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Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things with Him

Scotch Wichmann. Freakshow Books, $17.99 trade paper (482p) ISBN 978-0-9910257-0-1

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Computer programmers by day, performance artists by night, Larry and Hank live out an alt-com dream in Wichmann’s bright and capacious fiction debut. They meet at a seedy club in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and immediately become pals; Hank has a passionate “Performance Art Manifesto” and Larry buys in. The only obstacles to bromantic adventure are Hank’s nagging wife, Sherry, and real life, which demands that the duo make a living. They get mind-numbingly boring jobs at a multinational company called Redsoft, run by software mogul Bill Kuntsler. Performance art falls short as the tonic to their boredom, and they begin acting out at work, where Larry finds something like love with a quirky girl called Mouse. The same craving that fuels the duo’s performance art pieces seems to drive their madcap plan to kidnap Kuntsler. Captivity, however, brings its own set of problems, as the chaos, danger, absurdity, and insanity keep ratcheting up. The book’s most entertaining episodes are on trivia, Larry’s family, their performance art, etc. Wichmann’s shaggy novel may be too much of a good thing, but it’s still a good thing. Cheeky and refreshing. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Land Outside

Daniel Landin. Daniel Landin, $2.99 e-book (54p) ASIN B00HUKC4AC

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This archetypal tale is made fresh and enchanting by mesmerizing illustrations. The central character, a small manta ray, is a restless soul, curious about the “land outside,” the place beyond the familiar sea that the ray inhabits. When a sea lion describes that land, the ray dreams of it and fervently longs to be there, praying hard until one day he finds himself transformed into a bird in the land where everything “was magnificently new.” Very soon the restless ray seeks more, and is transformed again and again until, like the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, he comes to understand the value of home. The narrative is a bit long for the attention spans of youngest readers, but Landin’s art, done in digitally manipulated acrylic, oil, and pencil, depicts creature after creature in a riot of color and settings. The dominant blue of the sea setting provides a soothing anchor that could make this a perfect bedtime story, one that might prompt colorful dreams of worlds outside. A visually arresting book. All ages. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Stone Lions

Gwen Dandridge. Hickory Tree (hickorytree-books.blogspot.com), $10.99 paper (238p) ISBN 978-0-9893157-8-4

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Debut author Dandridge explores the complex world of 15th-century Islamic Spain in this fantasy. Ara, the unruly daughter of the sultan of Alhambra, and her shy cousin Layla are swept up in a magical plot to destroy the palace and usurp its rightful ruler. Working with a visiting Sufi “mathemagician” named Tahirah and the magically transformed harem eunuch Suleiman, Ara and Layla must learn the secrets of symmetry—an integral part of Islamic art and central to the magic of the Alhambra—to stop a great evil from tearing apart their home. Dandridge brings a deep respect for historical accuracy and Islamic culture to the story, and although her interpretation of Sharia law may sometimes err on the stricter side, her depiction of women’s everyday lives in aristocratic 1400s Spain is spot-on. Her prose is slightly stiff in exposition dealing with the principles of symmetry, but Dandridge plays her own academic background for laughs with the scholarly Tahirah. More importantly, the story never stops feeling like a Rowling-esque adventure, pitting brave girls against seemingly impossible odds—mathematically speaking, of course. Ages 8–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Island of Doctor Moreau

H.G. Wells, read by a full cast. Mondello, 3 CDs, 3 hrs., $19.95 ISBN 978-1-940650-11-1

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Mondello Publishing provides an updated adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic novel, positioning the story in the 1950s and in the context of genetic mutation and nuclear power. Through uncontrollable events, Edward Prendick finds himself on an unmarked island with Montgomery, a scientist and aid to the notorious Dr. Moreau. Prendick soon discovers that the island’s wild-life is a bit more human than he’s comfortable with. The full cast of clear and distinctive voice actors includes Matthew Postner as Prendick, Nathalie Boltt as Montgomery, and Andrew McGinn as Moreau. Other actors fill in for secondary characters and humanoid animals, which the production captures well, providing each character with strong vocal cues to help the listener understand what kind of animal it is. The background music and sound effects further enhance the mood and tone of the production. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Angelina's Prayer

Cheryl Bartky. Bark of the Tree Communications (www.Counseling4theSoul.com), $5.95 paper (48p) ISBN 978-1-4811-6715-4

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In this sweet but underdeveloped Christmas-themed chapter book about generosity, accepting loss, and defining home, nine-year-old Angelina and her mother have just moved to Albuquerque, N. Mex., from New York City. Angelina clings to the hope that her father, who abandoned them two years earlier, will return, but she is uncertain how he will find them now that they have left New York. Angelina quickly befriends two neighbors—Tony, who is Hispanic like Angelina, and Minerva, who is Jewish. After Angelina learns about the local holiday custom of lighting luminarias and their power to answer prayers, she thinks that they could be the way to make her family whole again. While the premise is moving, Bartky's dialogue can often be wooden ("Do you think if I made lots and lots of luminarias and set them all around my house, they would grow so bright that my dad would be able to find me?"). Bartky does a fine job of conjuring the New Mexico landscape and Albuquerque community, but the story feels shoehorned into its slim format. Ages 8–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Angels on My Tree

