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Dharma: A Rekha Rao Mystery

Vee Kumari. Great Life, $14.95 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-938394-42-3

Set in Southern California, Kumari’s fascinating debut and series launch introduces art history professor Rekha Rao, who failed to get tenure at UC Irvine and is now struggling with a part-time position elsewhere. The Pasadena police need Rekha’s help determining who used a statue to batter in the head of archaeology professor Joseph Faust, who was her mentor as well as a father figure. Rao easily identifies the murder weapon as an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, “the most powerful female deity in the Hindu pantheon.” But figuring out why that particular idol was used to kill Faust is trickier, and Rekha’s shaken when she sees a photo of the dead man that reminds her of the bludgeoning murder of her own father, a killing that the police, but not Rao, deemed solved. The mystery deepens when she learns that there were rumors that the Durga statue was stolen by Faust from its excavation site in India. Rheka, a domestic violence survivor with PTSD, is a well-developed lead more than capable of sustaining a series. Kumari is off to a strong start. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Imagined Homecoming of Icarus Isakov

Steve Wiley. Lavender Line, $11.99 trade paper (230p) ISBN 978-0-9981492-4-0

Wiley (The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan) overloads this quirky, absurdist fantasy with colorful set pieces, leaving little room for suspense or emotion. When city-dwelling goblin Icarus Isakov unexpectedly receives a letter from his childhood crush, Ruby Rockhollow, with whom he long ago lost touch, he boards an airship back to his hometown of Rockville for a reunion. But when he arrives, he finds the town largely deserted and Ruby’s house reduced to rubble. Icarus has all but lost hope of finding her when he stumbles upon a bar that “serves memories instead of drinks” and is miraculously still open. His trip down memory lane offers clues that propel him on a dreamlike expedition to a lighthouse operated by a half man, half cat; onward to an empty castle; and finally to an abandoned mine—but he still can’t find Ruby. Disheartened once more, he returns to the bar, where the proprietor, Forgetful Faun, discovers a secret code in Ruby’s letter. Icarus is an empathetic hero, and the mystery of Ruby’s whereabouts carries the story, but the adventures are disappointingly half-baked as Wiley rushes from one big idea to the next, and the final twist falls flat. This is an uneven fantasy, but it’s not without its charms. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Gary’s Guide to Life

Michael Nabavian and Phil Wall. Landslide, $14.99 trade paper (284p) ISBN 978-1-5301-3639-1

The coauthors’ side-splitting debut (after a series of personal finance books from Wall) follows a budding self-help author determined to illustrate how anyone can achieve “phenomenal success” through his system. Gary Speedwell, 33, possesses unshakable confidence (“success will be within your grasp—every bit as much as it is within mine”) as he offers ironically misguided opinions to his readers. Despite enduring two back-to-back breakups and a boring job at a hauling company in London, Gary is convinced that his love life, fame, and wealth are just waiting to soar once his book is published. Struggles with his rent, his exes, and his sexy supervisor are played out through ludicrous descriptions of how to overcome those very obstacles. The misinformed Gary, who names Marie Curie as an inventor of radio and calls Voltaire a “she,” advises lovelorn men to remember that every single woman “wants a partner who’s not afraid to take control.” The sensible tone and reliance on gendered norms make Gary’s otherwise inept advice tenable to his followers, adding another layer to the mordant humor. The authors prove themselves masters at couching preposterous statements in a rational tone, and pull off a laugh-out-loud satire. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Finding Hildegard: Healing Through Medieval Wisdom

