A Cowboy Christmas: An American Tale

Tom Van Dyke

Page Branch Publishing, $18.95 paper (134p) ISBN 978-0-615-31837-0

In Van Dyke's solid but slightly bland western, the year is 1908 and a man named WB repeats a Christmas tradition, sharing with his wife how he became a cowboy in 1873. After stowing away on a ship from Europe, WB reached America and headed west with little more than a horse and a gun to seek his fortune. He soon met and fell for Ginny—a fact that raises questions about the book's narrative device: every year WB tells Ginny the same story, much of which she witnessed for herself? And while Van Dyke ably captures the time and spirit of a bygone era, his prose is less than memorable. WB's familiar coming-of-age story—encountering Native Americans, developing a name for himself as a wrangler—won't be confused with classic westerns, but fans of the genre will likely be entertained.

A for Argonaut

Michael J. Stedman

Clipper Trade, $14.99 paper (374p) ISBN 978-0-9856477-0-4

Following a grisly prologue that hints at a very gritty thriller, Steadman's novel rolls out most of the usual tropes, albeit with an action hero who has an unusual pedigree. Lt. Mack Maran is a black American Jew raised "in irrepressible, two-fisted but decidedly fair Irish-Catholic Southie." Maran was in charge of Operation Taxi Home, a military plan to rescue hostages being held in Cabinda, Angola. But the mission went south: Maran's men were slaughtered, and he barely survived a serious head injury. After being scapegoated by the Army for the failure, the ex-soldier devotes himself to avenging his troops by tracking down their killers. Sadistic villains and a hero seeking redemption—these are all too familiar to engage readers without a charismatic lead, innovative action sequences, or mesmerizing prose.

About Luv

Angel Stell

Heavenly Image, $13.95 paper (280p) ISBN 978-0-9834853-0-8

Stell's well-structured debut features a fresh voice wasted on underdeveloped characters and a plot driven by emotional immaturity. In alternating chapters, readers are introduced to the lives of three 20-something, African-American friends: Joeziah, Jynise, and Paiyge. Mustang-driving security guard Joeziah falls for Nevaeh Charles, but when Joeziah learns she's an escort, he quickly ends the relationship. Jynise is obsessed with cheating fiancé Lansc to the point where a lunch spent stalking him results in the loss of her job. Despite Lansc's lies, Jynise seesaws between lovelorn pining and manic suspicions—a state in which readers will quickly lose interest. Raised by her older sister, Paiyge can't understand why her absent mother hates her. When her cartoonishly resentful sister refuses to provide answers, Paiyge decides to search for the father she's never known, discovering a painful family secret that leads to reconciliation with her mother. Stell's portrayal of friendship, family, and Christian themes may resonate with some readers, but only if they can ignore the melodrama.

America's Fool: Las Vegas & the End of the World

Jay Amberg

Amika Press, $17.95 paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-9708416-7-4

Don't be misled by this thriller's dedication to "all Americans, particularly Jon Stewart & Stephen Colbert." There's nothing in Amberg's latest reminiscent of those political satirists. Instead, the author presents a tired formula—an innocent caught up in a terrorist plot—without injecting it with anything fresh. TV journalist Andrew Wright has a regular, award-winning segment called "The Wright Stuff" on Good Morning America. While in Nevada to film a series of stories titled "The Fight to Save Vegas," he's trapped in a canyon during a hailstorm. Entering a cave to shield himself from the elements, he stumbles upon some metal canisters, then knocked out. Before long, the reader is introduced to a religious fanatic opposed to American liberals and the "Alien Usurper" who runs the government. The ensuing sequences—brushes with death, narrow escapes aided by heavy-handed contrivances—are all too familiar to engage readers or distinguish Amberg's thriller from the pack.


JL Walters

JL Walters, $28.32 hardcover (108p) ISBN 978-0-9848987-1-8

In Walters's vivid but unalluring exploration of rebellion and wasted youth, disenchanted teens search for an alternative to the monotonous late 20th-century world of "church, school, Saturday. Church, school, Sunday." The kids escape downtown and spend their days and nights stealing and screwing and partying with booze and drugs aplenty. Adult life offers little better in this world of anomie: a clever alternation of scenes pits the teens against apparently squeaky-clean grownups whose clichéd lives are simply empty or tragic. And while Bloomingulch is presented as a college town where life is about "protracted transition," it seems otherwise nondescript: a neutral platform where drugged-out, sexed-up young people contend with the Establishment. Additionally, the rebellious teens are not sharply delineated or defined. The sole ambition of Lucas Waltham and his friends—a cast of characters as disaffected as any of Bret Easton Ellis's—is to coast along with the prevailing tide. Although the readiness of the teens to use "correct" adult language as a means of self-preservation provides an ironic contrast to their deportment with peers, Walter makes no pretensions to social comment, complexity, or characterization. Instead, he leaves us with a society populated by misfits who engage our sympathies not at all. While the author's bleak view of the emptiness pervading society will appeal to readers attuned to the dregs of society, others may want to skip a trip to Bloomingulch.

Dead Weight

Diane Sherlock

Smashwords, $4.95 e-book (192p) ISBN 978-1-4659-8001-4

When Tommi finally decides to leave alcoholic husband Doug and make some serious changes in her life, she takes up scuba diving. This becomes an outlet for her frustrations and an opportunity to meet new people. But it also leads to an unexpected opportunity. Scuba instructors Jason and Rick are interested in hunting sunken treasure and persuade their class to join them in an expedition to Fiji. The class finds the wreck—which contains enough treasure to make them all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But the treasure leads to greed and eventually death. Sherlock's novel begins as the story of a woman recovering from a divorce, but becomes a well-paced action thriller—and the change is one readers will enjoy. And while the characters could be better developed and the treasure hunt is a bit implausible, Tommi's transformation and adventures are compelling.

