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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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Navigating Indieworld: A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Publishing and Marketing Your Book

Julie A. Gerber and Carole P. Roman. CreateSpace, $12.99 trade paper (146p) ISBN 978-1-5372-2806-8

Gerber and Roman enthusiastically welcome writers to the world of DIY publishing with this slender book, which contains many useful pointers for authors trying to learn to effectively create and attract attention to their publications. Gerber, founder of a social media firm, and Roman, a self-published author, discuss the many steps involved in self-publishing. Roman begins by encouraging readers to start writing and explaining the need for a beta reader to comment on a manuscript, welcome points for neophytes. Hiring an illustrator, formatting and publishing books or e-books, and—especially—promoting the finished product are explained in an easy-to-follow manner. Examples are plentiful, which can be helpful, though readers would have benefited from a wider source of examples that those of the two authors and their family members. The authors provide unintended examples of one of the issues of self-publishing: their book’s formatting is problematic, with occasional spacing issues between paragraphs, text running into the gutter, and other typesetting flaws. The lack of chapter headings in the table of contents also decreases its usability. This is a sincere general guide for beginners, who will most benefit from the chapters and resources devoted to book promotion. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Footprints in the Dew: Damon “Chub” Anderson and the Unsolved Mullendore Murder

Dale R. Lewis. Buffalo Dale, $20 (326p) ISBN 978-0-692-50353-9

Lewis, a columnist for Oklahoma daily newspaper Bartleville Examiner-Enterprise, chronicles the life of career criminal Chub Anderson, who was long suspected of the 1970 murder of millionaire rancher E.C. Mullendore, heir to a lucrative family ranching operation in Osage County, Okla., and possessor of one of the largest life insurance policies in the U.S. at the time. Anderson was finally arrested in 2006 after years on the run for jumping bond on a unrelated charge. Lewis first met Anderson shortly after his arrest and spent three subsequent years in contact with Anderson, who agreed to speak openly to Lewis for this book. The focus on Anderson’s own life, rather than a detailed exploration of the crime and the investigation, will disappoint some readers, and Lewis doesn’t succeed in making his subject interesting or sympathetic, even if he himself found that he liked Anderson “despite all the negative things I learned about his past.” (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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It Rains in February: A Wife’s Memoir of Love and Loss

Leila Summers. Leila Summers, $5.99 e-book (246p) ASIN B0062EIRAI

Summers’s memoir is a complex contemporary tragedy written by a mature, talented writer. Summers speaks directly to her husband, Stuart, who chose to end his own life, in this painfully honest eulogy. The intimate style, combined with second-person narration, gives the story a page-turning tension. Summers must first accept that her emotional, smart, artistic husband has fallen deeply in love with another woman. The small family that includes two young daughters is fractured when Stuart moves out of their Victorian home in the suburbs of a South African city, and the rupture deepens when Stuart moves further away from his family and his reluctant lover to be near his sister, Ruth, in Cape Town. Summers works from a distance to keep her long-suicidal husband alive, while Ruth makes similar efforts from nearby. Ultimately, the love of his wife, sister, and children are not enough to keep him alive. Summers’s skilled prose (“Bleakness permeates the moist air and seeps into my pores”) makes this traumatic book bearable to read. This memoir is a cathartic exercise for the author and could well serve in the same capacity for anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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In Her Skin: Growing Up Trans

Trina Sotira. MuseWrite, $15 paper (218p) ISBN 978-0-9899609-2-2

In Sotira’s story of a teenager coming out as transgender, high school senior Tirzah Maxon is happiest when living as Troy—something that only seems possible doing during anonymous trips to hang out with skateboarders in downtown Chicago. Additionally, Tirzah loves best friend Heidi in a more-than-friends kind of way, but it’s unclear whether Heidi feels the same, and Heidi’s conservative Muslim family wouldn’t condone such a relationship even if she did. As graduation looms and Tirzah pursues a soccer scholarship, the teenager bemoans having to play on the girls’ team, struggles in dealing with Heidi and other classmates, and gradually feels empowered to live full-time as Troy. Sotira (Shifts: An Anthology of Women’s Growth Through Change) writes sensitively about Tirzah’s gender dysphoria; the teen’s tender friendship with Heidi and the realistically varied reactions to Tirzah’s transitioning are also handled well. Readers may wish for more resolution concerning Tirzah’s future with Heidi, who drops out of the story somewhat unceremoniously toward the end, but Sotira’s first novel remains a thoughtful portrait of one teenager’s incremental progress toward greater self-knowledge and acceptance. Ages 12–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/04/2016 | Details & Permalink

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