Gregg Koskela. Gregg Koskela, $11.99 trade paper (180p) ISBN 978-1-70561-639-0

Former Quaker pastor Koskela meditates on spiritual lessons from 12th-century saint Hildegard of Bingen in this eloquent debut. When the community Koskela pastored split, he ended 27 years of ministry and turned to studying Hildegard to cope with his feelings of failure and uncertainty. He explores her life and visions in thematic chapters, weaving together snippets from her writings, an account of his pilgrimage to Germany, and his own roiling emotions. He argues that the need for community challenges modern individualistic faith, works through Hildegard’s medieval fixation on human depravity and sin to understand limits and humility, and wraps up with chapters on openness and obedience that highlight the potential of these sidelined virtues. Koskela shares vulnerable moments, including his seeking to speak in tongues, and surprising revelations, such as finding value in participating in foreign language liturgy at Hildegard’s abbey. This soul-searching account provides both a taste of Hildegard’s philosophy and a moving story of finding value and comfort in largely overlooked Christian thinker. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Tell ‘em About it!

Jerry Gold. Jerry Gold, $6.99 trade paper (130p) ISBN 978-1-67734-342-3

Gold, the longtime emcee of Broward Country (Fla.) reading festivals, offers tips on public speaking in his instructive debut. He shares a harrowing story of stage fright while speaking in front of his high school peers as motivation for learning the basics of preparing a speech, creating a structure, and showing emotion to one’s audience. For the simplest speeches, Gold suggests an “English composition” paper structure—an opening statement, three examples to support one’s claim, and a conclusion. He recommends using humor, facts and figures, and varying one’s pitch and tempo to keep audiences engaged, and shares many anecdotes about his work as a speaker for parents associations within the Philadelphia school system and speaking experiences at a Dale Carnegie self-improvement course. While he offers much encouragement, many of Gold’s suggestions (“speak to them clearly and effectively and tell them what they want to hear... that’s all there is to it”) are frustratingly basic. Though the writing advice is a disappointment, readers concerned with building the confidence needed to address groups will gain insight from Gold’s public speaking successes and failures. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Underrated Rock Book: The 200 Most Overlooked Albums, 1970–2015

Jim Santora Jr. CreateSpace, $13.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-72284-518-6

First-time author and musician Santora delivers an entertaining if slight collection of 200 short reviews of rock LPs by “artists that have been overlooked in their time.” Since he is surveying 45 years of music, Santora admits upfront that he put the book together as “a discussion piece... a musical journey full of bands you are going to remember or wonder why this is the first time you have ever heard them.” For the most part, he is successful. He makes an insightful argument for the quality of the third LP by alternative metal pioneers Living Colour, Stain, “an album that displayed the band at their heaviest but not losing any of the funk or experimental style of their previous releases.” He also praises the first LP by blues rockers Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise (“Robert Bradley has a voice that could reach into you, draw you in and make you listen to every note”), who were overlooked in the 1990s grunge craze. But Santora also covers fairly well-known LPs by groups such as Ministry (A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste “is what happens when you combine new wave and thrash/speed metal with a punk rock attitude and further chaos”), the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M. It all makes for intriguing reading, but the overall the effect is more scattershot, the literary equivalent of looking through a friend’s extensive record collection. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Could Be Something Good

Fiona West. Tempest and Kite, $14.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-952172-03-8

This cozy series debut from West (The Borderline Chronicles series) invites readers to the charming small town of Timber Falls, Ore. When Daniel Durand returns to his hometown to complete his medical residency at the local hospital, he’s immediately smitten by midwife Winifred Baker. After his unflattering first impression, Winnie rebuffs Daniel’s advances; she’s still raw from the breakup of her long-term relationship with her high school sweetheart, Ethan, and self-conscious about dating a younger man. But they soon bond over their shared love of graphic novels, and after Winnie realizes she may have misjudged Daniel, she asks him to accompany her to a wedding Ethan is also attending. As their feelings deepen, Daniel’s determined to prove his intentions are sincere to Winnie, her mother, and the entirety of Timber Falls if necessary. The low stakes are comforting rather than boring, giving this joyful romance the perfect slice-of-life feel. The endearing cast, sweet love story, and fully realized setting will be more than enough to keep the pages turning. This is small-town romance done right. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 06/05/2020 | 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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