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Too Early for Flowers

Kurt Sipolski. Kurt Sipolski, $4.99 e-book (98p) ISBN 978-1-4524-2114-8

Sipolski bases this historical novel on his mother’s life story. Iris left her small town of Hardscrabble, Ill., in 1940 at the age of 18 and headed for Washington, D.C., with dreams of traveling the globe. Her aspirations were short-circuited when her husband died, leaving her to raise two small boys. After coming back home to Hardscrabble, Iris faces the difficulties of living in her childhood home with her mother and sister, as well as confronting and finding strength in the challenges that come with the onset of polio in her youngest son. Despite these obstacles, Iris finds full-time employment and soldiers through her hardships. Later, she remarries and has a third son before tragedy strikes once again. Readers will find themselves immersed in Iris’s struggles as well as in the social dynamics of an earlier era, when doctors offered few remedies for diseases such as polio. Sipolski brings emotion and energy to this story of the uncommon woman at his family’s center. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/06/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Empty Places

Martin Roy Hill. CreateSpace, $15 ISBN 978-1-484058-38-1

In the prologue of this capable thriller set in 1987 from Hill (The Killing Depths), an unidentified man guns down TV reporter Robin Anderson in California’s Coachella Valley after she confronts him with an incriminating tape. The news of Robin’s murder reaches her former husband, Peter Brandt, in his Mexico City office, where he’s been investigating war crimes in Central America. Peter, who once worked in the Coachella Valley as a police reporter before he was fired, still has grim recollections of the area (“I remember street corners by the number of people killed there”). Peter reunites with an old friend, cop-turned-PI Matt Banyon, and the pair quickly dismiss the official account of the crime—that Robin was killed by a stranger she picked up—especially when it becomes clear that someone is desperately seeking some piece of information she obtained. Hill’s well-rounded lead, scarred by what he’s witnessed, helps make up for a plot that loses its way after a strong start. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/06/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Nuns with Guns

Seth Kaufman. Sukuma, $14.99 trade paper (274p) ISBN 978-0-9860965-0-1

This satirical follow-up to The King of Pain brings back Rick Salter, a salty, world-weary reality TV show producer looking to save face in the aftermath of his previous, much-maligned program, which involved torturing its contestants. Rick has just married his fourth wife, Marta, an undocumented immigrant who was his housekeeper for 21 years, and who saved him from an embarrassing “accident” involving a home entertainment system. When Marta’s sons, who own a taco restaurant, are targeted in a shooting, Rick is inspired to launch a reality show called Nuns with Guns. The premise: four nuns compete against one another to see which one can gather the most guns from American firearm owners. Rick becomes the unlikely voice of a televised revolution, as the nun posse, led by Sister Rosemarie, inspires hordes of Americans to relinquish their weapons. Gun enthusiasts and the NRA, meanwhile, incite an equally fervent backlash. Rick is a charismatic antihero bolstered by credible side characters, and in the midst of Kaufman’s sardonic humor, there rings out an earnest outcry for gun reform. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/06/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Inferno: The Art Collection

Dino Di Durante. Gotimna, $39.99 (84p) ISBN 978-1-62879-002-3

This collection of illustrations by Di Durante is intended to provide visual accompaniment for the first canto in Dante’s masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, but it falls flat in its depiction. Di Durante’s preface describes his creative journey, mentioning Salvador Dalí and Sandro Botticelli as his artistic antecedents. He hopes in his introduction that his work will “visually convey” Dante’s message in order that readers may “find [their] purpose in this life.” The bulk of the work consists of 72 full-page images, each depicting a scene from Inferno with a brief caption along with two QR codes; one links to the associated text of the book and the other to a web page where copies of the artwork may be purchased. Di Durante never describes the medium he uses, but the images are reminiscent of computer-generated art. The best of the images are adequate representations of Dante’s story but not more than that. The premise of the book is interesting, but its execution adds little to the story other than a visual aid. Color illus. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/06/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows; Short Stories and Essays by Mexico Writers

Edited by Mikel Miller, with Michael Hogan and Linton Robinson. CreateSpace, $9.95 trade paper (252p) ISBN 978-1-5152-3210-0

This anthology reveals many different dimensions of Mexico in 22 fiction and nonfiction selections, most of them by U.S.-born authors. Drawn from varied sources that include travel guides, blogs, and short story collections, the pieces form an eclectic, if inconsistent, mosaic. “The Blossoming of Baja’s Pacific Coast” by Ann Hazard vividly praises the area’s inexplicable draw for artists and musicians as well as the seductive allure of its fresh margaritas. The prose slips at times into a commercial monotone: “Truly... Baja’s South Pacific Coast is somewhere that belongs on your Bucket List!” Other entries lack sophistication and contain awkward constructions: “Why do individuals and masses march along like good little soldiers to ideologies that perhaps make little sense nor support their happiness and life fulfillment?” writes Katie O’Grady in “We Became an Expat Family.” Nevertheless, some of the selections positively hum, including David Lida’s “Acapulco Gold,” which sees the golden arches of McDonald’s and its dining tourists as a beacon for a homeless child, and Bruce Berger’s evocative and gorgeously crafted “Under the Cypress.” The anthology’s montage of images and voices creates an almost puzzling effect of simultaneously unveiling and obscuring its subject; thoughtful travelers might feel similarly upon leaving a destination and wondering whether it was ever really there for them to know at all. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/06/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Stone Circle

