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Myths of a Merciful God

Cynthia Celi%C3%A1n. Little Feather Books, $16 paper (268p) ISBN 978-0-9913329-1-5

Sarah Miranda is a single mother, working hard for herself and daughter Tessie. But, when Tessie dies in a freak accident, Sarah decides to take a trip across the country to get some emotional distance from the tragedy. Along the way, she meets many people, including Jackson, a schoolteacher who becomes a friend and confidant. Sarah's journey forces her to confront her past, her feelings, and her inability to come to terms with Tessie's death. Ceilan has crafted a complex tale of love and forgiveness that forces readers to confront one of life's most devastating occurrences: the accidental death of a child. Readers will identify with Sarah from the start. And while the narrative lacks dramatic conflict at times, the relationship between Sarah and Jackson is strongly developed and believable.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Many Loves of Mila

Inna Swinton. Matchgirl Press, $12.99 paper (258p) ISBN 978-0-9899930-2-9

In Swinton's first installment in her Mila in America series, Mila Simon has a stable but unfulfilling marriage to investment banker Cliff. She finds excitement elsewhere, beginning an affair with theater director Dominic. After Mila tells Cliff about the affair but continues to have contact with Dominic, her husband leaves and she returns home to live with her Russian Jewish parents in the New Jersey suburbs. There, Mila slowly tries to put her life back together, sees a therapist, and returns to the dating scene in a major way. While Swinton delivers snappy dialogue and ably captures the nightmares of the singles scene, her protagonist is underdeveloped—and the novel suffers for it. Mila is, by turns, scattered, hysterical, and unable to take advice, and she acts without forethought, leaving readers frustrated with her character and confused about her motivations and where the narrative is going.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Good Lawyer

Thomas Benigno. Landview Books, $11.66 paper (338p) ISBN 978-1-4636-0481-3

Benigno presents an engaging but diffuse picture of legal skirmishing and moral ambiguity in the saga of Nick Mannino, a young attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York City. The shocking suicide of Dina Rios, who leaps to her death from the courthouse after Mannino successfully defends her rapist, introduces the conflict of a lawyer's obligation to his client versus the claims of justice. This conflict colors Mannino's representation of 24-year-old Pedro Guevara, accused of sexually abusing three young boys. While vigorously defending Guevara—at a time when the "Spiderman rapist" is terrorizing New York—Mannino struggles to define his relationship with wealthy girlfriend Eleanor Vernou. The interesting glimpses of courtroom procedure and a cast of eccentric characters will intrigue readers, but do not fully offset the book's somewhat unconvincing plot.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Demon of Stonewood: Book II of the Stonewood Trilogy

Jeremy Hayes. Northlord Publishing, $13.99 paper (321p) ISBN 978-0-9918642-2-5

In Hayes's (The Thieves of Stonewood) second installment in the Stonewood Trilogy, Harcourt, the civic-minded and humane leader of the Thieves Guild, squares off with sinister Chief Magistrate Krommel, who, as High Priest Sarvin, covertly leads the traitorous Demon Cult. Krommel and sultry assistant Devi-Lynn plot to restore demon Lord Lucivenus to power, but need certain types of human hearts to accomplish this. Odd alliances, devious plots, and colorful characters, such as court wizard Fezzdin and luscious former pirate Evonne, keep the story moving at a quick pace. And if Hayes's breathless plot lacks the brooding historical atmosphere or drawn-out conflict of Tolkien, his picaresque heroes not only oppose evil, but offer a rollicking good time in so doing.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Extremely Common Prayer

Nathaniel Whitten. Vitally Important Books, $8.95 paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-9774807-5-3

Whitten adapts the ancient practice of prayer to the everyday, anxiety-provoking hassles of the modern age in his humorous collection. Through his prayers, we see a narrator grappling with contemporary problems, from job interviews and finicky Wi-Fi to dieting and losing faith. What emerges is a portrait of our times that is both irreverent and tender. The narrator prays for simple things (getting his lost wallet returned and the wonders of an "automatic outdoor light sensor") and extravagant desires ("for my screenplay to be optioned by Warner Brothers" and "to run into Scarlett Johansson and have her fall for me big time") in his brutally honest and unmistakably human voice. Whitten blends his astute observations of modern woes with a search for meaning in the mundane to create a funny, earnest, and poignant collection of appeals.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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In the Shape of a Man