Fangs and Stilettos

Anthony DiFiore

inGroup Press, $14.95 paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-935725-07-7

While people blame the fashion world for all sorts of ills, they usually don't suspect that it is, in fact, run by supernatural creatures. But in this novel from DiFiore, otherworldly creatures—ranging from sorcerers to werewolves and vampires—are bound to fashion by an ancient curse. The woman ostensibly responsible for enforcing that curse, Candice Brown, is determined to break it at any cost and devises a plan to publicly assassinate a designer at fashion week, hoping the subsequent investigation will force the "supernaturals" out of hiding. The protagonists of this illogical novel are almost willfully shallow (and not in a charming way), and readers will find it almost impossible to keep track of the characters' goals. Additionally, the book's conclusion is abrupt and unclear, leaving readers to wonder if the author is planning a sequel.

Hens and Chickens

Jennifer Wixson

White Wave, $14.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-9636689-8-1

Rebecca is a middle-aged marketing professional who is downsized during the recession. Her friend and colleague, Lila, quits in solidarity, and the duo decide to move to Maine and raise chickens. They restore an old farmhouse and are instantly seduced by the congenial and open community of Sovereign. Lila becomes involved with local carpenter Mike, but must wrestle with her own demons to find the faith and strength to love him. Meanwhile, Rebecca thrives in the community and marries the man who sold her and Lila the farm. Wixson's novel is intended to kick off a trilogy set in Sovereign, but readers will likely not be lining up for the next two installments. The narrative contains preachy rambling passages and jumps through time, detracting from the pace and cohesion of the book. The characters are not fully developed, the setting is clichéd, and the story short on dramatic tension.

Honeymoon with Harry

Bart Baker

CreateSpace, $11.99 paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-4752-5655-0

Some books make better movies. Take this debut novel by screenwriter Baker—it's already been picked up by New Line Cinema/Warner Brothers—which no doubt will translate better to the big screen. Todd Cartwright, the wisecracking and churlish narrator whose womanizing and hard drinking have made him a legend in his own mind, falls hard for Tami Everett, a classy woman different from Todd in nearly every way. And her widower father, Harry, knows it and begins thinking up ways to scare Todd off. But Todd stands his ground. Before the couple can marry, however, a drunk driver kills Tami. Both Todd and Harry journey to a Caribbean island to spread the ashes of the woman they loved in vastly different ways—leading to unexpected hijinks and new depths of grief. Baker excels at creating memorable scenes, including one in a hospital morgue where Todd pummels the drunk driver's corpse and an adult encounter between Todd and a married woman in an island resort's linen closet. But the author also relies on melodrama, cliché, and hyperbole, and Todd spends page after page wallowing in self-pity.

Jimmy Lagowski Saves the World

Pat Pujolas

Independent Talent Group, $12 paper (198p) ISBN 978-0-9840093-0-5

Jimmy Lagowski, a young man with a bad burn scar and a rich fantasy life, is the centerpiece of a complex set of interwoven short stories that deal with loss, love, family, and tragedy. Separately, the stories examine intimate moments, such as a father's struggle with sobriety and his wife's possible affair; a girl considering taking the morning-after pill; a shooting at a coffee shop; and a tragic accident that claims the life of a child. Taken together, they paint a larger narrative of justice that readers will find extremely appealing. Pujolas's writing is strong, and he has a gift for subtly letting readers into a character's private moments. It's initially difficult to see how the stories are related, but readers will quickly embrace the tale and celebrate Jimmy's attempts to articulate justice as one of the qualities that can elevate humanity. Once readers see the way the narrative pieces fit together, they'll be glad that they stuck around until the end.

Lay Saints

Adam Connell

Adam Connell, $4.99 e-book (434p) ISBN 978-0-9854855-0-4

Uneven pacing and occasionally clunky prose undermine Connell's entertaining thriller about mercenary telepaths who read or alter other people's thoughts if the price is right. If that's not a particularly original concept, the book's opening is intriguing, as a prolix narrator—restricted to his cell 23 hours every day—chats up his new cellmate. The pair's lives have intersected before, but the new prisoner's mind has been wiped clean and he remembers none of it. The backstory kicks off in Manhattan as a psychic named Calder frequents hospitals to share the thoughts of coma victims with their nearest and dearest. But when Calder joins a crew that uses its psychic talents for criminal purposes, he gets caught up in a dark underworld and soon finds himself in over his head. Fans of the genre will find a lot to like here—particularly snappy dialogue and solid world-building.

Max Overacts, Vol. One: Hold On to Your Stubs

Caanan Grall

Occasional Comics, $19.95 paper (164p) ISBN 978-0-9879042-0-1

With this collection of his Eisner-nominated Web comics, Grall proves himself to be a superb sequential artist, but a middling writer. The early strips in Grall's compendium owe significant debt to Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Certain sequences align almost perfectly with Watterson's work—e.g., when Max writes his autobiography with the help of a ventriloquist dummy. These similarities are frustrating because Grall is a terrific comic artist in his own right. His artwork is clean, his visual storytelling is always clear, and the characters he illustrates are wonderfully emotive. The comic works best when Grall frees himself from the shackles of Watterson's influence. But while some strips are sweetly humorous and original, others are just not funny. Often Grall settles on the easiest joke, relying on the wits of characters that are often not witty. When Max spends nine panels negotiating with his ventriloquist dummy, then bemoans to his mother that the puppet isn't talking, Max's mother responds: "I know a psychiatrist who'll talk to you." It's a long setup for a weak payoff.

