The Holy Mark: The Tragedy of a Fallen Priest

Gregory Alexander. Mill City Press, $14.99 paper (283p) ISBN 978-1-62652-499-6

In this disturbingly memorable novel about a wayward priest set in late 20th-century New Orleans, Alexander explores familial revenge, rails against the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church, and creates a likable narrator guilty of heinous acts. Father Tony endears himself to readers with charm and candor from the opening pages. He is born with a red birthmark on his head, which his grandmother claims is a sign that he is to become a priest—a prophecy he fulfills, eventually finding his calling working with disadvantaged young boys. Though he fancies himself a modern-day Saint John Bosco, Father Tony's relationship with some boys becomes sexual, and he endeavors to outwit his family and the Church to save himself. Alexander ably captures the essence of parochial education in the 1970s and '80s, having himself taught in Catholic schools. His depictions of the Church's inner workings—from hierarchical power struggles to young seminarians' sexual improprieties—may alarm some readers, but most shocking is Father Tony's own admission that his behavior in the company of boys is not a mortal sin but rather "an opportunity to walk in Christ's footsteps." The author's superb use of foreshadowing keeps readers engaged throughout, even as they cringe at Father Tony's actions.

★ Chiral Mad 2

Edited by Michael Bailey. Written Backwards, $20 paper (424p) ISBN 978-1-4942-3997-8

Bailey (Palindrome Hannah) builds on the success of his previous anthology, Chiral Mad—which, like the sequel, was compiled to raise money for Down syndrome charities—by providing a diverse collection of 28 horror stories from seasoned writers and novices. The central theme of chirality—in chemistry, the term "chiral" refers to a molecule that is not symmetrical—seems particularly apropos to a volume on psychological horror, as it hints at a fundamental incoherence or irresoluble conflict of perception and reality, of personality and the external. In Mason Ian Bundschuh's "Another Man's Bones," for example, the past and present collide. Max Booth III, in "Flowers Blooming in the Season of Atrophy," probes the aftermath of and clashing perspectives about a school massacre, to suggest that the effects of tragedy can be redemptive. In "Indian Summer," Philip C. Perron unveils the malignant impact of a woman's social isolation on two adolescents. The devastating effect of devotion to warped artistic genius is violently depicted by David Morrell in "Orange Is for Anguish, Blue Is for Insanity." Appropriately for a horror anthology, in his introduction, Bailey employs the imagery of teeth seizing the reader. Given the caliber of this winning collection, readers won't mind being bitten.

The Only Witness

Pamela Beason. WildWing Press, $13.95 paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-9798768-6-8

Convincingly rendered human and animal characters fill this fast-paced novel of greed, pathos, and tenderness. When naive 17-year-old Brittany's baby, Ivy, is kidnapped, embittered but empathetic detective Finn investigates. He begins to lose hope for Ivy, but a witness finally steps forth. The problem? The witness is Neema, a trained gorilla whose repeated testimony—delivered in sign language—causes a significant media stir and impels Grace McKenna, a scientist working with the ape, to help Finn unravel the mystery. Beason has written a taut and fascinating novel. She weaves intelligence and compassion into this dark descent into emotional bankruptcy and betrayal. Complex psychological histories make Finn and Mckenna fully developed characters with valid motivations. Wading into controversial themes, this rollicking thriller touches on human trafficking, teen pregnancy, and the role of animals in the lives of people.

Crystal Blue

John H. Cunningham. Greene Street LLC, $15.95 paper (286p) ISBN 978-0-9854422-4-8

In this third installment in Cunningham's Buck Reilly Adventure series, Buck—the former head of a successful treasure-hunting company—finds himself flying charter planes to the Florida Keys and Virgin Islands. When he accepts a gig ferrying around celebrities for a benefit concert, he thinks it will be easy money and a chance to meet famous people. But then one of the show's promoters disappears and one of the performers is kidnapped, and Reilly finds himself investigating the crimes and going head to head with black marketeers and Russian mobsters. Although fans of the series will enjoy this latest adventure and readers will find the happy-go-lucky world of the keys and islands entertaining, aspects of Cunningham's narrative are difficult to follow and needlessly complicated, preventing readers from engaging with Buck and the other characters.

