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Piping Hot! Tales of a Wandering Bagpiper

Susan Planck. MoonScape, , $17.95 ISBN 978-0-9908769-2-2

Bagpipe enthusiast Planck advocates for traveling with a set of bagpipes and making the most of the experiences that result in this uneven debut memoir. After learning to play the bagpipe, Planck began toting the instrument on her travels, leading her to many unique experiences: she meets Prince Charles at a bagpipe competition in Scotland, plays nude on a beach in Hong Kong, and is delighted to find a pub in Japan called the Bagpipe. Planck folds in bits of bagpipe trivia throughout and peppers her travel writing with historical information about her destinations, though her stories are too often burdened by complaints about her fellow travelers. Personal details and insight into the author’s life outside her bagpiping activities are offered sparingly, making this feel more like an enthusiast’s travelogue than a fully fleshed-out memoir. It will have limited appeal, but bagpipers will find much here to enjoy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Lost in the Woods: Building a Life Up North

Richard Hill. Gale Force, $19.95 trade paper (210p) ISBN 978-0-9817371-4-0

In painstaking detail, Hill (Hitchhiking After Dark) describes how he and his wife ditched their suburban existence and moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to build a log home. Every step of the 20-year process is meticulously described, sometimes to a fault, as Hill calls on sisu (the “strength of will and perseverance” exhibited by his Finnish ancestors) to battle flaky subcontractors, shoddy work, and nature itself in the form of brutal winters, “mysterious looking forms of mold,” and dry rot. The tight focus on carpentry, plumbing, masonry, and other construction activities overshadows the lives of the humans orchestrating the project—Hill suffers the loss of an elderly parent, raises two boys to adulthood, and establishes a fledgling furniture business—as the narrative tends to skate past anything not construction related. Still, anyone contemplating building a home can learn much from the author’s experience, perhaps most importantly how to summon the sisu to see the project through. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Katie Mouse and the Perfect Wedding

Anne L. Watson. Skyhook, $20 (36p) ISBN 978-1-62035-550-3

A young mouse’s disappointment turns into triumph in this quaint story featuring a cast of miniature felt animals posed in photo-collage scenes. When Katie Mouse’s cousin Matilda announces that she will be getting married, Katie is excited to be the flower mouse—until she learns that the wedding is going to conflict with her school’s rescheduled Games Day, where she is supposed to serve as the captain of the relay race team. Katie puts her misgivings aside (mostly), and a series of wedding-day mishaps leads her to come up with a plan that effectively brings the relay race to the wedding, and saves the day in the process. Despite the substantial amount of text on each spread, Watson keeps the story moving briskly, demonstrating how compromise isn’t just necessary at times but can be empowering, as well. But although the felt animals and other accessories (lace curtains, miniature furniture, etc.) Watson uses are charming, these three-dimensional objects are awkwardly incorporated into their comparatively flat backgrounds, never coming together to create a cohesive visual environment. Ages 4–9. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Quantum Space

Douglas Phillips. Douglas Phillips, , $2.99 ASIN B06ZY9T5Y5

The disappearance of a Soyuz space capsule just as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere is the catalyst for a chain of increasingly mysterious events that drive the plot of this hard SF page-turner. Although presumed destroyed, the capsule is still broadcasting the voices of its three-man crew. That revelation sends White House scientific advisor Daniel Rice and national security advisor Christine Shea to Fermilab in Illinois, where Diastasi, an advanced scientific study “on the cutting edge of high-energy particle physics,” is using subatomic particles to push objects into fourth-dimensional quantum space. Moving at warp speed, the narrative accelerates along an intricate pathway of interconnected subplots involving corporate subterfuge, Chinese hackers, efforts to create a Star Trek–type human transporter, the reappearance of the space capsule minus its crew, and first extraterrestrial contact. Phillips’s characters are strictly from central casting for scientific thrillers, but they do their jobs to advance the complex plot. The esoteric scientific ideas on which the story hinges are made to seem credible, but their explanation through lengthy info-dumps sometimes makes this otherwise dazzling tale of weird science read like a tutorial in quantum physics. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Crash Tack: A Miami Jones Case

A.J. Stewart. Jacaranda Drive, $14.99 trade paper (370p) ISBN 978-0-9859455-9-6

Stewart’s assured fifth mystery featuring Florida PI Miami Jones (after 2015’s Dead Fast) combines a nuanced lead with a challenging whodunit. Miami, a small-time professional baseball player turned investigator, has a personal stake in his latest case. Ron Bennett, who works with Miami and his mentor, Lenny Cox, in West Palm Beach, has become a person of interest after Will Colfax, who was in the import-export business, disappeared from his yacht in the middle of the ocean. While Ron wasn’t the only passenger, that Colfax was allegedly having an affair with Ron’s wife makes the police suspect that Ron pushed his romantic rival overboard. Their suspicions of foul play are bolstered by the discovery of traces of blood and cerebrospinal fluid on the deck. Miami and Lenny focus on identifying possible motives for murder of the other passengers, who include a newspaper ad executive, an architect, and a car dealer. Stewart provides enough twists, all credible, to keep readers turning the pages. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Soul Mender

