Jason Tanamor. Zoiks! Online Books, $12.95 paper (210p) ISBN 978-1-4348-3828-5
This novel from Tanamor is a winning jumble of the gritty, the raw, and the grotesque. Set in a prison, the book follows three inmates—Unknown (in for fraud), Ambiguous (in for murder), and Stud (in for reasons unknown)—as they communicate through the building’s plumbing system, sharing stories and attempting to outdo each other with tales both shocking and bizarre. While the novel is slow going at first, readers who stick around will find the author soon hits his stride. Tanamor writes like a deformed love child of Chuck Palahniuk and Charles Bukowski who has finally discovered its own voice—and the result is a rousing novel that will confuse just as often as it entertains. This is a well-crafted piece of experimental, voyeuristic fiction from a promising writer with lots of potential.
★ Anvil of God: Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles
J. Boyce Gleason. iUniverse, $33.95 hardcover (440p) ISBN 978-1-4759-9020-1
Gleason’s gripping historical novel—the first volume in his Carolingian Chronicles—offers readers a vivid mix of bloody battles, intriguing characters, and plenty of pagan sex rites. The year is 741, and Charles “The Hammer” Martel, the Frankish general and mayor of the palace who held off the Saracens and preserved Christianity in Western Europe, is on his deathbed. In the palace at Quierzy (located in modern-day France), the politicking around succession is laden with intrigue, which Gleason makes lively and entertaining, while giving considerable space and full character development to the women who walk the corridors of power. Trudi, Charles’s daughter, embraces paganism, while her brothers grapple with the role of the church in a reconstituted kingdom. As the saga unfolds, Trudi takes flight to avoid a forced marriage of political convenience, while her brothers battle each other in the skillfully described siege of the city of Laon. As both stories move toward their exciting conclusions, the mix of history, action, drama, and vigorous doses of sex makes this debut historical novel a page-turner.
Carol Shay Hornung. CreateSpace, $14.95 paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-4827-3577-2
Russ Dante is a middle-school math teacher who has always been a little bit odd—he has trouble interacting with people, finds it difficult to recognize faces, and prefers sketching to human contact. But, his quiet life is disrupted when he witnesses a murder in his local park—and is then chased by the knife-wielding killer. Russ checks himself into a mental health facility to protect himself from the killer, and turns to sister Misty for help. Stress doesn’t help Russ—who is eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome—communicate with the police, and soon he begins to suspect that the murder may be part of a larger conspiracy. Hornung’s novel offers fascinating insight into Asperger’s, but as a murder mystery it sometimes falls flat. Fans of the genre will find that some of the plot details are tenuous at best. Still, readers will find Russ a likable and fully realized character, and the author’s depiction of a man with Asperger’s realistic and intriguing.
Robin Lamont. Grayling Press, $12.95 paper (246p) ISBN 978-0-9858485-4-5
In the first volume of Lamont’s Kinship series, Jude Brannock is an animal-welfare investigator who travels to the small town of Bragg Falls to investigate the supposed suicide of an informant from the local meat-packing plant with whom she was working. When she arrives, she doesn’t receive a warm welcome—the livelihoods of most of the townsfolk depend on the meat-processing facility. Jude is harassed and threatened, and her dog is kidnapped. With few allies, Jude works to find the truth about her informant’s death and what is really going on at the local plant. Lamont paints a vivid, realistic picture of slaughterhouses. However, some of her characters are underdeveloped—perhaps due to the author’s heavy-handed efforts to depict the U.S. meat-processing industry’s treatment of animals as inhumane. While her message is on point, the prose suffers for it. Still, her novel presents an interesting mystery and will appeal to readers familiar with issues of animal cruelty.
Cold Winter Rain
Steven P. Gregory. Oak Mountain Press, $14.95 paper (225p) ISBN 978-0-9859928-1-1
Attorney Gregory utilizes a legal background to create a complex and suspenseful slice of hard-boiled noir that honors without imitating the stylistic and thematic influences of Dashiell Hammett. Eschewing over-simplistic views of morality, the characters here wade through a dark ambiguity mirrored by bleak atmosphere, descending into homicide and emotional bankruptcy. In Birmingham, Ala., Slate, the cynical but decent lawyer-investigator struggling with the deaths of his wife and son, agrees to locate attorney Don Kramer’s daughter, Kristina, unwittingly accepting an invitation into conspiracy and cover-ups. When a murdered man is discovered with Slate’s business card, police captain Leon Grubbs casts an eye on our hard-luck hero and a routine missing person’s case becomes a race against the clock and possibly the New Orleans mob. Slate is not a mere parody of classic genre detectives. Rather, his personality is convincing and complex, skillfully revealed without slowing the action-driven plot. Clean and sharp prose delivers maximum emotional effect, and the dialogue rings true. Though he doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre, Slate is nevertheless destined to become a series character welcomed by aficionados of John D. MacDonald and Raymond Chandler.