Orange Peels and Cobblestones

Rose Marie Dunphy. Rose Marie Dunphy, $14.95 paper (260p) ISBN 978-0-615-69671-3

When Marietta is 10 years old, her mother sends her from Italy to New York to be adopted by her aunt and uncle. As Marietta grows up, she is haunted by her mother's decision and feels cast aside. Years later, Marietta's husband, John, encourages her to reconnect with her estranged mother and sister in order to discover the truth about her family and her past. Dunphy skillfully captures the book's dual settings of Italy and New York, but the narrative's pace is very slow, and the author fails to create characters that readers will connect with. Marietta is a weak protagonist, timid and unwilling to take action—qualities that readers will quickly find frustrating.

The Root of Heaven and Earth

E.A. Grace. Ethosphere Press, $19.99 paper (888p) ISBN 978-1-938960-68-0

Grace's weighty but fascinating tome boasts sympathetic characters that humanize its abundant philosophical and scientific ideas. In the year 2136, physicist Paul Rockwell is accidentally transported to an alternative world that—unlike his own—is uncorrupted by a domineering corporate government. There, Paul stumbles upon Memories & Reflections, a book by anthropologist Indira Kumar, whose marriage of holistic belief and science saved her world from a future full of ignorance and greed. Embarking on a pilgrimage to the Kumaric Retreat, Paul struggles to redeem his world's grim future from the past. This New Age speculative thriller squeezes lifetimes of thought into a gripping narrative. Paul is a thinking man's John Carter, battling quantum theories instead of monsters. Full of heady discussions of physics, relativity, and sentient energy, Grace's novel will appeal to fans of the genre.

The Equation

Judith I. Hill. CreateSpace, $16.95 paper (457p) ISBN 978-1-4903-1325-2

In Hill's novel, set in 1962, 16-year-old Sarah Thompson prefers the emotional intensity of English to the cold calculations of math, while algebra teacher Travis Hall discovers passion in his captivating yet inexperienced student. After she challenges Travis to imbue algebra with feeling, Sarah's grudging admiration blossoms into secret and forbidden love that smolders against a backdrop of societal taboo. Will devotion unite two hearts or is love's equation unsolvable? This sentimental and unsubtle homage to romantic love suffers from choppy, unrealistic dialogue and stiff plotting. Hill's attempt to marry math and heartache is admirable, as is her emphasis on emotional commitment at the expense of fleshly desire. Unfortunately, her novel fails in its exploration of these grand themes and frequently reads like a melodramatic tearjerker.

A Cheap Shofar: Un-Orthodox Short Fictions

Paul Ilie. Goya Press, $9.95 paper (215p) ISBN 978-0-615-85850-0

Ilie's short stories focus on the inner turmoil and external strife that exist across a vast spectrum of Jewish lives. The author has a perspicacious style filled with rich exposition. The collection's most daring story tells of a synagogue gabbai's uncomfortable peek behind the curtain of Zionist extremism. While a few of the stories draw their fodder from Jewish and Israeli politics, others deal with the everyday differences within the Jewish faith. In "The Righteous Path," two friends' life paths diverge, only to cross again later in a moment of unexpected rage. These stories aren't merely moralistic musings on Judaism, nor are they a coarse satire of it; rather, they are a compassionate exploration of what it means to be born into a deeply rooted cultural identity.

★ How to Be a Man

Tamara Linse. Willow Words, $14.95 paper (238p) ISBN 978-0-9913867-0-3

In this winning debut collection of short stories, Linse presents a vivid portrait of life in the American West. The author weaves together tales of a young tomboy who struggles with expectations of femininity, a young girl trying to understand sexuality, and pregnant women and the bonds they share. Linse deftly evokes contemporary rural Wyoming, the collection's setting—as well as the unique characters that populate it. The stories are brief vignettes, and readers will find themselves curious about what happens after each tale draws to a close. While it may be difficult to distinguish between a few of the characters, readers will be drawn in to the collection's world and will find themselves wanting to read more of Linse's intimate tales.

