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Killer Soul Mate: A Jane Larson Mystery

Anne Rothman-Hicks and Ken Hicks. Melange, $14.95 trade paper (244p) ISBN 978-1-68046-812-0

The Hickses’ suspenseful fourth Jane Larson mystery (after 2017’s Mind Me, Milady) nimbly balances the feisty New York City attorney’s personal life with a whodunit plotline. Faced with a bitter battle with her landlady, who’s seeking to oust her from her office and apartment, the solo practitioner welcomes the distraction of a new case, helping her friend Jasmine get out of an unfavorable divorce settlement. When Jane gets a copy of the signed agreement, she doubts its legitimacy, and her suspicions are bolstered by a handwriting expert. When Larson and Jasmine seek out Jasmine’s former attorney, Kevin Whyte, in his office, they find him dead, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Evidence surfaces that Whyte was murdered, and other homicides follow before the action-packed climax. The Hickses do a superior job of keeping readers guessing about the killer’s identity. Fans of capable but flawed female leads will be pleased. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Jerkwater

Jamie Zerndt. KDP, $6.99 e-book (244p) ASIN B07T1LMJB5

Zerndt’s resonant latest (after The Roadrunner Cafe) traces the lives of three downtrodden characters struggling with death and despair in Mercer, Wis. Shawna Reynolds, an Ojibwa orphan desperately missing her deceased mother, considers most white people “polluted” due to the history of their crimes committed against her family. Living next door is Kay, a 64-year-old widow numbing the recent death of her husband with alcohol and becoming increasingly worried about her Alzheimer’s-induced forgetfulness. Kay’s son, Douglas, who lives with her, endures sluggish business at the family’s auto body shop while trying to be a friend to Shawna and coming to terms with his father’s death. Zerndt shows a knack for strong characterization as this trio of downcast friends melds into a cohesive unit, collectively processing their sorrow, disenchantment, and struggles. A community battle over a torched town mascot and fishing rights swirls up unrest between Mercer’s white and Native American populations, with Shawna embroiled at the center. Zerndt’s prose and storytelling acumen are on impressive display as he weaves together the lives of his characters, whose dreams and desires vastly outweigh their meager grief-stricken lives and uncertain futures. Compact and tightly plotted, this outstanding work is packed with emotion and restlessness. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Wise Tales from the East

Uri Kaplan. Prapanca, $14.99 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-965-599-296-0

In this illuminating anthology, Kaplan (Buddhist Apologetics in East Asia), lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, brings together 49 parables from East Asia and India. Though many of these stories, like “A Piggyback Ride” (a lesson in letting go of the past), will be familiar to readers interested in Buddhism, Kaplan’s articulations of them flow well and move briskly to key points. Some readers may find that Kaplan’s lack of additional commentary on the individual stories—including very little explanation of background on the monastic and philosophical traditions they come from—leaves his rehashings devoid of necessary context. Kaplan’s indulgence in a short coda or question at the end of some of the stories generally weakens them—such as his addendum to “Beautiful Flaws,” which adds that the woman who was unknowingly watering flowers on her way to a water well eventually picks them to beautify her home. While the stories find a fuller rendition in other American Zen overviews, Kaplan brings a good ear and quick pacing to these classic tales. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Unsafe Words

Loren Rhoads. Automatism, $9.99 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-73518-760-0

Rhoads (Angelus Rose) offers a heady blend of otherworldly sex and sin in this collection of 15 speculative shorts. “Here There Be Monsters” follows two bike riders who stop to picnic, drop acid, and hook up near an abandoned mansion in the woods—and what’s lurking there is not particularly welcoming. A young woman comes of age on a dangerous planet where humans and alien species mingle freely in “The Arms Dealer’s Daughter,” a delightful homage to classic sci-fi. A human becomes the bride of a fairy embarking on the Wild Hunt in “The Magic of Fire and Dawn,” a succubus searches for pleasure in the 1970s in the steamy “Never Bargained for You,” and the erotic “Affamé” delves into intense BDSM. Rhoads’s prose is effervescent, rendering her imagined worlds with nuance and the occasional dose of black humor. Though the graphic sex and violence throughout will scare off some readers, Rhoads does provide a helpful key with content warnings for each of her stories. This carefully crafted collection makes an excellent showcase of Rhoads’s skill across a multitude of subgenres. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 11/06/2020 | 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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