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Ninja Mouse: Haiku

J.C. Thomas. SuperUltraGo! Press (jc-thomas.com), $7.95 paper (40p) ISBN 978-0-9913240-3-3

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Dramatic haikus pair with striking illustrations as Thomas, in his first children’s book, introduces the eponymous martial artist, whose gray ears and tail poke out from his sleek black suit, twin swords strapped to his back. Digitally constructed panel sequences show Ninja Mouse posed against rocky escarpments beneath sunset-hued skies, spindly branches lit by the moon’s glow, and changing seasonal backdrops, highlighting the character’s communion with nature. The spare verses (also translated into Japanese) emphasize Ninja Mouse’s creed of mindfulness and honor, and his vow to protect the weak: “Ninja Mouse knows peace/ shuns negativity and/ drinks the universe.” When a giant serpent threatens a tiny mouse, Ninja Mouse descends, first with a peace offering for the beast—a bowl of rice (“Bending to conflict/ paths of resistance are/ always the first choice”)—followed by a necessary use of force. It’s the sole action sequence in a book otherwise devoted to moments of quiet contemplation. Valorous yet humble, Ninja Mouse is a force to be reckoned with, and his creator is a talent to watch. Ages 9–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Thorny

Lelia Eye. One Good Sonnet Publishing (rowlandandeye.com), $2.99 e-book (214p) ISBN 978-0-9937977-1-2

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In this reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” first in the Smothered Rose trilogy, Eye explores the beast’s perspective, providing a window into the thoughts and fears of the wolflike protagonist. The story follows a boy of noble birth forced to live among commoners as a shepherd before being bewitched to inhabit an enchanted castle in the body of a beast. In Eye’s version, the beast gets more of a backstory, lending a deeper look at his inner turmoil and motivations, including the primal and sometimes desperate drive to be near the woman he loves. The story is peppered with sly references to other fairy tales, including some slated for the spotlight as the trilogy progresses. Beauty (here, called Labelle) and the protagonist are locked in a guessing game over his name for much of the book, à la Rumpelstiltskin; Beauty’s long golden locks require a servant to carry them, evoking a free-roaming Rapunzel; and Labelle’s stepmother is so wicked her father would rather she lived with a beast, crossing into Cinderella territory. Eye weaves a fun tale as she pieces together several well-loved fairy tales. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Fade to Black

Sue Duff. CrossWinds, $17.50 trade paper (458p) ISBN 978-0-9905628-0-1

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Ian Black is only 19, but the weight of the modern world rests on his shoulders in the form of his magical heritage. Ian is also the star of his own stage show, using his secret powers to supplement his tricks and illusions, and a bit of a vigilante, sniffing out danger among members of his audience and rushing to defend them against the forces of evil. When he saves Rayne Bevan, a local college student bent on investigative reporting, he becomes the subject of her professional interest, and soon she leads Ian’s enemies straight to his door. Danger abounds for Ian and his friends, but the tension and suspense simply don’t hold up, and Duff’s writing often feels clunky. Her characters are all technically adults, but they react and behave like younger teenagers. Even undemanding readers will struggle to appreciate the slow-moving story and its immature characters. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Darkest Side of Saturn: Odyssey of a Reluctant Prophet of Doom

Tony Taylor. iUniverse, $25.95 trade paper (492p) ISBN 978-1-4917-3421-6

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Taylor (Counters) starts this near-future novel strongly with well-rendered protagonists, but the story soon falters and collapses. Dreamer spacecraft engineer Harris Mitchel and driven astronomer Diana Muse-Jones discover an asteroid that, unbeknownst to them, is on a possible collision course with Earth. Soon the intrigue of astronomical discovery gives way to a hackneyed critique of religion, personified by Rev. Ernest Farnsworth, an evangelical leader who vilifies Harris in a last-ditch attempt to keep his congregation going. The inciting plot point, the asteroid’s path, isn’t revealed until halfway through the overlong slog and is buried in a mess of romantic affairs both real and speculated. Layered characterizations become flat archetypes, and the women—including, most disappointingly, Diana—become either leering seductresses or angelic stay-at-home wives and mothers. The book’s unfocused attempts at humor sometimes succeed but mostly fail. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Six-Degree Conspiracy, Vol. 1: A Jackson Guild Novel

Jeff Shear. BlackRack, $12.95 trade paper (313p) ISBN 978-1-477626-56-6

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Trying to forestall an act of nuclear terror on U.S. soil should make a suspense novel thrilling, but several digressions into the lead’s sex life dilute the impact of the main plot line of Shear’s series kickoff. In September 2009, Jack Guild, the press officer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which helps “run the world,” has discovered and processed some essential intel: that crooked financier Manny Granov is not just a more-successful Bernie Madoff but “the clandestine loan shark of industry, defense and international affairs.” Twenty years after Granov backed the buy of Soviet-era atomic bombs, Jack has learned that one of the WMDs is back in play and going to be used against a significant American target. From the start, Granov is improbably larger than life—his schemes amassed him $65 billion—an impediment to suspending disbelief. The ending is certainly surprising, but not necessarily in a good way. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Suicide Forest