No Alternative

William Dickerson

Kettle of Letters, $12.99 paper (329p) ISBN 978-0-9851886-1-0

Set in 1994, Dickerson's coming-of-age debut—which features healthy doses of alternative rock, angst, and family dysfunction—follows teen siblings Thomas and Bridget as they struggle to find themselves and their way in the world. Emotionally troubled Thomas has his sights set on musical fame, while Bridget—who is also musically inclined—releases her anxiety via graphic gangsta rap performances at open mike nights. Readers who lived through the 1990s will easily relate to Thomas's obsession with the grunge rock scene and Bridget's attempts to pacify her inner turmoil with a regimen of antidepressants. Both protagonists are vividly drawn, as are the book's peripheral characters, such as the teens' parents, who are damaged and struggling as well. While Dickerson's prose frequently devolves into ruminative exposition that, while intermittently informative and entertaining, causes narrative momentum to stagnate, the novel—with its clear-eyed glimpse into the lives of a troubled family—satisfies.

One Pink Line

Dina Silver

CreateSpace, $12.99 paper (260p) ISBN 978-1-4637-7253-6

During her senior year of college, Sydney spends a drunken night with some friends, but ends up cheating on longtime, long-distance boyfriend Ethan and getting pregnant. Silver's novel traces Sydney and Ethan's relationship via flashbacks and tells the story of how Sydney's daughter, Grace, learns that the man who helped raise her is not her biological father. Unfortunately, the book's split narrative structure fails to save this conventional story that wants for significant dramatic tension. The characters lack depth, and the twist at the end of the book will come as no surprise.

Orbital Sniper: A Jack Gray Thriller

John T. Cullen

Clocktower Books, $19.95 paper (500p) ISBN 978-1-4774-2526-8

An over-the-top plot, lackluster prose, and underdeveloped characters hamper this ostensible kickoff to a new thriller series from Cullen. Scientist Louis Cartouche has just invented Orbital Sniper Technology, an improbable weapon that can assassinate specific targets from outer space. Cartouche designed this space gun to make the world "forever safe from megalomaniacs whose few frothy apothecary grains of testosterone regularly caused great storms or wars that tore the fabric of history." His fears about OST falling into the wrong hands are soon realized when he's kidnapped. The mission to save him—and all of humanity—from the threat of Dr. Night falls to Jack Gray, who reads more like a caricature than a character: "a dark-haired, wiry man of 37 with a California tan, an Ivy league professorship, and wealth of skills to back him up as a contract field agent."

Sea of Crises

Marty Steere

Penfield Publications, $2.99 e-book (314p) ISBN 978-0-9854014-1-2

In this exciting contemporary thriller, Nate Cartwright, an attorney-turned-consultant, gets a disturbing call from his brother, Peter, at two in the morning. Cryptically, Peter tells Nate he's at LAX and "they" are after him. When the brothers meet up, Cartwright learns that Peter's fears of being followed stem from his investigation into the tragic ending of NASA's last manned mission to the moon, Apollo 18. Their father had been one of the astronauts making the journey, and, while walking across the lunar formation known as the Sea of Crises, he saw something that prompted him to say, "That shouldn't be here." That ominous remark was his last transmission, and shortly thereafter his spacecraft plummeted to Earth, splashing down with three charred corpses inside. Decades later, Peter's probe into what really happened has stirred powerful forces—and now he and his family are at risk. Steere's assured prose is compelling, and the book's intriguing plot will keep readers turning pages until the very end.

Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found

Jan Marin Tramontano

CreateSpace, $15 paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-4635-2025-0

In the early 1970s, young Lisa Stern's life focused on protests, social movements, and her boyfriend Mac. However, a car accident takes his life and tears hers apart. Lisa travels to Provincetown with vaguely suicidal intentions, but ends up back in her childhood home of Albany, N.Y. There, she resolves to open a women's center and enlists the help of her friend Marika. While building the center, she meets architect David, who has recently and abruptly separated from his wife. Lisa and David are attracted to each other, but she has misgivings about the relationship. This novel boasts a strong sense of place and time. However, it suffers from poor pacing, which prevents the plot from unfolding in a compelling manner. Lisa remains frozen in indecision far too long. But readers will appreciate the well-drawn characters and the author's realistic portrayal of the period.

The Ballad of Billy Lee:

The Story of George Washington's Favorite Slave

Len Lamensdorf

Seascape Press, $19.95 paper (302p) ISBN 978-0-9669741-2-6

Historian Joseph J. Ellis's introduction to Lamensdorf's historical novel—which recounts the life of George Washington through the eyes of his slave Billy Lee—states that the author compiled the book from "scattered pieces of evidence, then put his own imagination to work in recovering the story they tell." Sadly, the result reads like a history textbook with dialogue. Though the novel centers around the relationship between Billy Lee and Washington—from Washington's purchase of Billy to the founding father's death—Lamensdorf reveals little about the complexity of this union. This is disappointing; though the two men are brothers-in-arms and appear to be friends, their primary relationship is as master and slave. Washington treats Billy as well as a slave can be treated, and eventually frees him in his will. It's a gesture treated by the author as a triumph, as if it revealed Washington's progressive strength of character. The novel is also a failure from a narrative standpoint. Lamensdorf glosses over what should be dramatic highpoints: "Ya don' need to know 'bout all the fightin' an' sufferin' we done ovuh the next year," Billy explains to readers (in slave dialect that is both offensive and without literary merit). Unfortunately, Billy is wrong. Readers do need to know about those things. Instead, Lamensdorf focuses on piddling conflicts, e.g., an attempted seduction of Washington. These subplots are soap opera distractions that fail to compensate for the novel's overall lack of drama.

