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Knocking

Robin Merrill. New Creation Publishing, $4 e-book (232p) ISBN 978-1-3930-4523-6

Merrill (The Prima Donna) kicks off the New Beginnings series with a potent tale of betrayal, faith, and forgiveness. When long-suffering pastor’s wife Tonya Mendell discovers her husband is having an affair with a congregant, it is the couple’s preteen daughter, Emma, who feels the brunt of the trauma. After being humiliated by a best friend turned mean girl, Emma gets into a fight with her parents, storms out of the house, and is welcomed into the home of the neighborhood recluse, Fiona Patterson. While Emma’s parents continue their marital charade in an attempt to keep Roy’s pastoral position, Emma finds solace with Fiona and the Puddys, a “weirdo” homeschool family she is forced to spend time with but previously disregarded, who prove to be more reliable than Emma’s own family. Meanwhile, in a separate story line, seven elderly women have been told their diocese is shuttering their church. In response, they start New Beginnings in a dilapidated old building. The services are unconventional, but they just might be what Tonya, Emma, Fiona, and the Puddy family need. Merrill’s theological insight on God’s grace amid difficult circumstances resonates and will have readers anticipating the next installment. Fans of Francine Rivers should take a look. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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First Among Nations: A Novel About Struggle and Perseverance in the Holy Land

Ira Mosen. Olive Blossom, $18.95 trade paper (286p) ISBN 978-1-7353741-0-9

Mosen smoothly incorporates religious and social messages into his triumphant debut about the rise of an Israeli soccer prodigy. As a child, Elazar bristles at his restrictive upbringing and the long hours his parents make him spend studying. After seeing some kids play soccer, he becomes obsessed with the sport—despite his father’s prohibition of what he views as a frivolous diversion from studying Talmud. By sneaking out to dedicate every free moment he can find to the sport, though, Elazar becomes a gifted player, enabling him to land a spot on a youth league team. When it’s time for him to do his military service, he joins a unit whose commander is known for a love of the game and, by excelling in the Army team, Elazar miraculously puts himself in a position to represent his country at the World Cup. The outlandish yet enjoyable story branches out from the sports narrative to offer nuanced takes on Arab-Jewish friendships and ethnic prejudice, and explore the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though the soccer elements can feel far-fetched, Mosen’s bildungsroman will appeal to readers who like a feel-good yarn. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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So True

Serena Bell. Jelsba, $11.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-953498-00-7

Bell continues her contemporary Tierney Bay series (after So Close) with a passionate second-chance romance. When Chiara Campbell’s first love, Jax Walker, ghosted her by leaving town immediately after they had sex for the first time her senior year of high school, Chiara was understandably devastated. In the decade since, she’s become a successful small-business owner and, recently, a surrogate big sister to Jax’s younger brother, Evan, who’s newly returned to Tierney Bay, Ore. When Jax learns that Evan used the college tuition money he provided to open a comic book store in Tierney Bay, he returns to the town he’s always avoided to confront his brother—but his anger turns to fear when he learns that Evan, who has Crohn’s disease, is hospitalized following emergency surgery. In a bid to save Evan’s floundering business while he’s recuperating, Chiara and Jax agree to work together. Their close proximity forces them to face their past, but Jax has never told anyone the real reason he left Tierney Bay and the heavy secret weighs on their rekindling romance. Jax and Chiara are both strong, loyal characters, and Bell does a good job showing how their intense young love lingers with them as adults. Great chemistry and tight familial bonds make for a heartwarming series entry. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Antigenesis

D.S. Whitaker. Amazon, $12.99 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-73425-951-3

Women take control after a pandemic kills mostly men in Whitaker’s clever and convincing debut. Ally Reynerson, a middle-aged widow and pandemic specialist with the NIH and CDC, receives secret communications about a highly contagious virus that originated at a Russian base in the arctic circle and is transmitted by dogs. Army Intelligence major general Dirk Roadfuss and philandering, golf-obsessed President Merriwether—who dresses like a “sorry blend of Rodney Dangerfield and Jimmy Buffett”—are suspiciously inactive over the threat. When word spreads to the Chinese, war-hungry and sadistic Minister Szu Qiang, brother to the Chinese president, orders samples to be obtained in the arctic for development of a bioweapon. The virus spreads rapidly throughout the world, killing millions of men and young women, with the survivors being mostly women in their 50s and 60s. Reynerson joins CDC Director Renée Carson in a joint effort with Sen. Ruth Cochran and former spy Dr. Yi Nian to discover the origin of the disease and treatment. As the diverse cast works to overcome incompetence, arrogance, and petty political fiefdoms, readers will cheer on the women (and the men they can trust) as they take decisive control and power this story of a precarious globalized world toward a satisfying conclusion. Whitaker’s fast-paced, well-written satire of men in power is worth a look. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 02/05/2021 | 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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