Lu Ann Schnable Kaldor, illus. by Eve S. Gendron. Four Directions Press (www.theangelsonmytree.com), $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-9627659-4-0

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In a melancholy but hopeful holiday story, a girl's Christmas is shadowed by the recent death of her father. Familiar traditions only deepen the awareness of his absence: "We stood side by side looking at our tree and cried. After a while, my mother said, ‘Let's go surround ourselves with beauty; it always makes us feel better.' " A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City inspires the two of them to spend the season helping others. For each act of kindness—such as cooking for neighbors or arranging for musicians to play at a nursing home—they place another angel on their Christmas tree. The spare line drawings, permeated with a sense of loneliness, become less so as mother and daughter discover cheer through their generosity; gradually, the images acquire subtle warmth and splashes of pale color. Kaldor wisely keeps the story away from overt sentimentality, instead letting the quiet prose and airy artwork carry the message about letting go and moving forward. Ages 4–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Porter Searches for Santa

Jonathan I. Gonzales. N.B. 498 Press (www.porterpenguin.com), $16.95 (36p) ISBN 978-0-9960610-0-1

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In a Christmas story whose modeled clay artwork gives the scenes the feel of stills from a Claymation film, a penguin named Porter receives a letter from a child that was meant for Santa Claus. Porter is determined to discover who Santa is; the "penguin encyclopedia" is no help, but the grumpy yet wise penguin Old Rockhopper might know. Porter and his friend Franklin travel to Snowman Mountain, where Old Rockhopper, who looks rather like a gray tombstone wearing an eye patch, tells boring stories that cause the penguins to sleep through his descriptions of Santa. Finally, Porter's mother tells him about Santa, but as a flightless bird, Porter can't make it to the North Pole on his own. First-time author/illustrator Gonzales accents his images with charming details (such as the pearls Porter's mother wears and the silvery "fishsicles" Porter has for lunch), but the long-winded narrative proceeds slowly, and while much is made of the dangers of Porter's journey to Snowman Mountain and Old Rockhopper's temper, the artwork never gives a sense of significant peril. All ages. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Heartbreak Hotel

Aneta Cruz. Black Opal, $11.99 trade paper (286p) ISBN 978-1-62694-060-4

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Cruz (The Guardian) tries and fails to bring a literary sensibility to contemporary romance. Kara, a young woman desperate for love, is confused and self-absorbed. Freshly graduated from hospitality school in Czechoslovakia, Kara joins the ranks of the desk clerks at one of Prague’s finest hotels. Blending in with a wide cast of likewise single co-workers, she fumbles from club to bed and from relationship to obsessive crush over the next several months, rarely settling for long with any one man or friend. Her most elusive hope is a romantic kiss in the center of the Charles Bridge. Kara’s single-minded focus on sex, virginity, and relationships gives an adolescent tone to her epic quest to find Mr. Right (Now), overwhelming the pleasant prose. Her occasional charming sweetness and the interesting but underdeveloped supporting cast aren’t quite enough to overcome a one-track plot and murky ending. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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By Water and Blood

Melanie Rose. CreateSpace, $13.95 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-4826-9590-8

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Rose (Violet Shadows) weaves a modern fantasy tale that manages to be equal parts fascinating and dull. Young Sophie Durrant abandons her present-day American life to tend bar on Unst, one of the Shetland Islands north of Britain. She’s drawn to its gruff Scottish natives, its ponies, and most of all the sea—and the seals that live in it. Sophie eventually discovers that she is the granddaughter of a Selkie, a shape-shifter who can remove her sealskin to become human. She also learns about hunters who steal Selkie skins and force them into the world of human trafficking. Rose’s core conceit is strong and sophisticated; her descriptions of the pain of slavery resonate with the weight of history, and the descriptions of Unst are incredible. Far less compelling are the subplots, such as Sophie’s friend’s quest to get her to move back home, and her inevitable romance with a Selkie man who is (naturally) tall, dark-haired, and dashing. Rose’s updated Selkie myth is far too interesting to be paired with such conventional tropes, and the result is a very uneven novel. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fun & Games

David Michael Slater. Library Tales, $17.99 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-0-615-77415-2

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Jon is a normal teenager about to start college, but in Slater’s novel he finds that he can’t move forward in life until he comes to terms with his family’s past. While his grandmother is a Holocaust survivor, his father vehemently avoids religion. Jon’s two older sisters are a handful: Nadia is a manipulator, with her fingers in everything the family does, and Olivia is toeing the line between virgin and professional soft-porn star. When an incident at Hebrew school sends the rabbi to Jon’s house, it precipitates a crisis of faith that causes their father to abandon them for Israel, where he is killed. As Jon departs for college, accompanied by two of his best friends, the lies and intrigues get deeper, and the more he learns about his family, the more he realizes he doesn’t know them. When he returns home for a wedding, tragedy strikes and forces the family to reach a reckoning with their lies. The characters manage to be both familiar and well-realized individuals, and beneath the banal suburban setting hide deep troubles. Slater finds a successful tone between comedy and pathos that carries readers through some of the less plausible twists, even making the violent ending work. While Jon’s best friends could be more clearly defined, Jon’s own progression is strong. Slater has painted an intimate and memorable family portrait. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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