Dragons of the Book of Mormon
Johnny Townsend. BookLocker, $15.95 paper (246p) ISBN 978-1-62646-678-4
In this entertaining collection, Townsend—author of 16 books, including Morman Underwear—creates a kaleidoscope of Morman characters young and old, male and female, gay and straight, who find themselves at odds with the demands of their religion. In “Going Home,” a man no longer wants to live. He maintains good appearances by going to work and loving his family, but worries that wanting to die is a sin. In “Temple Man,” a reporter covers the good deeds of an aspiring temple-clothes-wearing superhero, while internally questioning the value of the hero’s deeds. In “The Venetian Blinds of Heaven,” an excommunicated Mormon clings to his religion and agonizes over whether he should continue to pay tithing or let his family endure financial struggles. Although Townsend’s prose is sharp, clear, and easy to read, and his characters are well rendered, some of the stories don’t “reveal the inner turmoil of LDS life,” as the author claims. At times, readers will have trouble identifying with the characters—in many cases, the turmoil and chaos of their lives feels far too muted.
Escape from Zulaire
Veronica Scott. Jean D. Walker, $8.99 paper (238p) ISBN 978-0-9895903-2-7
In this sci-fi romance, Assistant Planetary Agent for Loxton Galactic Trading Andi Markriss is filling in as a bridesmaid at a royal wedding on the planet of Zulaire when she gets a nasty shock from hunky Captain Tom Deverane of Sectors Special Forces. Deverane informs her that he has orders to rescue her from the civil war that is about to engulf the planet. Andi is skeptical and reluctant to abandon her wedding duties, thus delaying her departure—a decision that leads to encounters with rebel fighters, a dangerous journey through the wilderness, an evil alien plot, and the possibly of romance. Scott (Dancer of the Nile) demonstrates a skillful hand with science fiction plotting and a knack for the romance genre. The author deftly draws readers into this entertaining story and the lives of its likable characters. And while the author’s worldbuilding could be stronger, fans of the genre won’t have many complaints.
★ Ghost of the Gods
Kevin Bohacz. Mazel & Sechel, $14.95 paper (389p) ISBN 978-0-9791815-3-5
In this sequel to Bohacz’s Immortality, two years after the devastation of mass human extinctions in kill zones, mankind is still grasping for survival. An oppressive union of government and big business controls an exhausted America, which is divided between walled-in Protectorates and the unpoliced Outlands. Against this chaotic backdrop, paleobiologist and genetic researcher Mark Freedman and policewoman Sarah Mayfair continue their evolution into transhumans—nanotech hybrids with a connection to the god machine, the artificial intelligence that caused the recent massacres, in an effort to derail the destruction of the Earth’s biosphere. Bohacz provides mind-bending portrayals of factions vying for power and reflections on the essence and fragility of humanity. But philosophical concerns never obtrude on the fast-paced plot, as authorities investigate communes of hybrids, and Freedman and Mayfair must choose between absorption into a collective mind or fidelity to their remaining humanity. The question of who can be trusted impels the reader to keep turning the pages of this highly satisfying and dynamic techno-thriller.
The Golden Apple
Faerl Marie. CreateSpace, $8.99 paper (165p) ISBN 978-1-4936-6058-2
Poppy Parker has an idyllic life until her husband, Josh, dies in a car accident. Still reeling from his death almost a year later, Poppy resolves to leave her home in Alpharetta, Ga., and go to New York City to spend time with friends and start life anew. While in New York, Poppy reconnects with photographer Austin Bandy—a man who has loved her for years—but must try to heal the wounds of the past and open her heart to the possibility of a new relationship. Marie’s novel about a woman’s profound grief will fail to connect with readers because the author’s heroine rarely struggles, despite the death of her husband. Poppy is financially independent and thus free to pursue her passions with a wonderful man waiting in the wings. And while readers will identify with and understand Poppy’s efforts to reconcile her feelings for Josh and Austin, they won’t become fully engaged with her story because the conflict driving the narrative lacks potency.