The Drought

Patricia Fulton

CreateSpace, $14.50 paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-4680-7480-2

In the small Texas community of Junction, a boy named Barry Tanner steals an irreplaceable piece of sports memorabilia: a baseball from the 1975 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati. His friend Luke Casteel—unaware of the ball's value—tosses it into a drainage pipe, only to chase after the baseball when he learns its worth. But Luke never re-emerges from the drainage pipe. The strange tragedies affecting the town don't end there: two hunters targeting javelina find the tables turned when the wild pigs atypically turn violent and claim one of their lives. The evil stalking Junction may be linked to a voodoo campaign of terror in Reserve, La., which is plagued by the same devastating drought as Junction. Fulton's prose often scintillates ("The drought entered quietly, wreaking havoc with the spindly fingers of a miser, its magnitude measured in negatives like lack, want and deficiency"), but the gore is often needlessly explicit and the characters underdeveloped.

The Last Falcon: Book 1 of the Cael Stone

Colleen Ruttan

CreateSpace, $2.99 e-book (327p) ISBN 978-0-9881343-1-7

This kickoff to a traditional fantasy series starring feisty and independent teen heroine Erynn is both well paced and engaging. The book starts in medias res, with Erynn hiding in a cave after the dragon Krystalix attacked a group of men from her kingdom returning from a horse-buying expedition, and the raid on the recently purchased animals leaves her father dead. But Erynn got a clear look at the person who struck the fatal blow, a "fair-haired man with the limp and the jagged scars," and vows to avenge the murder. When she discovers the true identity of the fair-haired man, Erynn uncovers a conspiracy that may complicate her quest. Ruttan blends the medieval and supernatural effortlessly, ably setting up a sequel to this fun fantasy novel.

Wright for America

Robin Lamont

Grayling Press, $14.95 paper (260p) ISBN 978-0-9858485-0-7

Snappy dialogue and a madcap pace propel this lighthearted caper past moments of implausibility and occasional polemical digressions. Underemployed actress Maren Garrity, who augments her income by working undercover for a private investigation firm specializing in shutting down couture counterfeiters, concocts a scheme to take down right-wing radio personality Pryor Wright, whose blowhard pontifications were quoted by the attacker of her homosexual twin brother. Utilizing friends from her day job—as well as fellow cast members from an off-off-Broadway musical version of Antigone—she goes undercover as an intern at Wright's show, while also attracting the attention of an earnest, albeit inept, FBI agent, who thinks she might be a terrorist. Complications and collisions abound, as Maren and her theatrical friends frantically ad-lib Tea Party dogma at meetings, dinners, and cocktail parties, while dodging the Feds. Lamont, who has performed on Broadway and worked as an assistant district attorney, clearly knows the territory, and her fast-paced, highly enjoyable novel is all the better for it.


Antonia de Rocsini: Queen of the Pirates

Rinaldo Rinaldini, trans. from the French by Krys Roxien

Krys Roxien Books, $25 paper (400p) ISBN 978-0-615-47722-0

The swashbuckling life story of a notorious royal heiress turned pirate queen, Antonia de Rocsini, has been skillfully translated by Roxien. De Rocsini's adventures in the 17th century, beginning days before her 22nd birthday, tumble out in a succession of pistol fights, flamboyant bravado, treasonous coups, buccaneer swordfights, and masterful double-crossing of a colorful cast of dukes, knights, and counts. Frequent asides entertainingly analyze de Rocsini's behavioral motivations, and, midway through the book, biographer Rinaldini appears as a seaman on de Rocsini's crew of bandits. A young, witty, fearless swordswoman and seaworthy sovereign, de Rocsini is depicted as a fearless defender of her ship and a steadfast friend and compassionate ally to her companions and random admirers. As lively and steeped in nautical melodrama as a work of historical fiction, Roxien's translation of de Rocsini's exploits bursts off the page with nonstop tidal waves of excitement and seafaring treachery.

Beamish Boy

Albert Flynn DeSilver

The Owl Press, $20 paper (262p) ISBN 978-0-9669430-9-2

After six years of sobriety, poet DeSilver admits he was "still one sip of beer away from hell." After 10 years of sobriety, he writes that he wanted to kill the "drunk, stupid and confused" boy he had been at age 19. The emotional force of DeSilver's memoir lies in the author's ability to record raw and painful memories of addiction, while also reflecting on turning points that lead him to form a new identity. Skirting a fine line between acceptance and blame, he describes the eccentric characters implicated in his downward spiral (e.g., his gin-swilling, cigarette-smoking mother, whose pretentions were matched by her fondness for profanity; a devil of a German governess reminiscent of a Roald Dahl villain; a renegade high school teacher who supplied students with alcohol and cocaine), as well as the heroes who helped save him: a wise prostitute in Nairobi, photo-historian Arlan Silverman, American Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and Indian spiritual leader Nisargadatta Maharaj. DeSilver's seesawing journey from drug and alcohol addiction to recovery—all filled with epiphanies and backsliding, clarity and bewilderment—will keep readers committed to his story until, at last, he learns to "beam" without self-destructing and finds peace and stability in a loving relationship and meditation.