Hunting Old Sammie

John Lauricella. Irving Place Editions, $14 paper (296p) ISBN 978-0-615-77990-4

Three years after 9/11, festering anger between already-hostile neighbors escalates to a horrific resolution in this tragicomic saga of isolation and betrayal. Lauricella's novel pits Armand Terranova, a former petroleum industry analyst, against reclusive neighbor Luke Robideau, who tends to his elderly mother and ekes out a living as a night janitor. The misbehavior of the Robideaus' pets provokes Terranova, whose anger is exacerbated by his general discontentment and suspicions that his wife, Leah, is unfaithful. As the U.S. hunts for Osama bin Laden, Terranova's son, Alessandro, plays a video game called Hunting Old Sammie. While the comparison of the international and neighborly conflicts is simplistic, Lauricella provides some insight into a society in turmoil, as the neighbors' mutual ignorance reinforces their increasing dislike of each other. A brief sexual liaison between Leah and a professor named Max Obermann provides an outside perspective on the mounting paranoia of Terranova and the Robideaus. While Lauricella's parallels between the 9/11 attacks and the uneasy tensions of modern America are suggestive (if heavy-handed), their domination of the narrative provides scant external perspective on the lives of the feuding families. The extended descriptions of Alessandro's video-game playing evokes a Strangelovian sense of a web of disaster that enmeshes all the characters and extends throughout U.S. society; Lauricella's dark musings, though, are more witty than convincing.

The Mysterious World of Men and Women Looking

Al Sundel, illus. by David Sundel. Lulu Press, $15.99 paper (214p) ISBN 978-1-4834-0238-3

Sundel's novel mixes a murder with a look at the rituals of dating. Fresh from divorce, 34-year-old Sharon Kaminsky is sharing a room with 29-year-old Judy Furmin at a Fire Island, N.Y., beach house called Kismet. The more restrained Sharon and the less inhibited Judy both bemoan the meat-market aspects of singles life, while hard-nosed detective Mullens provides a grim view of the dangers of the dating scene as well. But when danger impinges on their sunny summer world as a result of the murder, the denizens of Fire Island have more than romance to worry about. Sharon's search for romance and her ramblings about the plight of single women evoke a sitcom, while Mullens's Brooklyn-ese makes him seem like a stock character. Sharon's endless soliloquizing about the travails of dating is unlikely to engage readers.


Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia

Kiran Bhatraju. Butler Books, $25 hardcover (304p) ISBN 978-1-935497-73-8

Bhatraju provides an inspiring look at the life of Eula Hall, an Appalachian-born woman who overcame many obstacles as she fought to bring healthcare to her poverty-stricken corner of eastern Kentucky. Hall was born in 1927, in a "small holler town" so poor that basic access to doctors and medicine was very limited. Poverty was a challenge that would motivate Hall all her life, particularly when she made access to healthcare her mission. That mission would eventually lead Hall to establish the Mud Creek Clinic, aimed at helping those with no other options. Woven into the story of Hall's work as an activist are tales about her family life, with a focus on her abusive husband. In a lesser book, this focus on Hall's personal life might feel extraneous. But here it's crucial to the story; it was the author's personal experience with domestic violence that prompted her to help so many others. Hall also fought for miners with black lung disease. Much of Bhatraju's well-crafted book reads like a swashbuckling adventure in Appalachia.

Beating Arthritis: Alternative Cooking

Baker Dan, illus. by Mira Blushtein. Baker Dan LLC, $25 paper (130p) ISBN 978-0-9894380-1-8

Arthritis is one of many chronic diseases that prompts its victims to drastically change their diet. In this cookbook, Dan offers up recipes that are free of gluten, dairy, sugar, and/or fat. Complete with detailed nutritional information and recommended pairings, the book covers everything from salads and soups to entrees and desserts, and includes recipes such as seared yellowfin tuna with zucchini and carrots, kabocha and wild sardines quiche, avocado-cucumber salad, and fruit compote. Dan—who has been diagnosed with palindromic rheumatoid arthritis—provides recipes that are clearly presented with easy-to-follow instructions and tips. These healthy and delicious dishes will appeal to anyone with a restricted diet, while also providing hope and help to readers living with chronic disease.

Dyslexia: Time for Talent—The Ultimate Guide for Parents and Children

Carolina Fröhlich. Fröhlich Publishing, $23.99 paper (438p) ISBN 978-0-9566435-2-0

Education consultant Fröhlich made it her goal to learn all she could about dyslexia after she and her two children were diagnosed with the condition. The result of her work is this comprehensive text on dyslexia and related disorders—when to look for them, how to recognize them, how to ask for support in school, and how to identify resources. The target audience is parents, but the book will also be useful for educators and children. While Fröhlich is clearly an expert on the topic, her book is sometimes redundant and slightly disorganized. Still, the information she provides is useful, and parents with children with dyslexia will find this a valuable resource.