Anthony Tuck. Wheatmark, $12.95 paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-62787-307-9

Siblings fight ancient evil with help from mythological figures in Tuck’s engaging first novel. Telepathic 12-year-old twins Maisie and Jasper Tuck are spending the fall with Professor Winslop while their parents are away on an archeological dig. With nothing to do but listen to the Professor’s lectures on history and myth, the twins take to exploring the New Hampshire woods. After they find a circle of stones reminiscent of Stonehenge, the professor reveals that they are the Children of Gemini and they must use the stone circle to locate four jewels to complete the Crown of Seasons and defeat the Dark Ones. Tuck draws on a wealth of mythological elements from Norse, Greek, Native American, and other sources to create an appealing adventure, though the story can get bogged down in details and lore surrounding barrow wights, selkies, and other creatures and legends. While Maisie and Jasper are equally capable and important to the story, the characters as a whole are fairly one-note. Regardless, Tuck provides intriguing food for thought about the oral tradition of myths and the ways stories change as they’re told. Ages 9–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Song Birds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music

Heather Augustyn. Half Pint, $25 (423p) ISBN 978-1-5024-3604-7

In this engaging, well-researched book, Augustyn (Ska: An Oral History) states that women had almost no chance in the male-dominated Jamaican music industry in the 1940s–1980s; it was all “overt power and testosterone.” In the songs, women were “the playground for men” or “wrongdoers,” and the lyrics were “misogynistic and thus not very appropriate for female consumption, must less creation.” She shows that the women who pursued music careers in this setting were trailblazers. Augustyn profiles dozens of women who persevered through tough times, juggling child rearing, gender discrimination, and low pay. She includes Louise Bennett, who “brought the Jamaican patois, folklore, and culture to the stage [and] her talents to Harlem”; Millie Small, whose “bubbling” voice made her cover version of “My Boy Lollipop” an international hit; and Susan Cadogan, who went from “quiet library assistant to... superstar.” This is an exhaustive, if overlong, history of Jamaican music. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Sour Candy

Kealan Patrick Burke. Elderlemon, $2.99 e-book (66p) ASIN B017QCGW24

Horror author Burke (Kin) delivers an excellent terror-filled novella. Philip Pendleton is an unexceptional man, living a carefree life with his young son, Adam. No one who observes them has any idea that Philip has only known Adam for a short time, and this carefree life is really a living hell: after the two randomly meet at a store, Adam decides to make Philip his newest “parent,” using his terrible powers to completely rewrite Philip’s life so that everyone else thinks he’s always been there. Only Philip remembers the life he used to have, and those memories are no comfort as he becomes a prisoner in his own home, a slave to a demonic child. Bringing the evil-child trope to its devastating apex, Burke creates a horrific vision of what might happen if children utterly controlled their parents. Burke’s writing is visceral; Philip’s descent into madness is rendered in unnerving terms. Adding in a Lovecraftian pantheon of monsters, Burke creates a stomach-twisting ride through the depths of horror, breathing new life into an often-stagnant part of the genre. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Stay: Troubled Hearts, Book 1

Savannah Brooks. Amazon Digital, $2.99 ASIN B017EL0B24

This tender, uncomplicated love story has an old-fashioned happy ending, complete with a wedding—all the sweeter because it’s a pleasant 21st-century romance between two men who find love on an eastern Arizona ranch turned campground. When 23-year-old Blake Stevens wanders onto the grounds of Spirit Lake Camp, all he wants is a job, even if it’s temporary—maybe especially if it is. He just needs cash and a place to sleep. Ever since being thrown out of the house by a disapproving father, the former Marine has been trying to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Spirit Lake’s family scion Asher Collins decides the best thing Blake could do is share that life with him. The ensuing cat and mouse game comes with no earth-shattering surprises and few complications, but no matter. For fans of straightforward romance with a smattering of steamy lovemaking, this story will fit the bill nicely. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Nutcracker King: Coming from Darkness, Book 1

Eustacia Tan. Eustacia Tan, $0.99 e-book (115p) ASIN B018VK9132

Tan inexplicably morphs the joyful Nutcracker story into a gruesome, horrific rampage of a psychopathic prince turned doll who murders his family members and bathes in their blood, all for the sake of his quest to become human again and win the hand of his dear Marie. This unsettling alteration of the original story eschews the happy ending and takes place eight years later, with the love story between the Nutcracker and Marie unresolved. The plot of this sexist novella involves a kidnapping, forced marriage, torture, and a ditzy “heroine” who makes excuses for the evil the Nutcracker does in her name. The brutality rivals the original Grimm fairy tales and is certainly not appropriate for children. Tan mixes third-person and first-person points of view to the detriment of the narrative flow, abuses clichés, misplaces colloquialisms, and includes anachronisms that would have baffled E.T.A. Hoffmann. Those hoping for a Pride and Prejudice and Zombies–style bit of whimsy will be very disappointed. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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