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The Smart One

Drew Yanno. Pellegrino, $14.95 trade paper (318p) ISBN 978-0-692761-72-4

Why would your old family doctor, whom you hadn’t seen in at least 30 years, ask his wife to deliver an envelope, containing a list of apparently unrelated and unfamiliar names to you, after his death? That’s the question confronting the unnamed narrator of this outstanding Hitchcockian thriller from Yanno (In the Matter of Michael Vogel). A highly intelligent man who once had a successful career as an author and professor, he’s now retired and not doing much of anything. This uninspired routine ends when his secretary passes on messages from the widow of Dr. Condon, the narrator’s former pediatrician, advising him of the doctor’s passing and pleading for him to attend the funeral. When he meets her, she gives him a list of 12 names and a note from the dead man telling him that he would know what to do after finding out what the names have in common. His reluctance to comply changes quickly after a dramatic development that has him fleeing for his life. The twists are surprising but plausible, and the spare prose a good match for the fast-moving plot. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Chasing Down the Moon

Carla Baku. Look Ma No Hands, $13.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-9861717-0-3

Based on the actual Chinese expulsion of 1885, Baku’s first novel is richly textured and well-crafted, with the setting of 19th-century Eureka, Calif. described with commendable accuracy. A young Chinese girl, Ya Zhen, is sold by her father and brought on a hellish journey from China to Eureka, where she is forced into prostitution. Rose Allen, who four years previously voluntarily relocated to Eureka from Illinois to live with her aunt, relishes her freedom and falls in love with Bai Lum, the proprietor of the Chinese mercantile. Together they try to help Ya Zhen. Rose and Bai Lum’s love is forbidden, and the situation gets worse when an anti-immigrant uproar begins after a white man is murdered. The Chinese residents of Eureka are blamed and the entire population is threatened. Both historical and fictional characters thrive under Baku’s hand. The novel resonates with current issues such as nationalism, immigration, and the oppression of women. In the hands of a less talented author, this heart-wrenching type of story could have fallen short, but fortunately, Baku comes through. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Head-On: Stories of Alopecia Deeann

Callis Graham. Head-on Publishing, $32 (224p) ISBN 978-0-9962444-1-1

During decades of living with the hair loss condition alopecia, Graham had neither met nor heard about anyone else with it; she thus began chronicling her journey and reaching out to others like her. Now, in this beautifully photographed collection, Graham provides a thorough guide to the different types of alopecia and its triggers and treatments, also sharing numerous stories of those affected. Graham gives her story first, documenting the initial moment of discovery (her mother combing Graham’s hair in the bath), diagnosis, coping, and ultimate cultivation of community. Many strong voices are poignantly captured, along with evocative black-and-white portraits: law student Marlina, who thought alopecia would limit her romantic life, but is now married to a “hunk”; Heather, who tattooed a sunflower with a peace sign on her head; artist D.K. Wright, who tells his story in a poem, and Alexis and Vangelis, a father and son given an extra connection by both having alopecia. There are many heartwarming accounts from young children, always accompanied by a parent’s commentary. Interspersed among the personal stories are inspirational quotes on specific topics such as “Pushing the Limits,” “Realizations,” and “Unconditional Love.” This is a powerful compilation of profiles with a sincere and encouraging message. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Tears in the Wind: Triumph and Tragedy on America’s Highest Peak

Larry Semento. CreateSpace, $11.99 trade paper (218p) ISBN 978-1-5335-5813-8

Semento, a circuit judge in central Florida, turns his attention to mountaineering in this rugged account of scaling Denali, the highest peak of North America, which for him is a diversion from the courtroom. Semento first explains the joy of hiking up trails in the Great Smoky Mountains. He geared up as a member of a three-man team to challenge Mt. Rainier in 1994, which he labeled “the most physically demanding and rewarding endeavor until that time.” The heart of the book is his climbing of Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) in Alaska in 1998; in straightforward prose, he describes training for frigid conditions, enduring strenuous physical workouts, securing the right gear and crew, and undertaking the perilous expedition itself, with dangerous crevasses, whiteouts, and avalanches. While acknowledging the tragedy of one death in their party on the Denali adventure, Semento celebrates the physical courage and emotional significance of the climb in his life and the lives of his crew, mirroring the major turning points in his legal career. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Rowdy

Christopher Madsen. CPM Publishing, $55 (468p) ISBN 978-0-9960260-0-0

Madsen, a sailing enthusiast from Santa Barbara, Calif., sumptuously and meticulously documents his restoration of a classic wooden sailboat in this compelling if meandering book. The boat, a Herreschoff New York 40 named Rowdy by its original owner, Holland Duell, in 1916, is days away from being scrapped when Madsen rescues it. In researching the boat’s provenance, Madsen befriends Duell’s now elderly daughter, who provides a trove of information about Rowdy, Duell, and the people who crossed their paths. Alas, this information distracts Madsen, who is an able writer but gets lost in details that stray far from Rowdy. Chapters are spent on the marital and business dealings of Duell’s older brother, Sackett. Even more chapters are devoted to Duell’s younger brother, Charles, who transitions from the political sphere of Theodore Roosevelt to producing motion pictures and having a messy affair with actress Lillian Gish. There’s even a chapter devoted to one of Charles’s films, and one-third of the book explores Duell’s WWI service. None of this relates directly to Rowdy, though it is as exhaustively annotated and illustrated as the sections on the boat’s restoration. Madsen does deliver a stunningly detailed history of the boat, including magnificent images, which makes the many digressions easier to swallow. Color illus. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Remnants

John Hennessy. CreateSpace, $12.99 paper (452p) ISBN 978-1-5329-0839-2

In this first book in the Remnants trilogy, an alien race descends on Earth in 2048 and abducts the majority of the human and animal populations, along with food stores. Darrel, an overweight 17-year-old gamer from Bellingham, Wash., joins up with his longtime friends Félix and Maggy in order to survive. On their journey to what they hope is a safe haven, they pick up other survivors and fight off monsters, both human and alien. A few moments of Hennessy’s worldbuilding shine, such as the prevalence of asthma due to air pollution, but he tends to overexplain the setup as well. Clunky chapter transitions (many of which involve readers falling asleep or losing consciousness), a preponderance of too-lucky breaks, and overwritten passages (“But all the signs were there, so long in the making, like the construction of a palace, and now the paint was drying, the last stage before moving day”) leave the novel reading as unpolished. Though the reasons behind the invasion and subsequent abductions are intriguing, readers might have trouble making it to the planned sequel. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | 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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