The Blueprint: Averting Global Collapse

Daniel Rirdan

Corinno Press, $29.95 hardcover (494p) ISBN 978-0-9849620-0-6

Within 15 years we must remake our world. That is the message of global strategist Rirdan in this informative but grim account of the main stressors ravaging the Earth's ecosystem and the technological marvels that may facilitate remedies. The author calls for a shift to "lower-impact technologies" and reduced consumption, supporting his argument with copiously documented facts in areas ranging from global warming to land degradation and destruction of ocean resources. Yet for all the grave challenges facing the planet, Rirdan indicates that change may be possible, noting possible developments in housing, agriculture, transportation, and energy. More controversial are his proposed solutions: population control, a new economic system, and a move toward world government. However implausible some of these proposals may be, nobody can fail to be challenged by Rirden's broad vision. His impassioned writing will engage both the layman and the expert, and his meticulously drafted blueprint merits the attention of anyone concerned about the future.

Customer 3D: A New Dimension for Customers

Bill Self

CustomerEDU, $21.95 paper (234p) ISBN 978-0-9853908-0-8

Today's successful business must be "customer-centric," Self argues in this challenging, if ponderous, primer. Just as three-dimensional photography changed the way we see images, three-dimensional customer service can transform the staid order-filling vendor into an organization dedicated to customer success and expanded consumer-business relationships. Developing an appropriate company culture is crucial to this effort, and Self acknowledges that new thinking, not superficial techniques, is key; he asserts that the rewards are great: focusing on making life easier for customers will result in loyalty and expanded opportunities. Self buttresses his theme with examples of companies that have thrived using this model, in large part owing to their willingness to challenge the status quo. Given that customer success is a nebulous and fluid concept, the solution is to build a relationship that demonstrates "you are capable of changing with them." The engaged customer will become your advocate and ultimately your partner. Self's enthusiasm for his proposals is evident, but his constant reiteration of the contrasts between the traditional 1D and innovative 3D models, and restatements of the virtues of the 3D approach, are tedious. A stripped-down manual might better convey the message that "pulling customers in to create a closeness" is the key to the future of commerce.

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults

Paul Morantz, with Hal Lancaster

Figueroa Press, $29.95 paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-18-213220-1

"Cults are really a study of society in microcosm." In this recounting of his career, Morantz, a legal expert on cults, persuasively shatters the vision of cultists as losers on the fringes of society: "the most fanatical converts also are the most intelligent." His overview of cults ranging from the politically fanatic (e.g., the Symbionese Liberation Army) to the seemingly innocuous (e.g., the Unification Church) emphasizes the use of brainwashing to achieve a coercive, yet voluntary, redefinition of reality. Presenting a welter of convincing material, he demonstrates the ravages that manipulative leaders can inflict on naïve initiates. Though many of the groups he describes may seem like museum pieces today, Morantz suggests that our unsettled political and economic climate may provide the atmosphere for a revival of cult activity. If he offers no certain solutions, he forthrightly acknowledges the complex struggle between group dynamics and free speech. He also presents cogent, if conflicted, thoughts upon the possible role of the Internet both as a recruiting tool for cults and as a means of resisting their appeal. Although light on the analytic side, Morantz's exploration of cults will appeal to the student of modern American history and to those concerned about the potential unraveling of society.

Health and Wealth: Small Changes Reap Big Benefits

Bernard Michael Patten

Peak Achievement Publishing, $3.33 e-book (118p) ISBN 978-0-9852613-2-0

No one cares as much about your health as you do, and Patten provides a straightforward, commonsense primer on how to maintain it. "You are responsible for your health," he says, and persuasively argues that tending to it is fairly simple. Moreover, in a world where health misinformation and disinformation abound, Patten provides basic guidelines while, refreshingly, largely avoiding didactic assertions. He affirms the overall health benefits of marriage, the importance of education, the value of exercise, a wide social network, and intangibles. The negatives include stress and excess alcohol. Patten gives equal emphasis to maintaining one's mental well-being and passionately advocates bypassing the allure of television in favor of playing musical instruments, ballroom dancing, board games, and other activities that offer both enjoyment and challenges. Patten does not shy from controversy, denouncing such widespread "healthy" choices as vitamin supplements, recommending instead that we consume fruits and vegetables, especially whole foods. Patten affirms, "Organic foods are better for people," while admitting that his "personal belief is not yet fully supported by scientific data." Readers on any end of the ideological health spectrum will find merit in Patten's open-minded approach and in the useful information, advice, and guidance he offers.

How to Have a Match Made in Heaven: A Transformational Approach to Dating, Relating, and Marriage

Ariel and Shya Kane

ASK, $15.95 paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-888043-02-0

The Kanes are marriage experts. They've spent almost 30 years teaching people how to unlearn behavior patterns that damage themselves and their relationships. The couple focuses on how to get people to view their own behaviors with calm detachment and uncritical observation, leading them to a more compassionate view of themselves and their partners. The Kanes also stress how early relationships with parents influence future dating and note that both partners are fully responsible for the success of a relationship—as opposed to each partner being half responsible. These concepts will not be new ideas to readers, but they are presented in a clear, understandable, and even humorous form. And while most relationship-oriented self-help books cover similar ground, this one distinguishes itself from the pack. By focusing on actual people's stories, the Kanes illustrate how their advice works in action. The book includes links to audio-video sections that can be found online for readers curious to see the people whose stories are being told.

