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Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home

Wendell Affield. Hawthorn Petal, $19.95 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-9847023-0-5

Affield offers a creative account of his tour of duty during the Vietnam War as a 20-year-old crewman on a Navy river assault boat. He tells his story chronologically with an excess of reconstructed dialogue and vivid descriptions of the extremely dangerous South Vietnamese rivers. Affield’s crew was patrolling at the war’s height in 1968, and his remembrances of the day-to-day events in the war zone evoke the unique and hazardous role played by the men of the brown-water Navy (the colloquial term for riverine units). Said men included Buddha, the gung-ho, commie-hating captain; Stonewall, the black Southern cannon gunner who became radicalized after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Snipe, the “docile” engineman; Crow, a racist and cowardly southerner; and Professor, a know-it-all college grad. The author was severely wounded during a deadly ambush in the Mekong Delta, and he deals briefly with his post-war life, including his survivor’s guilt. It’s “guilt that I’m alive,” Affield writes, and “have lived a full life when so many others didn’t have a chance.” Affield lends valuable perspective on riverine warfare and it’s a worthy volume for Vietnam aficionados. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Russian Optimism: Dark Nursery Rhymes to Cheer You Right Up

Ben Rosenfeld. BigBen Comedy, $30 (68 pages) ISBN 978-0-9908552-0-0

“In my childhood, my mom gouged out my eyes/ So that I wouldn’t find the jam./Now I don’t watch movies and I don’t read fairy tales, / But on the bright side, I smell and hear really well.” Thus begins Rosenfeld’s collection of translated Russian nursery rhymes. Rosenfeld grew up in the Soviet Union, and his father would always get him laughing by reading him some of these rhymes. Cannibalism, murder, patricide, and mutilation abound. People are run over by lawn mowers, plowed into by trains, and bit by rats lurking in toilets. Each rhyme features an illustration, its original Russian version, an English translation, and a transliteration. Sinister and grim, the rhymes are translated without rhyming, which unfortunately robs them of much of their original appeal. They are also not served by the illustrations, which never quite suit the tone of the rhymes and often seem too silly. In all, this is an appealing project that never quite comes together, like a less funny version of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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At His Command: Historical Romance Version

Ruth Kaufman. Ruth Kaufman, $2.99 e-book (226p) ISBN 978-0-9908469-2-5

Kaufman has simultaneously released two editions of this slightly stilted 2011 Golden Heart winner: this version includes some tasteful sex scenes, while the other is tidily demure. In 1453, King Henry VI dispatches Sir Nicholas Grey to protect recent widow Lady Amice Winfield and escort her to London for an arranged marriage. After a dramatic opening scene in which Nicholas first meets Amice fleeing her repulsive cousin, Harry Winfield, and returns her safely to her home of Castle Rising, there comes a “peaceful interlude” while they await the king’s summons, fight their growing affection, and enjoy daily life in a medieval castle. Questions about patriotism and duty infuse some welcome tension into their relationship: Nicholas staunchly supports the king, while Amice admires and secretly aids Richard, Duke of York, a rival claimant to the throne. Amice is soon very conflicted: “Being at odds with him made her shoulders tense and her stomach churn. But so did giving in.” Once in London, political differences and the king’s commands cause the lovers to continue resisting their mutual longing, though passion occasionally conquers judgment. Court intrigue, battles, romantic rivalry, and political maneuvering make a colorful backdrop for this satisfactory debut. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Montana Winter

M.J. Roberts. M.J. Roberts, $2.99 e-book (110p) ISBN 978-1-311-64187-8

Resplendent with unanswered questions and sweeping descriptions of the Montana landscape, Roberts’s contemporary erotic romance gives the impression of a work half-formed. Noah is no stranger to the rigors of ranch life—caring for both the animals and the land—and he manages well even after adding to his workload by opening a bed and breakfast. With his brother and family, he’s built a life around work that mostly lets him forget Kevin, the one that got away. When Lore and his brother come to stay at the B&B in the days leading up to Christmas, the power of the holiday gives city-boy Lore the edge he needs to break down the walls around Noah’s heart. Though it’s detailed, the plot is rushed in favor of one sex scene after another, with glimmerings of character development added in. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Diorama

Sebastian Bendix. Sebastian Bendix, $0.99 e-book (34p) ASIN B00P20B2O6

This slow-burning novella ramps up to a deadly but predictable conclusion. Martin Taper is a loser working at a pet store, living out his fantasies via an intricately created diorama and models. There’s very little to indicate the story is fantastical at first, as Bendix (The Patchwork Girl) takes time to establish Martin’s bad relationship with his boss, whom he pictures as a bad guy in his fantasy plays. But with the addition of Dennis, a neighbor’s child, Martin’s fantasies turn real, as if the diorama can control what happens in Martin’s life. There’s a great transition for Martin at this point, but it’s undercut by the diorama’s sudden change from a tool for Martin’s cathartic release to a predictive or manipulative magical tool. A story that begins with strong psychological elements ends up more in the realm of a Twilight Zone–style twist ending, turning Martin’s inner journey into an enjoyable but familiar tale of manipulation. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Pass on the Cup of Dreams