Paul Clayton. CreateSpace, $11.69 paper (326p) ISBN 978-1-4904-0942-9

Clayton's (Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam) latest provides a portrait of neighboring families living in the San Francisco Bay area in 1999. Enjoying the trappings of the good life, Allen and Tina Collins find their relationship tense as Tina displays hostility toward Reynaldo, their seven-year-old adopted son, and Allen prefers ignoring the abuse to intervening. Twenty-something neighbors Rad and Tawny, meanwhile, deal with money woes, Rad's inability to find a sponsor as a skateboarder, his hostile father, and a former roommate's giant Burmese python, which is living in their garage. Allen's increasing unwillingness to defend Reynaldo and his patronage of a raucous bar contrast with Tawny's resolve to take control of her life. At times, Clayton's novel slams the reader with its message about evil, choice, and responsibility. Tawny and Rad achieve insights about the importance and redemptive prospects of love, while the erratic Tina and the irresolute Allen show the flip side of what "the shape of a man" can conceal. The book's contrived resolution, however, seems trite and clumsy.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ghosts at the Loom: A Novel

T. Zachary Cotler. MP Publishing, $14.95 paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-84982-245-9

Colter's lyrical novel is an evocative, complex, and hallucinatory eulogy for reality. Wandering poet Rider Sonnenreich embarks on a surreal quest across Europe—and into the human mind—struggling to explore borderlands between reality and dream, memory and fantasy, as he searches for his sister Leya. Elegant settings are revealed as spiritual vacuums, as Rider travels Europe in the footsteps of departed poets. As the nature of existence and perception is ruthlessly challenged, so to is logic and the reader's expectations. The result is both frustrating and heartbreaking—a haunting novel that plumbs the depths of the human psyche. Colter has written a philosophically rich antinarrative that refuses simplistic interpretation and casts doubt on much that we hold dear.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Belated and Other Stories

Elisabeth Russell Taylor. Kimblewood Press, $14.95 paper (266p) ISBN 978-1-4912-8531-2

The transforming power of love cripples hearts and minds in this dark, enigmatic collection from Taylor (Pillion Riders, Mother Country). In these 16 shorts, the author pierces the facade of everyday life to reveal isolation and helplessness. "Les Amantes" is a farewell to fidelity and sacred memory after a lover's death. In "Charlotte" a Jewish woman struggles against ghosts of conscience, need, and loyalty in post-World War II England. The dark fable "Take Care"—in which guests overrun a home—is reminiscent of the work of August Strindberg. A counselor's security is shattered by a patient in "Supporting Roles." What is not revealed in these tales is as dramatic as what is, with Taylor hinting at different and tantalizing narrative possibilities. These tales of longing, jealousy, and loss reveal the discomfiting effects of love on the mind, soul, and body.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Nitro Battlers

Eric Kim. Inkskratch (inkskratch.storenvy.com), $.99 e-book (22p) ISBN 978-0-9865747-1-9

Kim, the illustrator of Love as a Foreign Language, tries his hand as a writer with an entertaining, thinly veiled homage to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. It's been 10 years since the Nitro Battlers arrived on the crime-fighting scene, but only one, Nitro Red, remains. After getting trounced by a toothy monster that talks like a stereotypical frat boy, Nitro Red hitches a ride with a timid barfly named Ben and explains what led the Nitro Battlers to disband: the gruesome death of one of their own ("We were handed these powers and told to go save the world. It never occurred to us that we might die"). Working in black and white, Kim creates polished scenes of melancholic angst, full-throttle battle, and campy humor with equal skill. Other 1980s and '90s influences pop up, too: intrepid reporter Mary McMeal is a ringer for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' April O'Neil, and the (reunited) Nitro Battlers' vehicles combine to create a mecha that owes a bit to Wheeljack from Transformers. It's a thoroughly enjoyable, nostalgic read with some emotional heft behind it. A limited print edition is also available. Ages 12–up.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Orion Poe and the Lost Explorer

Will Summerhouse. Shake-A-Leg Press (www.willsummerhouse.com), $8.99 paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-9860614-0-0

Summerhouse draws on the real-life historical mystery of Sir John Franklin's lost Arctic exploration to fuel this fast-paced middle-grade adventure. After 11-year-old Orion Poe helps a wounded stranger who appears on the beach near his grandfather's lighthouse, he winds up in possession of an old dispatch box, in which he finds a mysterious map. After taking the map to Professor Meriwether, an explorer, Orion is invited to join an expedition to the Arctic, in search of an uncharted island and Franklin's final fate. The trip is plagued by troubles, and Orion fights for his life against the hostile environment, a traitor among the crew, and a hidden society whose members are bent on maintaining their secret existence at all costs. Summerhouse delivers a rousing story filled with action and tense moments, but Orion's idiosyncratic voice lightens the overall tone. As a protagonist, Orion is a bit too good to be true—overly resourceful and resilient, and subject to enough death-defying circumstances to lay low people twice his age—but most young readers should find it easy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. Ages 9–up.

Reviewed on 04/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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