Life Is Good: Conservation in an Age of Mass Extinction

Jeremy Leon Hance

CreateSpace, $10.95 paper (214p) ISBN 978-1-4680-1250-7

This bold, well-researched collection of essays by environmental reporter Hance challenges readers to look beyond the current tactics of wildlife and habitat conservation: protecting small pieces of land and restoring individual species to them, breeding endangered species, and collecting money for the saving of animals that are large, charismatic, and cute. Instead, Hance documents how changes caused by human intervention affect whole ecosystems and could influence not only the survival of endangered species but the survival of humanity itself. Some essays highlight a specific problem—e.g., jellyfish bloom in overfished marine habitats; the failure of trickle-down conservation; the loss of massive movements of migratory animals as roads and development divide their routes—while others are more personal, sharing the author's love of camera traps, his frustration with the language of entertainment ecotourism, and his thoughts on the beauty of viewing leatherback turtles firsthand. Overall, the collection manages to raise environmental alarms without falling into hopeless predictions of doom. And Hance urges a knowledge- and science-based approach to conservation, while also exhorting readers to allow themselves to feel a sense of awe when interacting with other creatures.

Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician

Dick Wagner

Desert Dreams, $29.95 hardcover (281p) ISBN 978-0-9856843-0-3

Songwriter, guitarist, and producer Wagner throws together anecdotes both interesting and dull in this disorganized hodgepodge that offers little insight into his character, although all those wondering whether he ever had sex on an Amtrak train will have their curiosity sated. The intentional decision not to impose order on chaos (he states that the "vignette approach means you can either start at the beginning—or basically open the book and start reading from any page you choose") was misguided; even those choosing a page at random will find the arbitrary juxtaposition of material off-putting. And while fans of the music memoir will get their requisite dose of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, they will also likely be offended, e.g., when Wagner recalls how he was inspired by a gynecologist who sexually abused his patients to create a comedy routine.

On Top of Everything: Manage Your Projects & Life with Ease

Laurence Seton

Projecteze, $37.95 paper (188p) ISBN 978-0-9810629-0-7

Canadian engineer and certified project management professional Seton spent a decade refining Projecteze, his Microsoft Word table-format–based system of time and priority management, to meet certain basic criteria (e.g., ease of use, affordability, mobile-device compatibility, etc.). More straightforward than many titles on the market aimed at taming the torrent of information bombarding people each day, Seton's book is refreshingly simple and user friendly. By properly utilizing tables in MS Word, Seton shows readers (in jargon-free tutorials) how to record widely diverse material—urgent issues, meetings and agendas, contacts, back-burner items, and long-range goals—in one place where it can be viewed at a glance; organize to-do lists by updating and deleting tasks during the day; keep track of delegated projects and responsibilities; and create tables for school and home use. Along with many examples of highly detailed tables—from planning a million-dollar facilities expansion to preparing for a camping trip and overseeing his daughter's two-year process of getting ready for college—and clear, nuts-and-bolts technical guidance (setting up, embedding, customizing, and sorting tables), Seton tackles the big issue of busyness and how the chaos of too much information, poorly digested and presented, affects relationships and life satisfaction. If practiced consistently, he contends, Projecteze will free time for other activities, and using persuasive examples from his own experience, he urges readers to consider filling the gap with personally satisfying hours rather than more deadlines.

Oversoul: Stories and Essays

Mitchell S. Jackson

The Collections House, $4.99 e-book (92p) ISBN 978-0-9853409-0-2

With vivid dialogue and finely drawn characters, Jackson's stories and essays slam readers into a gritty world where choosing an identity provides a type of control. In "Head Down, Palm Up," the narrator, who reflects that "without a name, I ain't certified," ironically calls himself Champ. But he then shakes down his mother, a streetwalker, and the startling conclusion confirms his acceptance of his uncle's world of pimping. The title story, "Oversoul," raises and dashes prospects of moral redemption: an unnamed jailed man starting parole is inspired by a visiting speaker and embarks on a hopeless job hunt. But disillusion sets in when the speaker derides his message of encouragement. The author enters the realm of social satire in "Presidents," where the transition from one administration to another parallels the efforts of a would-be suicide to find stability in life. Jackson's focus throughout is located firmly in the urban African-American experience, but his themes are universal and he finds significance in the telling of one's story. As he affirms in "Portrait of a Lifeguard," "our stories are paramount not only to our prosperity but to our chance of survival." The reader cannot fail to find that sincerity reflected in this standout collection.

Secrets of the Primaverse: Why God Cannot Exist and Nothing Can Exist Without Him

Joel H. Posner

Metafisica, $22 hardcover (140p) ISBN 978-1-936940-24-0

Can we renew our acquaintance with God in such a way that neither casts Him in our likeness nor casts Him out altogether? In turgid, unclear, and dense prose, Posner attempts to answer this and other questions as he investigates the intricacies of existence, being, and essence. The author carefully examines reality, God, and truth as philosophical and physical categories, searching for their shortcomings and their values. In the end, he posits that God is, though God doesn't exist; that God is immanent and not transcendent. Each chapter opens with sophomoric dialogue about the author's subject matter—but, oddly, Posner offers no explanation for the dialogues. Posner loses all readers but the most specialized ones with long, opaque sentences that do little to help answer the questions he raises.