★ The Gondola Maker
Laura Morelli. Laura Morelli, $12.49 paper (335p) ISBN 978-0-9893671-0-3
Sixteenth-century Venice is the star of Morelli’s well-crafted historical novel about teenage Luca Vianello, the eldest son and heir of the city’s most renowned gondola builder. After his beloved mother dies during childbirth at the age of 44, Luca argues with his father and blames him for the tragedy. In a rage, Luca accidently sets fire to his father’s workshop and leaves home. Luca works a succession of menial jobs under an alias, until he becomes the personal gondolier of a noted artist named Trevisan and finds himself smitten with a stunning young woman whom Trevisan is painting. While a wealth of period lore and beautifully rendered setting—the city’s unique sounds, smells, and heritage—dominate her novel, Morelli creates poignantly convincing characters in this handsome coming-of-age novel about adoration, pain, and destiny.
Good to Her
Enid Harlow. Strategic Book Publishing and Rights, $18.50 paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-62516-398-1
In 1945, successful, middle-aged businessman Nate Neumann meets his future wife at Dinty Moore’s, an iconic New York City restaurant on the corner of 46th Street and Broadway. Aspiring actress Sallie is two decades Nate’s junior, but he falls for her immediately and they soon marry. However, their union is far from perfect. Over the course of two decades, Sallie has affairs with younger men. And while she always says that Nate is good to her, he has some nagging doubts about her love and their relationship. Harlow (A Better Man) has a rich understanding of New York history, and her decision to set her novel around a legendary restaurant gives the book depth and richness. Unfortunately, the story is less engaging when it focuses on people rather than places. The trope of a wealthy older man being entranced by a pretty younger woman who cheats on him is nothing new. That said, it’s easy to become deeply immersed in Harlow’s New York City, and consequently many readers maybe be willing to forgive the familiar plotline.
A Prayer for the Devil
Dale Allan. Emerald Book Company, $23.95 hardcover (320p) ISBN 978-1-937110-34-5
When his twin brother, Aaron; a politician named Brad Thompson; and Muslim reformist Ablaa Raboud are killed in a bombing at a political rally in Boston, handsome and humane Father Luke Miller decides to take matters into his own hands. The police are unsure about the intended target of the attack, and Miller’s investigation raises more questions than it answers. He defies warnings about his own safety and finds support from businessman and mobster Sal Bruno, homeless men John Daly and Blade, computer hacker Arnold, and Raboud’s sister. Allan’s taut thriller is well plotted, and the explication of the mystery and the many odd characters with whom Father Luke becomes involved will keep readers engaged and turning the pages. While the bombing drives the mystery at the heart of Allan’s book, it also serves as a vehicle for a somewhat surface exploration of the clash of Islam with Christianity and the West. Readers may find the characters lacking in emotional depth and some plot points far-fetched, but fans of the genre will enjoy this highly readable thriller with a final shocking revelation that seems to signal a sequel.
Alan A. Winter. iUniverse, $18.95 paper (318p) ISBN 978-1-4917-0567-4
This engaging thriller from Winter (Someone Else’s Son) centers on the Codex of Aleppo, a missing book of the Bible that contains every word spoken by God to man. The Codex, which has appeared and disappeared over the ages, is now in the custody of the Israeli government—but about a third of its pages are missing, and political intrigue is preventing the Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) from tracking them down. Meanwhile, New York City police detective LeShana T. Thompkins is working a murder case tied to the Codex that leads to an investigation of Cardinal Arnold Josiah Ford, and, ultimately, catastrophe and religious epiphany. Despite the book’s lively characters and many suspenseful twists and turns, readers will find that some plot points strain credulity. The story’s conclusion—which is overly foreshadowed—and its aftermath contrast the futility of hate with the rewards of devotion and self-sacrifice. Winter’s implication that a divine hand has been at work through the centuries provides a note of hope that gives the title resonance.
Glenn Ogura. iUniverse, $25.95 paper (486p) ISBN 978-1-4759-8855-0
On the verge of leaving Silicon Valley’s prestigious DisplayTechnik to start his own company with new industry-changing video technology, idealistic young engineer Zack Penny is confronted by ruthless CEO Allen Henley, who questions his loyalty. Before the Sun Tzu–quoting chief executive can fire him, Zach quits—but Allen vows revenge, and Zach’s associates at DisplayTechnik are soon shown the door as well. To make matters worse, Zach has been dating Henley’s daughter, Mary Anne. As Mary Anne seesaws between loyalty to her father and her affection for Zach, Allen puts a plan to destroy him into action. Although possessing all the ingredients for a successful techno thriller, Ogura’s debut suffers from improbable plot twists, underdeveloped characters, and stilted dialogue. Readers will have difficulty engaging with the characters—and those who stick around to the end will find the conclusion somewhat improbable.