Jeremy Bates. Ghillinnein, $4.99 e-book (420p) ISBN 978-0-9937646-2-2

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Bates’s so-so supernatural thriller has several folks camping in Japan’s famed Aokigahara Jukai, or suicide forest—dubbed “a perfect place to die.” Ethan, the lead, and his fellow campers are mostly types—the girlfriend, the rival, the potential love interest, the coworker, and the Japanese guy who speaks bad English. Like unsympathetic souls in a B-grade horror movie, they choose dumb adventure over common sense and start to get picked off one by one. When the bodies start piling up, Bates (White Lies) raises questions about why people kill themselves or contemplate suicide, but he provides facile responses. He’s better at discussing how people cope with death. His descriptions of the forest, however, aren’t particularly atmospheric, and his efforts to invoke the supernatural—from swinging crucifixes to disorienting dreams—fall flat long before things spiral into a silly last act. What should be a juicy, genre read is pretty toothless. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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A Valediction

Ellis Friedman. Friesen Press, $21.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-4602-1053-6

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Friedman’s bittersweet novel eloquently explores the complexities of relationships and human desire. Despite his desolation following the end of his 15-year marriage, Toby tries to rebound from loneliness—and at the same time gives his ex-wife a what-for—by dating the much-younger July. July, who has no idea what she wants to do after graduation, lets Toby whisk her away to Florence in celebration of his divorce and the holidays. But the trip is not at all the romantic getaway that was promised, despite a ton of gelato. Toby’s past haunts him and he becomes aloof and bitter, especially when he learns his ex-wife is getting married again. Meanwhile, July’s confusion and indecision toward Toby become more persistent when she meets the charming and young Italian Massimo. Although Toby and July’s relationship is ultimately doomed, both try to hold on rather than face uncertainty, which proves to be disastrous in the slightly rushed ending chapters. The gist of this story is by no means new, but Friedman’s strong writing makes this a novel worth reading. The story gracefully moves between descriptions of the beauty and people of Florence, the wonders of fine foods, and the uncertainty and pain of heartbreak. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Clash of the Couples: A Humorous Collection of Completely Absurd Lovers’ Squabbles and Relationship Spats

Edited by Crystal Ponti. Blue Lobster Book Co., $12.95 (322p) ISBN 978-0-9899553-3-1

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Editor and contributor Ponti offers a collection of 46 brief essays from mommy (and occasionally daddy) as a sequel to an earlier anthology she also edited, The Mother of All Meltdowns. Most selections are from writers who have recently been married and had children, and will be enjoyed most by that peer group. Ponti kicks things off by recounting a memorable fight she and her husband had after the search term “college boobs” appeared in their computer’s browsing history. One essay explores how the writer’s arguments with his wife have changed over the years. Another highlights a fight that culminated in divorce. By the end, readers will have learned that couples can apparently fight over almost anything—food, thermostat settings, car care. Many end with valuable advice or lessons learned (some of them sweet). One essayist, unfortunately, can’t resist the opportunity to also promote her personal line of jewelry. As a whole, however, the book is full of short, lightly entertaining accounts—some of the stronger being “The Cake Heard Around the World,” “And the Boob Wins,” and “Escape of the Chocolate Placenta”—that may serve as reminders that, whatever argument readers are currently embroiled in, empirical evidence exists that other couples have equally stupid fights. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur

Thomas Steinbeck, illus. by Benjamin Brode. Steinbeck Press, $40 trade paper (64p) ISBN 978-0-9906637-0-6

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This odd picture book slyly introduces to the general public a little-known and even-less-seen community of mysterious, elusive "diminutive hominids" who, according to the authors, were known by both Native Americans and Spanish settlers to inhabit the "mountains, canyons, and wild coasts of the Big Sur." Steinbeck, a novelist and son of author John Steinbeck, describes these so-called Dark Watchers and their distinctive habits in a brief narrative variously anthropological, mythical, and tongue-in-cheek, including the author's own family folklore recounting the interaction between these invisible watchers and Steinbeck's "no-nonsense" grandmother Olive, who left them baskets of fruit, walnuts, and flowers and received feathers, seashells, and pine nuts in return. Steinbeck's stories of these little people inspired Brode, a painter living in California, to set off to Big Sur armed with colored pencils, searching for the Dark Watchers and making some sketches. Many of these drawings appear opposite Brode's impressionistic painted landscapes, which constitute most of the book, charmingly juxtaposing original sketches with finished paintings and beautifully evoking that distinctive region of the California coast. The stories and pictures promise strong regional appeal; unfortunately, Steinbeck's quaintly archaic language, more suggestive of the mists of Ireland than the fogs of California, undermines the atmosphere and the book's conceit. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/30/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Healing Ruby

Jennifer Westall. Jennifer Westall, $3.99 e-book (369p) ASIN B00O3GRNF2

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Coming of age in Depression-era Alabama is fraught with pitfalls for Ruby Graves in the opener of Westall’s (Love’s Providence) Healing Ruby series. Ruby is a typical young woman of her time, but then tragedy strikes her family repeatedly, much like the biblical figure Job. In the wake of those tragedies comes a new understanding of her faith, and more questions than she can ever find answers to, among them mysteries in her family’s past. Plot strands are teased out slowly and answers revealed as the story progresses, and the novel builds to a satisfying climax followed by a gentle push toward the next installment. Woven with scriptural references that and brutally frank regarding the treatment of people in the 1930s South, Westall’s story also sounds notes of hope and faith that balance her portrayal. Insight into history and race relations enrich a textured narrative. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/09/2015 | Details & Permalink

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