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Death Is the Cool Night and Lost to the World

Libby Sternberg. CreateSpace, $14.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-5304-0035-5

This volume collects two well-crafted novels by Sternberg (Sloane Hall). In Death Is the Cool Night, which is set in 1941, troubled concert pianist Gregory Silensky is one of several suspects following the murder of Ivan Roustakoff, a pompous and cruel opera conductor, at his home in Baltimore, Md. Gregory, his brain addled by heavy alcohol consumption, fears that he might have strangled his nemesis. Other suspects include Gregory’s love interest, Laura, a beautiful, aristocratic opera singer, who had her own reasons to hate Ivan. Lost to the World, set in 1954 and likewise in Baltimore, centers on the murder of a researcher pioneering a polio vaccine. Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations in each book. The author is an Edgar Award nominee. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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All My Love, Detrick

Roberta Kagan. CreateSpace, $19.99 trade paper (434p) ISBN 978-1-5025-7148-9

This saga of two young, star-crossed lovers in Nazi Germany is insightful but disappointing. Even as a child in 1923 Berlin, Detrick Haswell was estranged from his father, an alcoholic. After a bike accident, seven-year-old Christian Detrick meets Jacob Abdenstern, a Jewish bicycle merchant, who becomes a mentor and father figure to him. Years later, Jacob’s daughter, Leah, and Detrick, who grows up to be handsome, strong, and principled, fall in love. When Hitler comes to power, and the persecution and deportation of Jews begin, Detrick finds a willing family to hide Jacob and Leah in their attic. Under suspicion because of his relationship with Jacob and Leah, Detrick joins the Nazi party to provide a cover for his true beliefs, and to help protect his parents and pay for Jacob and Leah’s quarters; later, he converts to Judaism. Although coverage of the entire World War II years and the travails of minor characters is ambitious, the timeline and narrative often feel shuffled. Marred by sentimentality and a too-brisk rhythm, the novel nonetheless has likable, engaging characters in Detrick and Leah. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters

Edited by Stefan Cooke. Farksolia, $29.95 (638p) ISBN 978-0-9962431-1-7

The writer Barbara Follett, as revealed in this compilation of letters, diary entries, and reviews edited by her half-nephew Cooke, lived a life that would be unbelievable if it were presented in a work of fiction. Born in 1914, Barbara began writing at age four and published her first novel, The House Without Windows, at 13. She was home-schooled and had little contact with other children; most of her early letters are to grown-up friends. She was enthralled by nature and invented her own world, Farksolia. This idyllic life was shattered when Barbara’s adored father left the family for another woman. His letters at this time are bitterly cruel. In an effort to establish Barbara as a travel writer, her mother, Helen, took her on a long odyssey to the South Pacific. Cooke’s narrative emphasizes that Barbara shared her father’s tendency to escape problems rather than confronting them. In Samoa, Barbara suffered “a smash—emotional and nervous.” Back in the U.S., she ran away and was found by the police, a widely reported incident. In 1939, shortly after her husband of five years asked for a divorce, she left her house and was never seen again. Many of the letters repeatedly cover the same ground, but anyone intrigued by this real-life mystery will want to read them all. Her fantastical life and the enigma of her disappearance are equally compelling. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Waiting for the Voo

Dean Ammerman. Kabloona, $12 paper (162p) ISBN 978-0-9846822-3-2

In this offbeat SF adventure, first in the Warrensberg trilogy, 13-year-old Wilkin Delgado isn’t pleased when his mother invites a friend and her daughter to move in with them. Alice Jane Zelinski—a 14-year-old with tattoos, gray hair, and an anger management problem—doesn’t want to be there either. Then Wilkin’s mother takes in yet another eccentric tenant. Cardamon Webb, who is a bit like a cross between Willy Wonka and “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, calls himself a plumber, but he’s actually on a quest to fill a dangerous galactic hole, and he needs Wilkin and Alice Jane’s help to prevent their world from being infiltrated by otherworldly “riffraff.” Ammerman builds chemistry between the two central characters through their alternating first-person points of view, but the many outlandish creatures they encounter—demonic birds, “porcelain killer dolls,” and lots of ferrets—feel more like diversionary instruments of chaos than key plot elements. Still, it’s good fun watching Alice Jane and Wilkin romp through the muck of the universe. Books two and three, Escape from Dorkville and The Last Ma-Loo, are also available. Ages 8–12. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | 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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Graveyard Shift

Angela Roquet. CreateSpace, $14.95 trade paper (259p) ISBN 978-1-4800-0418-4

Roquet breathes new life into death with the debut of her Reapers, Inc. urban fantasy series. Lana Harvey is an eighth-generation reaper, content with harvesting low-risk souls on a freelance basis. She gets her docket in the morning, heads over to the mortal realm to pick her passengers up, and then takes them back to her ship in Limbo City. Every afternoon, she and her sailing partner drop their souls off in the respective afterlives. At night, she enjoys poker games with her friends, including the angel Gabriel, and spends countless hours warming a stool at the demon-run Purgatory Lounge. Lana’s quite content with her life until she’s chosen by Grim, the CEO of Reapers, Inc., to help quell an insurrection threatening to destroy the fabric of Eternity. The blending of cultures and traditions is handled respectfully, with more than a touch of humor mixed in with hints of romance and mystery. The setting is rich and varied with a little something for fans of several different genres. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/19/2016 | Details & Permalink

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