Stop Acting Your Age, Start Living Your Life

David James Demko

CreateSpace, $9.95 paper (156p) ISBN 978-1-4538-0246-5

In this frenetically paced antiaging guide, Demko touches on any and every topic he deems germane to his subject, resulting in a scattered and packed-to-the-gills effort. The book's first half is devoted to 26 inspiring stories of Zoomers ("Boomers with Zip"), featuring stories of individuals who take up running at a late age or discover their inner entrepreneur later in life. Unfortunately, most of these read like advertisements for the author's Zoomer-related services (Zoomer magazine, AgeVenture news service, Zoomer Media Max, etc.). In the book's second half, Demko gives short shrift to most of the topics he discusses, either referring readers to other sources for additional information or providing hackneyed or obvious facts. In his section on diet, one of the author's tips is to drink six to eight glasses of water per day. Even more surprising is his simplistic handling of Alzheimer's disease in a section titled "What Is and What Is Not Alzheimer's." Readers looking for additional sources of information could get more from a quick Google search than from the lists Demko provides.

Surfing the Middle East: Deviant Journalism from the Lost Generation

Jesse Aizenstat

Casbah, $26.95 hardcover (240p) ISBN 978-0-9837009-1-3

Surfing enthusiast Aizenstat's memoir of his successful attempt to surf from Israel to Lebanon is a fascinating if uneven look at what happens when a postcollege stunt—"a mission to surf the last place anyone expected: the Middle East"—becomes reality. Since the Israeli-Lebanese border is closed, Aizenstat's plan is to surf off Haifa in northern Israel, travel south through Jerusalem and across the West Bank to an inland airport in Jordan, and then fly over Syria to Beirut. He is able to pull it off by using multiple passports and relying on a coterie of old friends and new acquaintances, many more interesting than the journey itself. These include California-crazed surfers in both Israel and Lebanon, some young journalists who take Aizenstat to a Palestinian protest in the occupied territories that opens the author's eyes to suffering, and some students from the Lebanese American University who take the author to one of the last remaining synagogues in Lebanon. Unfortunately, Aizenstat's writing style is similar to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson—he even uses Thompsonesque expletives like "sweet Jesus!" and phrases like "King Hell Bastard"—which too often detracts from his story and his observations.

The Proof Is in the Poodle: One Veterinarian's Exploration into Healing

Donna Kelleher

Two Harbors, $16.95 paper (214p) ISBN 978-1-937928-06-3

Almost a decade after her first and widely acclaimed memoir (The Last Chance Dog: And Other True Stories of Holistic Animal Healing), veterinarian Kelleher has returned with an engaging and fascinating companion volume about her continued investigation into and application of holistic medicine for animals. The book smoothly shifts between descriptions of various patients and the medical problems they presented Kelleher, and recollections of her life and training. Most memorable is the story of Iris, a "crazy coot" of an old lady from the author's hometown, who is revealed to be an expert on plant and herbal remedies for animals when she treats Kelleher's dog Sampson in Kelleher's youth. "The idea that a tea taken internally could affect all the mucous membranes of the body was completely foreign to me," Kelleher writes. She shows how breaking away from traditional veterinary clinics to start her own career using "alternative medicine as a primary therapy" was influenced by her days with Iris. One of the most moving moments in the book concerns Kelleher's search to cure a golden retriever named Jasper. Her finely detailed account of how she administered the regimen of "herbs that could move energy, relieve heat and stimulate his sluggish immune system"—including a liver-strengthening formula—that leads to Jasper's recovery presents a strong argument for the value that holistic treatments have for traditional veterinary practices.

This Little Piggy Went to the Liquor Store

AK Turner

Fever Streak Press, $12 paper (200p) ISBN 978-0-9855839-0-3

This sincere, laugh-out-loud confessional from Turner candidly reveals—and revels in—the flaws and dysfunctions of the author and her family. The "controlling, compulsively cleaning, wine guzzling" narrator with "neurotic tendencies" explains that anyone who enters a potentially lifelong romantic relationship has made a terrible mistake "akin to jumping onto subway tracks to retrieve a fallen pen." That doesn't apply to her, however, when she meets Mike and realizes that she had "gleefully jumped onto the subway tracks, because I wanted that pen." The two agree to skip children, but eventually have two loving daughters who fill their lives with even more hilarious moments. From family problems, breastfeeding, her experiments with pot in Mexico, and lessons learned in Russia while "major[ing] in vodka," Turner is not afraid to voice her private thoughts and never takes herself too seriously. She details her pregnancy and child-rearing techniques in a refreshingly honest way, claiming that she should have been awarded a medal for managing to be kind at any point during her pregnancy. The book is light-hearted and riddled with comedic episodes that young mothers in particular will relate to and enjoy. Although the narrative is occasionally scattered as it jumps between stories, it remains a quick and thoroughly entertaining read.

Children's Books

A Moment in Time

Jennifer Butenas, illus. by Charlotte Cheng

The Perfect Moment, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-9840039-0-7

At the start of this slight story, ostensibly about taking the time to appreciate the present, two boys and their parents sit in rockers on their front porch. One by one, each enjoys a low-key "moment." Thirsty, the younger boy goes indoors: "He leaped and he hooted./ He marched high and bold,/ Lookin' for a can of/ Soda freezin' cold!" Back in his rocker, he has a "sugary-boogery,/ Thirst-quenchin'/ Moment in time." Next, the older brother shows off his dance moves, having "a shockin' and a rockin',/ Silly-minilie/ Moment in time." For his moment, the boys' father takes a nap, and the mother lastly snaps a photo of her husband and sons. Butenas strains to make her rhymes work, sometimes with nonsensical results; while the father naps, "His brow was smooth/ As he listened to the breeze./ He was sooooo relaxed,/ That he couldn't even sneeze." Cheng's buoyant cartoons are the more successful part of this collaboration, conveying a strong sense of familial closeness and boosting the slim plot with endpaper "photographs" of the family's other memorable moments together. Ages 3–6.