S. Woffington. Red Summit, $11.69 paper (364pp) ISBN 978-0-615-76924-0
Woffington’s novel follows 20-year-old Sara Al’Khutban, a contemporary Saudi Arabian woman loyal to her family heritage but interested in pursuing an art career. When Sara removes her veil in public to allow her to see what she’s sketching more clearly, her horrified father, Abdullah, has her American art teacher, Lulu Castalia, deported and pressures Sara to marry. Sara responds by escaping to America—a decision that only compounds her troubles. As Sara and Abdullah wrestle with the results of their choices, Sara comes to realize that her artistic leanings and religious faith are not mutually exclusive. Although Woffington offers up well-developed characters, her narrative drags at times, while the novel’s resolution descends into melodrama. Additionally, the somewhat saccharine ending and superficial comparisons of Western and Saudi cultures will not resonate with readers.
Anton Holden. Boustrophedon Press, $19.95 paper (449p) ISBN 978-1-4904-5729-1
Holden (Prince Valium) spins a monumental truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale in this vivid biography of his orphaned grandmother—who went by the name Dolly Vardon and was born into chaotic poverty, bought for pleasure, and doomed to a life of dysfunction. As a child beggar on the cobbled streets of Victorian London, Vardon met Harry Sydney Nichols, a wealthy rare book dealer and erotica publisher. Nichols’s foot and shoe fetish and insatiable sexual appetite sealed Dolly’s fate. She became Nichols’s ward—and a toy for society’s mightiest men. Holden’s account, which is based on stories his grandmother and mother told him, is truly gripping, bristling with rich, and often disturbing, details. And while readers may be surprised by the detachment with which Holden describes brutal scenes of rape, debauchery, and perversion involving his own grandmother, they will surely find this biography fascinating and well told.
Entertaining with Love: Inspired Recipes for Everyday Entertaining
Mark J. Sievers. Mark-Ryan Group, $30 hardcover (240p) ISBN 978-0-615-86783-0
A mix of straightforward, traditional recipes, such as Hello Neighbor Blueberry Muffins and Brown Butter Cake, and creative twists on classics, like Apples & Sage Creamy Lasagna, make food blogger Sievers’s cookbook perfect for anyone preparing to host a dinner party. The recipes presented are neither overly indulgent nor lightened for everyday eating. A few of the starters would make good cocktail party fare (a small section of cocktails is also included), but most dishes are designed for traditional sit-down meals. Entries are divided into basic categories—main courses, desserts, etc.—but the book is otherwise themeless. Recipes themselves are sufficiently detailed and easy to use, and scattered personal stories depicting Sievers (host of the Web series “From My Kitchen to Yours”) and his husband, Ryan, as a cozy, everyday couple add warmth. Food photographs are adequately composed—though some are blurry or overexposed, and none are printed on glossy pages. Readers will find this a useful, if somewhat disjointed volume, full of solid favorites and useful tips and tricks for entertaining.
Four Quadrant Living: Making Healthy Living Your New Way of Life
Dina Colman. Four Quadrant Media, $15 paper (234p) ISBN 978-1-939288-22-6
In this useful guidebook, health coach and nutritionist Colman encourages health and happiness by holistically redressing four lifestyle areas: mind, body, interpersonal relationships, and environment. Watching her sister endure debilitating treatment for stage-three breast cancer, Colman took stock of her own life, downshifted from her corporate job, and dedicated her time to both her own wellness and that of others. Here, the author shares a bounty of knowledge, encouraging a whole-body approach to maintaining health and stressing the importance of having fun along the way. Presented throughout are time-tested techniques for calming the mind via breathing and meditation, as well as tips about the importance of quality sleep, daily nutrition, and maintaining supportive social networks and family interactions. Each chapter is prefaced with anecdotes that connect Colman’s message to the real-life needs of readers. While the author’s wisdom doesn’t introduce any revolutionary approaches to achieving overall physical and mental health, her simple reminders about relaxation, consuming organic foods, surrounding oneself with kind, uplifting people (and pets), and treating each day as a gift will resonate universally. Colman’s galvanizing, four-pronged approach to maximal wellness creates a simple reminder on how far a flourishing mind and body can go.