R.S. Dabney. Red Pen Warriors, $14.99 trade paper (380p) ISBN 978-0-692-47201-9

A familiar science fiction theme—a parallel reality populated by alter egos of the inhabitants of our own—gets a fresh spin in this intriguing variant of a dark fantasy. Since childhood, Riley Dale, an environmental scientist living in Boulder, Colo., has been plagued by visions. Then she unexpectedly crosses over into the world of her imaginings with the help of a magic ring left to her by her grandmother. Partnering with Oz, a drug-addicted ne’er-do-well who represents the other half of her divided soul, and protector Zachary Stone, who’s a serial killer in her own world, Riley travels cross-country to Los Angeles, the terrorist-bombed capital of this alternate U.S., to learn the crucial role she must play in events rocking the parallel world. Dabney’s writing is crisp and confident, and her characters—including both of their personalities—are well-developed. She introduces more subplots than can be resolved by the novel’s end, making this a promising start for a projected trilogy. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Hunting in the Zoo: A Detective Pete Nazareth Novel

R.H. Johnson. Hampton, Westbrook, $17.95 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-5323-0214-5

Johnson’s suspenseful third novel featuring Det. Pete Nazareth of the NYPD (after A Measure of Revenge) places presidential candidate Archer Grande, who boasts that he could “stroll naked down Fifth Avenue, and my supporters would still vote for me,” in the crosshairs of an assassin. Nazareth is half of a team dubbed the Dynamic Duo, after he and fellow detective Tara Gimble amassed an impressive record for “not only closing the toughest cases but also for putting themselves in harm’s way again and again to get the job done right.” New York City’s mayor taps the pair to go after Stone Jackson, an expert sniper who has begun taking out child molesters, starting with the Little League coach who abused him. As Nazareth and Gimble search for Jackson, the killer ups the ante after concluding that Grande is a dangerous demagogue. Unexpected developments ratchet up the tension en route to a dramatic climax. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Flame Eater

Barbara Gaskell Denvil. Gaskell Publishing House, $4.99 e-book (424p) ASIN B01B8SEC3S

This meticulously detailed romantic thriller portrays two flawed families in medieval England whose less moral members are victims of a murderer/arsonist. The families are united in 1485 when heiress Emeline Wrotham marries Nicholas Chatwyn, an earl’s son and the aloof, scarred younger brother of Emeline’s true love, Peter, who was murdered. On their wedding night, the castle is engulfed in flames, and Nicholas is injured. Emeline and Nicholas, who is still recovering from extensive burns, depart for his cousin’s Nottingham home while the castle is being repaired, but an outbreak of the plague sends them away, eventually to London. During their travels, the marriage is consummated, and they become true partners, in love and in adventures. Charismatic and witty, Nicholas is the heart of Denvil’s novel; he works undercover for King Richard, rooting out political threats while maintaining the persona of a lazy drunkard to his disapproving father, whose favorite son is dead. Denvil’s numerous minor characters are as intriguing as Nicholas, infusing vitality and never detracting from the story. Everyday 15th-century life is richly evoked—the clothing, food, travel, habits—providing substance to a winning narrative. Family dysfunction is deftly woven into a mélange of murder, politics, and romance, with a wickedly realistic, often comical portrayal of kinship. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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American Tango

Jennifer Vandever. Melograno, $14 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-0-9966795-2-7

In her enjoyable second novel, Vandever cleverly meshes strikingly eccentric characters with everyday situations. Rosalind Plumley, a 37-year-old Oregonian, is an artist trapped in a retail job that caters to snobby hipsters. She’s the middle child in a bohemian family and married to a sweet but sad man who has a budding marijuana addiction. Amid her failing marriage and struggles with her neurotic family, Rosalind fantasizes about escaping her life and moving to Buenos Aires. She signs up for a tango class in preparation for her imagined future, and what follows is a story about love and reevaluating your dreams when reality comes crashing down. Rosalind can be amusingly gloomy and the story is seasoned with salty wit—she describes a pair of shoes as appearing to have been “dipped in the shimmery gold powder used to kill off a Bond girl,” and when her liberal mother considers a late-in-life romance, the greatest drawback is that the man voted for Romney. Vandever (The Brontë Project) writes smart, interesting characters who gradually mature in believable ways. Perceptive, bittersweet, and sometimes darkly funny, this is light enough for a quick read, yet it has enough depth to leave a satisfying impression. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Tough Girl: An Olympian’s Journey

Carolyn Wood. White Pine Press (Oregon), $18 paper (306p) ISBN 978-0-9977828-0-6

In this scattered debut work, written after hiking the Camino de Santiago, Wood reflects on the struggles of youth as the root of her courage and strength necessary to push on in later life. Wood, a competitive swimmer in her early years, attempts to relate a life of hard lessons that got her to the 1960 Junior Olympics in Rome and helped her through adolescence in the mid-1960s. However, while Wood thinks fondly of her time in the pool, swimming feels like something she did in between more important life happenings. Wood depicts herself in turn as a daughter in a strained relationship with a mother recovering from cancer, an athlete constantly pushing to be and do better, a lesbian finding comfort in her own sexuality, and a middle-aged woman looking to the next phase of life. Making stops at every trying life obstacle from childhood to late adulthood, she introduces so many charged elements that the novel feels unsure of which story it is trying to tell. The sections on swimming, her mother, and her lesbianism are thought provoking, but this is mostly an aimless journey in the present while dipping into the past, with a number of rhetorical questions that read as though she’s trying to figure out her life as she’s writing it. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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