Paris-Chien: Adventures of an Ex-pat Dog

Jackie Clark Mancuso

La Librairie Parisienne, $17.95 (40p) ISBN 978-0-615-54542-4

Hudson, a plucky terrier, can't wait to meet some French dogs while spending a year in Paris with his owner, a writer. Though Hudson sees many other dogs running errands with their owners, everyone is "so busy going places" that he isn't able to make friends. When he finally finds a dog park, another obstacle arises: the dogs only speak French ("Oh great," Hudson thinks. "I thought all dogs spoke Dog"). Hudson slowly absorbs the French language (thanks to lessons from—who else?—a French poodle), and debut author Mancuso includes a sprinkling of French words throughout, which are defined in a glossary. The story feels designed largely to showcase Mancuso's playful, rough-hewn gouache paintings of Paris and its human and canine denizens (Hudson appears in roughly half of the images). Still, she gives Hudson a bold, amusing narrative voice tinged with self-righteousness ("Are you kidding me?" he grumbles, seeing a no-dogs sign at one park), and he ends the story on a droll note, announcing that he's becoming a real Parisian—"I mean Paris-chien." Ages 3–6.

A Biplane and Her Boy

Mary Coleman-Woolslayer, illus. by Kevin Stark

Tigermoth, $24.95 (48p) ISBN 978-0-9844785-0-7

Steeped in nostalgia, this story pays homage both to a vintage Stearman biplane and the joy of flying. Coleman-Woolslayer's narrative introduces an anthropomorphized old biplane named Betty Lou, whose glory days are behind her. Relegated to a "silent and lonely hangar" in Texas, Betty Lou reminisces about flying and wonders if she'll ever "soar above the clouds again in full flight." Her imagination sends her into the air, where she performs aerobatic feats ("Betty Lou loved the sound of her brace wires screaming in the wind"). Despite the title, the boy—more aptly a young man—doesn't appear until halfway through the story: recalling the pilots who "graced her cockpit," Betty Lou remembers one in particular, a boy "who lived—and loved—to fly." Though he sells the biplane for a newer plane, he never forgets Betty Lou, and he searches her out to buy her back. Stark's graceful art offers realistic portrayals of planes and people alike (Betty Lou's checkerboard and striped paint job pops against the bright blue sky), underscoring the story's focus on the intimate relationship between pilot and plane. Ages 6–12.

The Society's Traitor

V.K. Finnish, illus. by Tim Oshida

Panama Hat, $22.99 (298p) ISBN 978-0-9852202-0-4; $12.99 trade paper (326p) ISBN 978-0-9852202-1-1

Launching the Discoveries of Arthur Grey series, this debut effort is a sprawling fantasy with vague connections to the legend of King Arthur's pursuit of the Holy Grail. The prologue introduces a boy in ancient times who volunteers to help thwart an evil king's acquisition of a precious cauldron. For reasons not adequately explained, the boy repeatedly appears in the dreams of Arthur, the novel's 11-year-old contemporary protagonist, who is determined to find the treasure allegedly hidden in the Victorian manor where he lives with his grandmother. Instead, Arthur is hurled into a convoluted search for the fabled City of Gold after his long-lost father returns to transport him, via a portal, to a magical society in the Peruvian jungle. Its members are dedicated to finding things people "don't believe in any more" and are the protectors of a spectrum of fantastical creatures. Various subplots hinder the flow of the story, and some plot strands are left dangling, but Finnish's characterizations are strong, and Arthur's banter with his peers is often amusing. Ages 6–12.

The Last Arakad

Guillaume Wolf

CreateSpace, $11.99 trade paper (260p) ISBN 978-1-4701-6902-2

In Wolf's (reDESIGN: reCREATE) rambling series launch, two California teens become embroiled in an ancient battle between good and evil. While Maya and Thomas's mother undergoes cancer treatment in Switzerland, a friend of their late father invites them to stay in his Paris apartment. The enigmatic man gradually reveals his role as a healer in the Arakad tradition (symbolized by a magical pendant), which is "the essence" of "a philosophical insight about the nature of reality, humanity, and our place in this world." While Maya follows "the path of light" as an Arakad apprentice—and (through a process readers may find laborious) eventually achieves status of "master"—Thomas is recruited by a leader of an evil rival clan, who has developed an elixir that could precipitate the destruction of humanity. There are flashes of drama and suspense as the two sides clash, but dense writing and excessive sound effects, vibrations, and visions that characters encounter slacken the story's pace. At three junctures, readers are directed to Web sites, where they'll find marginal additional information about the plot and characters. Ages 12–up.

Blaze of Glory

M. Garzon Publishing, $14.99 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-60264-810-4

Garzon flirts with controversy in this coming-of-age romance while delivering an entertaining, if unbalanced, mixture of drama and equine action. Seventeen-year-old Tea is a whiz with horses, skilled at training and show-jumping them. Tea's dream is to compete in the upcoming Royal Winter Fair, but her terrifyingly strict stepfather robs her of that opportunity, and her beloved horse, Blaze, is killed in a tragic accident. When Tea's adopted older cousin Jaden introduces her to polo, Tea discovers a new skill and a new passion. She also begins a quiet romance with Jaden, one that's complicated by their familial bonds, fear of societal disapproval, and the six-year age gap between them. Their undeniable chemistry and physical attraction win out over any reservations, though, and after numerous speed bumps, they dream of taking things to the next level. The two aspects of Garzon's story—quasi-illicit romance and horses—never quite blend seamlessly (Tea and Jaden's relationship ends up overshadowing the equestrian themes), making this feel like two strong stories awkwardly combined into a single package. Ages 14–up.