Gilgamesh in the 21st Century: A Personal Quest to Understand Mortality
Paul Bracken. CreateSpace, $13.40 paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-4923-1090-7
In the ancient Sumerian epic Gilgamesh, the eponymous fifth king of Uruk asks the question that has haunted humanity since its beginnings—“Must I die?”—and then sets out to discover the secret of immortality. Of course, he never finds it, and death comes to Gilgamesh as it does to all. In this meandering meditation, Bracken, a former regional coordinator for space-exploration NGO the Planetary Society, uses the epic poem to anchor reflections on science, religion, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life. Lacking clarity and focus, Bracken’s often-exasperating study asks what Gilgamesh might discover today if he used the tools of science to answer his question. Devoting little attention to the ancient tale, Bracken sifts through scientific evidence and suggests that humans may eventually be able to “transfer the mind of a human being into a newly constructed brain,” placing a “person’s identity beyond the reach of death.” Since, according to Bracken, such advances aren’t likely to be feasible anytime soon, contemporary readers must live with the uncertainty of Gilgamesh’s question.
Sarah A. Suzuki. Boot Stomp Press/CreateSpace, $15.93 paper (460p) ISBN 978-1-4922-8985-2
An awkward family reunion sets in motion a lengthy quest to understand racial identity in this fast-moving memoir penned by first-time author and psychotherapist Suzuki. Raised in Chicago, Suzuki—an Asian-American who, prior to writing the book, knew little about her Japanese heritage—creatively reconstructs a convoluted family history that dates back to her great-grandparents’ trip from Japan to Seattle in the early 1920s. The author describes her efforts to convince reluctant relatives to discuss the family’s experience in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, as well as their subsequent struggles to survive and succeed in America. Suzuki opens with a brief history of the internment camps that were established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, and goes on to paint a vivid portrait of her life and her family’s history through a series of engaging vignettes, including transcriptions of e-mails and telephone conversations, and recollections of childhood memories.
Jackie: My Obsession
Ron Galella. Ron Galella, $400 hardcover (400p) ISBN 978-0-9857519-0-6
Dubbed “Paparazzo Extraordinaire” by Newsweek, Galella (Jacqueline, No Pictures) offers up this compendium of his favorite photos of his favorite subject: iconic former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Despite legal battles—Onasis sued Galella twice and the court issued him a restraining order—the photographer is unabashed in describing his constant fascination with Onassis, whom he considered the most glamorous woman in the world. While the quality of the photographs themselves—which are all taken on the street or in social settings—is inconsistent, many are entrancing in their candid depictions of Onassis’s everyday life, as well as her social life. In a photo snapped on her niece’s wedding day in 1980, Onassis, surrounded by family, gazes directly into the camera, flashing a characteristically mysterious smile that is at once inviting and distancing. Another shot, taken in Capri, Italy, in 1970, shows the often tumultuous relationship between subject and photographer: Onassis seems to be gesturing angrily at an outdoor cafe, and is alleged to have said, “Call the police—arrest that man,” in reference to Galella. More than a tale of personal obsession, however, the photographs here are a testament to America’s complicated and voyeuristic relationship with celebrity.
Moving with the Seasons: Portrait of a Mongolian Family
Liza F. Carter. Saltwind Press, $48 paper (189p) ISBN 978-0-9890187-0-8
Environmental scientist and visual artist Carter presents the armchair traveler with an amazing photographic account of her four trips to Mongolia during a period of three years. The author’s aim here is to limn the people and landscape she encountered—and her photographs of the nomadic families (presented in a seasonal approach that reflects everyday life and close relationships to nature) are visually stunning. As a Westerner, Carter’s reactions to cultural differences may seem obtrusive or naive at times, but the visual delights she offers up reinforce the attractions of the Mongolian way of life—one that, she acknowledges, will likely change radically in the near future. Equally interesting is her claim that, under centuries of Chinese and, later, Soviet domination, Mongolians were kept ignorant of much of their own history, and that many have only recently learned about the most famous Mongolian in the West: Genghis Khan. Carter’s affection for the Mongolian people is evident in these vivid, affecting photos.