The Driven Organization: And What We Need to Be Happy and Productive at Work

Omar Garcia. Future Approved Works, $27.95 hardcover (296p) ISBN 978-0-9896096-0-9

Garcia's innovative, if simplistic, thesis is that a business should strive primarily to create a harmony of corporate and personal interests and meet the needs of its workers and community. Engaging with workers in a way that creates job satisfaction both boosts the bottom line and makes the workplace more comfortable. Garcia believes the unprecedented commitment of Generation X and Generation Y to creative, meaningful work makes his ideas timely. His practical steps mix the mundane and the visionary, and his enthusiasm sweeps aside skepticism with breezy aphorisms. Although the author may have pointed the way, much trial-and-error experimentation awaits anyone working to make Garcia's vision a reality.

Skeleton in the Closet: Eating Disordered Lives

Fritz Liedtke. CreateSpace, $25 paper (102p) ISBN 978-1-4910-2078-4

By turns heart-wrenching and redemptive, photographer Liedtke's book features portraits of people who have struggled with eating disorders, paired with their personal statements. As Liedtke, who struggled with anorexia himself, points out: "Anorexia and bulimia are not about numbers or statistics, they are about specific people." His photographs—in vibrant, full color—are artful and humanizing, treating each subject in a unique and sensitive fashion. The accompanying text is often harrowing in its honest portrayal of a complex psychological condition: "Being able to see my issues," writes Danielle, pictured gazing out at the River Thames, "doesn't make them go away." Liedtke's book makes it clear that living with anorexia or bulimia is a daily struggle. Amanda, posing in a cemetery and pictured from a low angle that gives her a look of defiance and monumentality, muses: "A hospital gown is a symbol for sickness, but to me it's a symbol of restored life...that gown saved me from the grave."

From Three Feet Off the Ground: The Year My Children Taught Me How to See the World... and Myself

Christie Havey Smith. Emerald Shores Publishing, $14.99 paper (161p) ISBN 978-0-9896866-0-0

Author, teacher, and mother Smith explores her life as a parent and the pieces of herself that she scarified along the way, in this uneven but inspirational collection of memories and meditations on parenthood and spirituality. And when Smith begins trying to see the world from the perspective of her toddlers—from a place of peace, amazement, and forgiveness—she discovers herself. Smith's book will likely appeal to young mothers—particularly those who, like the author, love their children but fear they have put their lives on hold for their families. While some of Smith's musings may seem platitudinous, her message is a positive one. Moms looking for a meditative companion to help them through the ups and downs of parenthood will take much from Smith's story.

Easter Island Sketchbook: An Artist's Journey to the Mysterious Land of Giant Stone Statues

Susan A. Sternau. Sausalito Press, $29.95 hardcover (96p) ISBN 978-0-9898455-8-8

Through a series of finely wrought watercolor and ink paintings, Sternau provides a glimpse of her time on Easter Island. The island, located in the South Pacific, is mostly known for its moai—large stone statues that are relics of the ancient Rapa Nui civilization—and an air of mystery and isolation seems to linger over the artist's illustrations of them. In Sunset Moai (Tahai), the statue seems regal, as it stands in silhouette, jutting into a vivid yellow and orange sky and seascape. There are also some striking, if tragic, renderings of statues that were toppled or never completed, indicative of the chaotic nature of the indigenous civilization's decline. Sternau also captures some of the island's other vistas: the wild horses of the interior, craggy cliff sides crashing into the water, idyllic beaches, and a church decorated with traditional tablets and images of the Madonna. Sternau's work seems to be the product of keen observation and reflection—a record of travels through a vibrant, mystifying landscape.

