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Riding with the Hides of Hell

Stacia Leigh. Espial Design, $10.70 paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-692-79727-3

Alternating between tough Miki Holtz and easygoing Will Sullivan, both 17, Leigh’s uneven tale of family and motorcycle clubs suffers from a frustrating lack of communication. After Will wipes out on his motorcycle while drunk, his father forces him to come along on a bike rally in the Pacific Northwest as a final memorial for Will’s mother, who died in a car accident the previous year. Will winds up sharing a bike with Miki, the daughter of the acting president of the Hides of Hell motorcycle club, who is head over heels for Will despite his seeming lack of interest. Then the two make a decision that puts them in the middle of a conflict between the Hides of Hell and a rival club. Leigh (Dealing with Blue) creates rounded characters in both Will and Miki: his inability to move on from his mother’s death and her self-confidence are highlights of the novel. However, Leigh glosses over the unsavory parts of the club, including its illegal activities, and most of the obstacles the characters face, both physical and emotional, could have been avoided by having conversations. Ages 14–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Rector: A Christian Murder Mystery

Michael Hicks Thompson. Shepherd King, $18 trade paper (342p) ISBN 978-0-9845282-6-4

Thompson’s engaging, high-energy Christian murder mystery is narrated by Martha McRae, a woman living in a small Mississippi town who seeks to solve the mystery of the sudden death of pastor David Baddour. Throughout the novel, readers are introduced to the cast of characters who inhabit the small Delta town in the 1950s. The book gleefully mixes all the elements of a small-town murder mystery—gossip, foul play, backstabbing—and, as more is revealed about Pastor Baddour and the other townspeople, more mysteries, hypocrisies, and dangers add to the intrigue. In spite of the danger McRae faces, she leaves no stone unturned. As she moves closer to solving the mystery, she must grapple with difficult truths about faith, honesty, sin, and redemption. With its exploration of small-town life in and close examination of the inhabitants of the town, Thompson’s tale looks intimately at what it means to function in a community—how a population can reveal and obscure the truth. Folded into the narrative are many Christian lessons, musings, and references, which can be interesting and edifying for some readers of faith. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Resurrection America

Jeff Gunhus. Seven Guns, $3.99 e-book (405p) ISBN 978-0-9982177-2-7

In this taut, thought-provoking apocalyptic thriller from Gunhus (Night Chill), hard times have hit the little hamlet of Resurrection, Colo., and the mayor has reinstated the local fall festival in the hope that the food, music, crafts, and fun will lift the community’s spirits. When someone erects a high electric fence in front of the entrance to a long-abandoned mine, Sheriff Rick Johnson is concerned. A series of small, easily dismissed incidents niggle at his mind, but he decides to let things ride until after the festival. Soon, grave problems develop that directly involve every citizen of Resurrection and eventually spiral into a technological threat so cataclysmic that Rick can hardly comprehend its significance. Will Rick and his allies, including AI expert Cassandra Baker, be able to thwart the mad plans of Hank Keefer, the mine’s new owner, and the unbridled greed of Cassandra’s narcissistic billionaire boss, Brandon Morris? Readers will keep turning the pages to find out as the action builds to a surprising conclusion. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Unrest

Sandra Heath. Sandra Ann Heath, $24.99 (350p) ISBN 978-0-9965517-2-4

Heath’s debut novel masterfully incorporates family, romance, tension, and fully realized characters into a wonderfully written piece of historical fiction set in 1978 Tehran, during the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution. Seventeen-year-old Annette Patterson—aka Annie—arrives in Tehran with her mother, her 18-year-old sister, and 11-year-old brother. They’re joining their father, Colonel Jack Patterson, at his new military assignment of helping to procure equipment for the Air Force, but unlike where they’ve lived before—which has ranged from the U.S. to Greece—Iran is almost overwhelmingly exotic to them. The strange desert landscapes, the local customs, unique foods, and awesome landmarks threaten to overpower Annie’s senses. Sibling rivalry between Annie and her sister, Debbie, escalates when the family befriends 18-year-old Amir and both girls start to fall for him. As tension grows within the family, so too does it grow in the country: killings and demonstrations occur with increasing frequency. When a restaurant the family had patronized is bombed, Annie realizes “this happened two weeks to the night we’d celebrated Debbie’s birthday there.” The time period is accurately captured from the viewpoint of the Pattersons as well as from the Iranian characters’ perspectives. This is a superb accomplishment of character development, as well as an immersive journey through Tehran’s many landmarks. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/21/2017 | 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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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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