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Planet A: A Mother’s Memoir of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Diane Mayer Christiansen. Diane Mayer Christiansen, $9.99 trade paper (204p) ISBN 978-0-692-79202-5

After her son, Jackie, was diagnosed with autism, Christiansen became a special-needs advocate to help others understand the “alternate planet” that children on the autism spectrum reside on and to demonstrate how close that planet is to our own lives, if we are willing to be patient and kind. She makes her experiences personally relatable by offering an honest account of motherhood, revealing her fears and imperfections in the process. Despite the difficulties parenting presents, Christiansen’s account does have moments of comedy—usually in her knee-jerk reactions to her son’s extreme honesty. Parents, especially those of special-needs children, will sympathize with Christiansen’s fight for the acceptance of her child’s—and by extension all children’s—differences. However, the book might have benefitted from including scientific research or articles Christiansen came across while trying to figure things out, or from presenting the coping mechanisms she used along the way. It also lacks a strong sense of structure. Readers follow Jackie, who grows from prepubescent to young adolescent, at odd intervals, making it difficult to draw conclusions on the parenting lessons Christiansen learned. The final section is an interview with Jackie, and while his answers are impactful, the questions seem random. Overall, the final section feels short and misplaced. While life and parenthood are constantly evolving processes and so can’t offer solid resolutions, Christiansen’s memoir is in want of one. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Keeping Kyrie

Emily Christensen, with Nathan Christensen. HWC Press, $34.99 (312p) ISBN 978-0-9977588-0-1

Christensen’s memoir is a heart-wrenching testimonial for foster care, adoption, and the Mormon faith. She relates the story of finding her church and then a perfect husband, Nathan, but as the new couple attempt to have children, they endure a number of miscarriages. They fill the empty space of childlessness with foster care and, in an extraordinary real-life tale of patience and endurance, they foster over 70 troubled children. Personal challenges continue to test Emily’s determination to build a family, but she and Nathan eventually adopt five children. They then learn of a baby, Kyrie, who has been born with a daunting medical condition. Emily cares for Kyrie through many traumatizing surgeries and tries to adopt the child, but bureaucratic obstacles block the way. Christensen writes with a gripping style and grim honesty as she tells her very difficult story; the narration is sometimes oddly dispassionate and yet is also intriguingly blended with deep emotion (“The brothers described being given alcohol, seeing people doing drugs, and ‘lots of screaming and hitting and throwing things’ ”). Filled with descriptions of life’s struggles, love of family, the details of medical procedures, and prayer, this book is likely to be inspirational to those of the LDS faith. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hardbarned: One Man’s Quest for Meaningful Work in the American South

Christopher J. Driver, illus. by Tarri N. Driver. Mill City, $9.99 e-book (310p) ISBN 978-1-63505-034-9

Based on his Hardbarned blog, this book is Driver’s fascinating and funny look at the three years he spent delivering, repossessing, and repairing portable storage barns in the rural South, ranging in size from tiny toolshed to “massive Greyhound touring bus.” Needing to pay bills after graduate school, Driver finds himself “working behind the wheel of a one-ton diesel pickup truck, dragging a 30-foot custom-built hydraulic lift trailer with a steadily building berserker rage.” His descriptions of the barns are hilarious: “They look fairly new for the most part, except when they’re converted into meth labs and accidentally explode, or when they’re cut to pieces and modified into dog kennels, horse barns, chicken coops, dance clubs, game rooms, garbage dumpsters, hunting lodges or temporary living quarters for incontinent adults.” His rage comes from having to deal with customers who don’t tell him that he must set up their barns “on the sides of hills; in between garages and broken-down cars; in creek beds and piles of mud and garbage; and amid rotten tree stumps, fire pits, discarded motor oil, broken High Life bottles, animal shit, charcoal and anything else imaginable, including dead bodies.” Unfortunately, Driver bogs down the narrative by including in it the various jobs he had from youth through college. The descriptions of these are interesting—especially when Driver talks about his career in a punk-rock band—but the strength of his writing is best shown in the chapters that describe his life with barns and their owners; these chapters would have made a powerful book on their own. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island

Glenn Herdling. Balboa, $12.95 paper (282p) ISBN 978-1-5043-4972-7

Herdling debuts with a jam-packed supernatural adventure set against the backdrop of 1920s New York City. A resourceful, redheaded orphan, 12-year-old Piper Weiss is sent to live with her uncle—Harry Houdini—who is consumed by a campaign to discredit spiritualism and the mediums who he believes prey on the grief stricken and vulnerable. Yet something unearthly is creeping in the periphery, and Piper becomes embroiled in a mystery involving the deaths of Coney Island’s freak show performers; the story also draws in vampires, a hidden dimension (which Piper enters through a magic mirror), and a dash of voodoo. Herdling provides plenty of forward momentum, yet the novel can become overwhelmed by the many supernatural elements and plot diversions, including Piper’s own gathering powers, which only become clear toward the end; readers may need to scramble back through the pages to understand how the elements are interconnected. Regardless, strong central characters, evocative writing, and an atmospheric setting result in a fresh and fun novel. Though labeled as young adult, Piper’s story, set to continue in a sequel, is probably best suited to a middle grade audience. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Just an Act

Tamara Tilley. Archer Press, $15.99 trade paper (490p) ISBN 978-0-692-83226-4

Mitch Burk needs a break from life as movie star Simon Grey. But when an accident leaves him stranded at the Diamond-J ranch in Kansas, Mitch might have asked for more than he can handle. The beautiful ranch owner, Beth, and her angst-filled teenage son, Shane, reluctantly allow Mitch to stay on their property to recuperate. A wayward traveler is the last thing Beth needs right now, but she suspects her son had more to do with the accident than he lets on, so she lets the stranger stay. As Mitch recovers from his wounds, he finds himself the confidant of the troubled Shane, much to Beth’s chagrin. When the roles reverse and Beth needs help, Mitch does what he can to make sure no harm comes to her, Shane, or the Diamond-J ranch. Just as Mitch starts to see what life and family after stardom could look like with Beth, contractual obligations call for Simon Grey to publicly reappear, and a person from Beth’s past returns. Tilley (One Saturday) creates compelling characters, even as the needless bickering can get in the way of plot and character development. The intense climax seems more serious than the rest of the novel would suggest, but the redemption and freedom it offers the characters in the end ultimately wins out. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Defiled

Mike Nemeth. Morgan James, $21.95 trade paper (346p) ISBN 978-1-68350-001-8

At the start of Nemeth’s unpleasant debut, the first of a planned trilogy, 58-year-old entrepreneur Randle Marks is served with divorce papers by his 44-year-old wife, Carrie, in the couple’s country house in Florida’s Cortes County. He immediately calls his best friend and lawyer, Tony Zambrano, who advises him to move to the couple’s beach house in the town of Dolphin Beach. The two later meet at the lawyer’s office, where they discuss strategy. Randle’s startup is about to go public, and if it does before the divorce is finalized, any profits become fair game in the divorce proceedings. Randle believes he must outwit Carrie, her high-priced lawyer, and her family members or he’ll end up broke. He’s willing to do just about anything to keep her from getting a sizable settlement, including undermining her credibility by providing evidence of her mental instability. Though Nemeth writes well and knows how to build suspense, the one-dimensional characters, none of whom are sympathetic, will put off many readers. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | 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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