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The Cracked Slipper

Stephanie Alexander. Bublish, $14.99 trade paper (412p) ISBN 978-1-64704-021-5

Alexander’s alluring debut and series launch reimagines Cinderella’s happily ever after as a tense, unhappy marriage while laying plenty of ground for installments to come. At the Second Sunday ball, Eleanor Brice attracts the attention of Prince Gregory Desmarais, much to the annoyance of her conniving, abusive stepmother, Imogene. Here ends the fairy tale readers will recognize, as opinionated Eleanor struggles to fit in at the palace during her whirlwind wedding preparations with help from her gossipy parrot Chou Chou and her handmaidens. Her marriage grows more complicated than her engagement as Gregory’s temper flares and Eleanor learns he frequents brothels. Eleanor navigates politics—including a push to strip her beloved healing witches of their access to education—and her stepmother’s ongoing schemes while dealing with her husband’s inconsistent moods. Through it all, she relies on Gregory’s best friend, soldier Dorian Finley, for support. Alexander writes sensitively about reality falling short of dreams while leaving open enough questions regarding Imogene’s machinations and Dorian and Eleanor’s mutual attraction to propel a sequel. Alexander does a solid job of taking a fairy tale and remixing it with feminist themes and dark edges. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Stories I Can’t Show My Mother

Ann Tinkham. Napili, $14.95 trade paper (236p) ISBN 978-0-99901-571-1

The sex-obsessed protagonists in Tinkham’s provocative collection (after The Era of Lanterns and Bells) are marked by resentment, contempt, and misanthropy. Stronger offerings include “The Magician,” which transforms an embittered woman’s experience with online dating into an epiphany; and “He Brings Me Flowers,” which injects some compassion into a love triangle between a young divorcée, her feckless artist lover, and his high-achieving wife. However, a judgmental worldview pervades Tinkman’s other stories. The charms of “The Sweetness of Salt”—which follows Alexis, an MFA grad turned erotica writer, during her time at a seminar for romance writers, where she hopes to hone her chops with sessions such as “Arousing Adjectives”—are undermined by a sudden mean-spirted rant directed at the industry members, described as “smiling suits with halitosis.” In “Direct Deposit,” a 38-year-old woman’s quest to conceive a child leads to a farcical encounter at a sperm bank, but the humor is undercut by the narrator’s puzzling use of racial stereotypes. While Tinkham’s stories often traffic in simplified assumptions about how the world works, whether about romance publishing or fertility clinics, and feature a pervasive malice toward perceived faults in men, they leave open the possibility that her protagonists get what they deserve. Tinkham’s skill for staging memorable set pieces would benefit from stronger craft. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Relatively Sane

Whitney Dineen. 33 Partners, $12.95 trade paper (354p) ISBN 978-1-09-064332-2

Dineen pulls readers back into the absurd world of the Masterson family in this side-splitting sequel to Relatively Normal. Party planner Cat Masterson moves home from New York to buy and renovate her family’s Central Illinois farmhouse and rekindle a romance with childhood friend Sam. But Cat has forgotten just how eccentric her family is, with her mother stashing taxidermied animals in the attic, her father traipsing around in a kilt, and her grandmother Nan, the standout, forever finding fresh, surprising insults to throw around. To help manage the restoration of the farm, Cat enlists the Renovation Brothers, the hunky stars of a reality TV show, but Sam starts acting cagey as soon as the brothers arrive. It’s going to cost a lot of Cat’s sanity to keep both the repairs and her relationships on track. Dineen’s characterizations of her wacky cast make it easy for those new to the series to jump into the chaos, and there are enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning. Readers are sure to laugh and cringe along with the characters as they navigate this rom-com’s many mishaps. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 03/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Mystical Ark: A Vessel of Blessings

Eileen Patra. BookBaby, $16.95 (324p) ISBN 978-1-5439-7611-3

Patra depicts in her propulsive debut a spiritual awakening set off by the discovery of the Ark of the Covenant. The field study at archeological dig site Qasr Ibrim did not go as archaeologist Zak Erdmann had hoped. The expedition began with strange accidents resulting in deaths and serious injuries, and reaches total catastrophe after unknown assailants attack and kill the majority of the team members. Zak, Elena, Josh, and Paul are among the survivors, as they were in a cave following a map that led them to the Ark of the Covenant. But instead of containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, the Ark pulls them into a portal, allowing them to experience the commandments throughout history. Realizing that the world may not be ready for this experience, they leave the Ark in the cave and swear never to mention it to anyone. However, Elena, feeling a unity with “the essence of life,” decides to share her experiences through a gallery exhibition of paintings, and Paul decides to write a book about what he’s learned. Zak, less sure and still searching for answers, keeps asking questions and uncovers a secret sect of monks who are determined to protect the Ark. Fans of religious speculative fiction will enjoy Patra’s high-action, scripture-driven thriller. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/28/2020 | 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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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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Singing In My Own Key: A Vocalist’s Triumph Over Stroke

Valerie L. Giglio. Forza, $9.99 (250p) ASIN B01GF174YC

Giglio, a Boston-area singer and lawyer, details the year she spent recovering from a devastating brain stem stroke she suffered at age 42, which caused her musical and legal worlds “to spin out of control.” Balancing chapters on the details of her recovery—including prolonged hospital stays, confinement to a wheelchair, and “relentless” dizziness—with others on developments in both of her careers, Giglio more than meets her goal of showing readers that “miracles happen.” She deftly explores the “surreal” experience of having a stroke: “Inside you’re screaming to get out, but you can’t move.” She also describes the various grueling physical and mental therapies she endured in order to meet her goal of returning to performing in a year—a goal she accomplished with the help of supportive family and friends. She is guided by the words of her mentor, legendary jazz performer Al Vega, who shows her that “sometimes we have to take a chance and keep going no matter what obstacles we face.” Deciding that “the only limitations were the ones I put on myself,” Giglio hopes her story and struggles will help others “reach for the stars and dream big.” (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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