Children's Picture Books

The Bed Head of Ned

Steve Platto, illus. by Tom Helland. Kramden and Norton, Inc., $8.99 paper (38p) ISBN 978-0-9912376-2-3

This good-humored story introduces a boy with a case of bed head like no other. Each morning, Ned's wild tangle of red hair assumes the shape of an object, including a submarine, a bowl of fruit, and Mt. Rushmore. Eventually, his mother takes him to a doctor, who says, "After examining your son, and consulting this chart,/ I've determined unequivocally this is some sort of art!" A museum curator puts Ned, his bed, and his ever-changing hair on display, and "The bed head of Ned became a coast-to-coast hit,/ They even made shampoo with his picture on it!" Readers may grow to share Ned's boredom as he lies in his bed day after day in the museum, until, after years of lounging around, he goes bald and is no longer an attraction. Though there's plenty of humor in the premise and some fun turns of phrase, a rocky cadence and lack of action undermine Platto's verse. Helland's cartoons portray Ned's tresses with hyperbolic flair, and the enormous, football-shaped head he gives the boy provides a large canvas for Ned's magical, hair-based sculptures. Ages 6–12.

Children's Fiction

★ Shattered Veil

Tracy E. Banghart. CreateSpace, $15.99 paper (372p) ISBN 978-1-4936-1320-5

Banghart (By Blood) offers a fast-paced, action-packed SF adventure, first in the Diatous Wars series, in which a young woman sacrifices her identity to fight for her homeland and the man she loves. When 18-year-old Aris Haan's boyfriend, Calix, is "Selected" to serve in the military of Atalanta, she's left behind, since long-held tradition forbids women to fight. However, because of Aris's ace piloting skills, she's chosen to enter a secret program to become part of an elite search-and-rescue unit, technologically disguised as a male named Aristos. As the ongoing war against the dominion of Safara continues, Aris undergoes a trial by fire that threatens to change her beyond recognition. What starts as a tale of star-crossed romance quickly evolves into a gripping page-turner, with gender roles and identity explored and questioned at every turn. Aris overcomes societal disapproval and her own physical weakness to meet every challenge head-on, never faltering in the face of pain and danger. While there's room for Banghart to further develop the futuristic setting, this is a very strong starting point. Ages 12–up.

Freaking Green

Laura F. Sanchez. CreateSpace, $11.99 paper (294p) ISBN 978-1-4827-1400-5

Sanchez (Adobe Houses for Today) channels a passion for energy efficiency and other environmental concerns into this thoughtful look at a family forced to change the way it approaches the world. It all starts when 16-year-old aspiring actress Jasmine Hayward's eccentric great-aunt Olivia dies, leaving the bulk of her estate to Jasmine's family. However, to collect the first half of the $5 million, the Haywards are required to reduce their carbon footprint by 80% in a year. To do so, they rethink every aspect of their lives, from automobile use to eating habits, appliances, and recycling. As the Haywards' drastically altered lifestyle plays merry havoc with Jasmine's plans, she tries to find a way to pursue her acting dream without jeopardizing everything her family has worked for. While the narrative voice is engaging and there are some entertaining moments along the way, Sanchez hammers hard at the green aspects of the plot—the family keeps a running tally of their progress ("A single home-cooked vegetarian meal saves about 1.5 pounds of carbon")—delivering a continuous message that sometimes overpowers the rest of the story. Ages 12–up.

Trapped in Oblivion

Ifeoma Theodore Jr. E. Kachifo Ltd./Prestige (, $4 paper (248p) ISBN 978-978-52058-1-7

In this message-heavy novel, sexuality awareness advocate Theodore (My Daughters and I) chronicles the turbulent adolescence of Nigerian teenager Nnenna Ifediora, who is muddling her way to adulthood in a confusing world. As 13-year-old Nnenna grows up, her curiosity about boys, relationships, and sex is repeatedly thwarted by her mother's unyielding refusal to discuss any of it, simply ordering her daughter to avoid all boys. Along the way, Nnenna also learns, from secondhand stories and experiences, about the evils of child molestation, social media, suicide, rape, domestic abuse, and more. Eventually, she experiences teen pregnancy firsthand, as well as the terror of testing positive for HIV. While the messages conveyed in this book are vital—from the need for honest parental communication regarding sex education and HIV awareness, to peer pressure and self-confidence—they're delivered in a lecturing manner. The author captures Nnenna's internal confusion and turmoil of the teenager, set against the rich backdrop of her native Nigeria, but the voice is often stilted and focused on conveying information rather than letting the story flow. Readers may learn a lot, yet come away feeling overwhelmed by the experience. Ages 12–up.