Bruce Fergusson. Lucky Bat, $17.99 trade paper (418p) ISBN 978-1-939051-49-3

The third installment of Fergusson’s Six Kingdoms fantasy series (after The Mace of Souls) suffers from a lack of clear visual descriptions, leaving readers adrift in an unearthly place. Devious antihero Falca Breks and his companions try to fulfill a promise made in their previous quest, but they face hardships aplenty as they dodge vicious magical beasts, vengeful soldiers, and a highly trained assassin. The action begins swiftly and without explanation, leaving readers to sink or swim according to their imaginations. This approach can be frustrating for those without a copy of The Six Kingdoms Codex, Fergusson’s detailed companion to the series, but it’s rewarding to those who have followed Breks’s adventures so far. Fergusson develops his characters thoughtfully and methodically, and though he falls into some tired and unfortunate revenge-based tropes along the way, his plotting remains dense and satisfying. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Grant of Immunity

Garret Holms. CreateSpace, $15.75 trade paper (430p) ISBN 978-1-503114-78-4

Holms uses his experience as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge to make this legal thriller a gripping read. In 1995, Daniel Hart, a successful Los Angeles judge, is still tormented by a trauma 19 years earlier. When Hart was 15, he witnessed the murder of Sarah Collins, stabbed to death at the Lake Hollywood Reservoir by Snake, a sadistic acquaintance of his. Terrified that he would be next, Hart has remained silent about the events of that night and guilty that he didn’t protect Sarah. Meanwhile, LAPD Sgt. Jake Babbage, the erstwhile Snake, hasn’t lost his taste for abusing women. After he targets Sarah’s 21-year-old daughter, Erin, and demands sex from her by threatening to press a DUI charge, Babbage and Hart cross paths again, and the murderer devises a complex scheme to save his own skin and frame the judge. The action builds to a climax that’s a tad melodramatic, but Holms convincingly renders the courtroom scenes and legal strategies on both sides. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Knighting of Sir Kaye

Don M. Winn, illus. by Dave Allred. Progressive Rising Phoenix Press (progressiverisingphoenix.com), $8.95 paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-940834-25-2

In this first book in the Sir Kaye: The Boy Knight series, two sensitive outliers—Reggie, the story’s narrator, and Kaye, a talented knitter who strives to become a great knight—meet in the medieval forests of Knox and become tentative friends. While exploring the woods, the boys are embroiled in a series of light, comical escapades, while learning about the give-and-take nature of friendship. After rescuing the nephew of Knox’s new queen from bandits, they are invited to Castle Forte, where Kaye has the opportunity to become a real knight, and Reggie, his assistant. Reggie’s dry sense of humor makes him a companionable narrator; this, along with some brisk action sequences and Allred’s occasional b&w illustrations, should give Winn’s story solid, broad appeal. While dramatic tension builds slowly, with the initial chapters reading like stand-alone episodes, the plot comes together once the boys arrive at the castle. Fortitude, good will, and friendship triumph over pettiness in this enjoyable story. The second book in the series, The Lost Castle Treasure, is also available. Ages 8–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Healing Ruby

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

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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Third Daughter

Susan Kaye Quinn. Susan Kaye Quinn, $12.99 trade paper (346p) ISBN 978-1-4937-7477-7

Romance and intrigue collide in the fluffy, entertaining first installment of Quinn’s Dharian Affairs steampunk trilogy. As the third daughter of the Queen of Dharia, 17-year-old Aniri has the opportunity to marry for love. However, she agrees to an arranged marriage with Prince Malik of neighboring Jungali after he makes an impassioned plea for peace—and her mother presents a calculated need for a spy amongst the Jungali. Far from home, Aniri must find the evidence needed to prevent war, even as she maintains the pretense of romance with her betrothed. As danger mounts, so do the lies, deceptions, and mysteries. The feisty, resourceful princess leaps into and out of trouble with grace and style. Quinn (the Mindjack trilogy) could have done much more with the alternate East Indian setting, which feels mostly like window dressing, but steampunk fans will appreciate the airships, swordfights, illicit romance, fantastical technology, desperate escapes, last-minute rescues, and breathtaking scenery, all pulled together by a genuine sense of fun. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/09/2015 | Details & Permalink

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