo, read by Stuart Packer. New Rise, , unabridged, digital download, 9 hrs., $17.46 ASIN B01M7TMWV1

Three classic fairy tales­­—the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel—get a more sinister retelling in this three-novella collection by Burgo. Cinderella grapples with depression and a sense of dread about getting what she thought she wanted, Snow White’s mother hones her psychopathic tendencies to try to kill her daughter, and Rapunzel must deal with mommy issues and self-worth. Burgo creates strong narratives that add nuance and sophistication to these tales; the titular grimness manifests as sexual violence, rape fantasies, and ruthless seductresses. For portions from a male point of view, Packer makes a spectacular narrator with a resonant English accent and brooding tone reminiscent of Christopher Lee in his Hammer Films days. He does create believable and complex female character voices, but it seems strange to choose a male reader for a production that focuses on nearly all female protagonists. A New Rise paperback. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Elephants of Art: An Educational Art Story

Jo O’Mara. Archway, $14.95 paper (44p) ISBN 978-1-4808-2834-6

Toulouse, a gray mouse in a bowler hat, is confused by his art teacher’s reference to the “elements of art” and assumes that she meant the “elephants of art.” Setting out to find these important pachyderms, Toulouse meets three personable elephants, who are eager to share their knowledge: Linus, the elephant of line; Starla, the elephant of shape; and Rainbow, the elephant of color. Each elephant demonstrates the role played by his or her element and how the concepts work together to create art. “We came to show you how to put these pieces, or elements, together to make something beautiful,” explains Linus. O’Mara incorporates bright colors and eye-catching patterns into her collage-style graphics, filling the pages with lines, colors, and shapes that visually underscore what Toulouse is learning. Although some readers might be slightly confused by the literal manifestation of Toulouse’s misunderstanding, the book’s wordplay (including the connections between the elephants’ names and the concepts they represent) should help them remember the elements discussed. O’Mara, an art educator, packs a fair amount of information in this outing, the first in a planned series. Ages 2–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Soul Mender

R.S. Dabney. Red Pen Warriors, $14.99 trade paper (380p) ISBN 978-0-692-47201-9

A familiar science fiction theme—a parallel reality populated by alter egos of the inhabitants of our own—gets a fresh spin in this intriguing variant of a dark fantasy. Since childhood, Riley Dale, an environmental scientist living in Boulder, Colo., has been plagued by visions. Then she unexpectedly crosses over into the world of her imaginings with the help of a magic ring left to her by her grandmother. Partnering with Oz, a drug-addicted ne’er-do-well who represents the other half of her divided soul, and protector Zachary Stone, who’s a serial killer in her own world, Riley travels cross-country to Los Angeles, the terrorist-bombed capital of this alternate U.S., to learn the crucial role she must play in events rocking the parallel world. Dabney’s writing is crisp and confident, and her characters—including both of their personalities—are well-developed. She introduces more subplots than can be resolved by the novel’s end, making this a promising start for a projected trilogy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hunting in the Zoo: A Detective Pete Nazareth Novel

R.H. Johnson. Hampton, Westbrook, $17.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-5323-0214-5

Johnson’s suspenseful third novel featuring Det. Pete Nazareth of the NYPD (after A Measure of Revenge) places presidential candidate Archer Grande, who boasts that he could “stroll naked down Fifth Avenue, and my supporters would still vote for me,” in the crosshairs of an assassin. Nazareth is half of a team dubbed the Dynamic Duo, after he and fellow detective Tara Gimble amassed an impressive record for “not only closing the toughest cases but also for putting themselves in harm’s way again and again to get the job done right.” New York City’s mayor taps the pair to go after Stone Jackson, an expert sniper who has begun taking out child molesters, starting with the Little League coach who abused him. As Nazareth and Gimble search for Jackson, the killer ups the ante after concluding that Grande is a dangerous demagogue. Unexpected developments ratchet up the tension en route to a dramatic climax. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Flame Eater

Barbara Gaskell Denvil. Gaskell Publishing House, $4.99 e-book (424p) ASIN B01B8SEC3S

This meticulously detailed romantic thriller portrays two flawed families in medieval England whose less moral members are victims of a murderer/arsonist. The families are united in 1485 when heiress Emeline Wrotham marries Nicholas Chatwyn, an earl’s son and the aloof, scarred younger brother of Emeline’s true love, Peter, who was murdered. On their wedding night, the castle is engulfed in flames, and Nicholas is injured. Emeline and Nicholas, who is still recovering from extensive burns, depart for his cousin’s Nottingham home while the castle is being repaired, but an outbreak of the plague sends them away, eventually to London. During their travels, the marriage is consummated, and they become true partners, in love and in adventures. Charismatic and witty, Nicholas is the heart of Denvil’s novel; he works undercover for King Richard, rooting out political threats while maintaining the persona of a lazy drunkard to his disapproving father, whose favorite son is dead. Denvil’s numerous minor characters are as intriguing as Nicholas, infusing vitality and never detracting from the story. Everyday 15th-century life is richly evoked—the clothing, food, travel, habits—providing substance to a winning narrative. Family dysfunction is deftly woven into a mélange of murder, politics, and romance, with a wickedly realistic, often comical portrayal of kinship. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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American Tango

Jennifer Vandever. Melograno, $14 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-9966795-2-7

In her enjoyable second novel, Vandever cleverly meshes strikingly eccentric characters with everyday situations. Rosalind Plumley, a 37-year-old Oregonian, is an artist trapped in a retail job that caters to snobby hipsters. She’s the middle child in a bohemian family and married to a sweet but sad man who has a budding marijuana addiction. Amid her failing marriage and struggles with her neurotic family, Rosalind fantasizes about escaping her life and moving to Buenos Aires. She signs up for a tango class in preparation for her imagined future, and what follows is a story about love and reevaluating your dreams when reality comes crashing down. Rosalind can be amusingly gloomy and the story is seasoned with salty wit—she describes a pair of shoes as appearing to have been “dipped in the shimmery gold powder used to kill off a Bond girl,” and when her liberal mother considers a late-in-life romance, the greatest drawback is that the man voted for Romney. Vandever (The Brontë Project) writes smart, interesting characters who gradually mature in believable ways. Perceptive, bittersweet, and sometimes darkly funny, this is light enough for a quick read, yet it has enough depth to leave a satisfying impression. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Tough Girl: An Olympian’s Journey

Carolyn Wood. White Pine Press (Oregon), $18 paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9977828-0-6

In this scattered debut work, written after hiking the Camino de Santiago, Wood reflects on the struggles of youth as the root of her courage and strength necessary to push on in later life. Wood, a competitive swimmer in her early years, attempts to relate a life of hard lessons that got her to the 1960 Junior Olympics in Rome and helped her through adolescence in the mid-1960s. However, while Wood thinks fondly of her time in the pool, swimming feels like something she did in between more important life happenings. Wood depicts herself in turn as a daughter in a strained relationship with a mother recovering from cancer, an athlete constantly pushing to be and do better, a lesbian finding comfort in her own sexuality, and a middle-aged woman looking to the next phase of life. Making stops at every trying life obstacle from childhood to late adulthood, she introduces so many charged elements that the novel feels unsure of which story it is trying to tell. The sections on swimming, her mother, and her lesbianism are thought provoking, but this is mostly an aimless journey in the present while dipping into the past, with a number of rhetorical questions that read as though she’s trying to figure out her life as she’s writing it. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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