The Religious Right Is Wrong: The Ethics of Religion and the Gay Community
F. Lee Barham. Bridgeview/CreateSpace, $18.99 paper (279pp) ISBN 978-1-4781-1693-6
In this energetic, rambling polemic, Barham, a medical doctor, dissects the Bible in search of evidence that conservative and religious groups hostile to homosexuality distort the very principles they claim to uphold. To show that biblical admonitions of homosexuality are taken out of context by today’s religious leaders for a host of political purposes, the author—who experienced firsthand the “stigma that fundamentalist Christianity imposed on homosexuals” while growing up in the South of the 1940s—delves into religious history and interpretations of Biblical passages, providing what amounts to a scathing critique of the hypocrisy of the religious right. Though his intentions are good, many of Barham’s arguments are confusing and repetitive. While this work will likely appeal to left-leaning readers, it is unlikely to win many converts, due to its partisan tone and its lack of critical focus.
Liz Raptis Picco. L/M Press/CreateSpace, $14 paper (257p) ISBN 978-0-615-71593-3
After a series of miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, and a failed adoption, Liz Raptis Picco and her husband decide to pursue adopting a child from Mexico. They fall in love with a pair of young brothers in Juarez, and enter the bureaucratic morass that is international adoption. To boost their chances of being allowed to adopt, Liz moves to crime-infested Juarez to stay with the boys until the adoption is approved. However, this takes several months, rather than a few weeks, as she expected, and Liz is forced to contend with both maddening bureaucracy and the constant threat of violence in the city. Picco ably describes the struggles of international adoption, and readers will feel for her during every step of the process. Although the narrative drags at points, her depictions of the fear she experiences in Juarez are engaging. Even more engaging, however, are her honest misgivings about parenting, which are clearly presented in this memoir and will resonate with readers.
Vagrant Kings: David Stern, Kevin Johnson and the NBA’s Orphan Team
R.E. Graswich. R.E. Graswich, $24.95 paper (256p) ISBN 978-0-9898209-3-6
Jounalist Graswich provides a fascinating exploration of the deal making and legal wrangling that ultimately ensured a professional basketball franchise would remain in Sacramento, Calif. The NBA’s Sacramento Kings holds the dubious distinction of being the most transient team in American professional sports. When the team moved from Kansas City to Sacramento in 1985, many people were skeptical that the Kings would stay, or that the area could support a professional basketball team. But when things looked bleak for the Kings in Sacramento, NBA Commissioner David Stern made it his mission to keep the team where it was. And, after much legal maneuvering, Stern succeeded, a deal was reached, and the Kings stayed put. Graswich was employed in the office of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson—a former NBA all-star—when the city worked with the league on an arena project for the Kings. His familiarity with the team’s saga in Sacramento and key players involved makes this a detailed and engaging insider’s account. And while the author’s treatment of local politics can be a bit dry, and he doesn’t always vividly capture the personalities involved, fans of the NBA—especially those with an appetite for behind-the-scenes deal making—will find a lot to like here.
The Girl Who Saved Christmas
William Thomas Thach, illus. by Richard Bernal. Bowrider Press (www.mollychristmas.com), $24 (32p) ISBN 978-0-9825663-1-2
With a red velvet cover, diarylike clasp, and ribbon bookmark, this handsome book offers a somewhat gloomy and moralistic take on “The Night Before Christmas.” Thach’s verse introduces a wistful and friendless girl named Molly, who tells her pet mouse, “Nobody likes me. They all call me names./ They never invite me to play in their games.” At the North Pole, Santa fumes as he discovers that no child has been nice this year, and he replaces the presents in his sleigh with coal. Landing at Molly’s house, Santa rechecks his list and finds that Molly is the one “good” child—“One sweet little girl in a world that was rotten!” She requests that he pardon the other children, noting, “This date marks the birth of a glorious child” who “brought us a message by which we should live—/ He taught us it’s best if we learn to forgive!” Bernal’s luminous, glossy paintings have a warm, traditional quality that pairs nicely with the narrative. As Santa and Molly fly off to retrieve the presents from the North Pole, the story ends with the promise of a sequel. Ages 2–6.
Countryside: The Book of the Wise
J.T. Cope IV. Village Green Press (www.village-greenpressllc.com), $24.95 (282p) ISBN 978-0-9858141-5-1
Cope delivers a fanciful adventure set in a magical community, first in a planned series. When 10-year-old Luke Rayburn’s father rejoins the military and is sent overseas for a year, Luke and the rest of the family are sent to live with his grandparents in a hidden place called Countryside, where magic and mythical creatures are commonplace. As Luke adjusts to the new surroundings, long-dormant dryads emerge to speak to him, while mysterious strangers offer cryptic advice. It all leads to a search for the long-missing Book of the Wise, a coveted artifact that contains a prophecy related to the return of a great evil. As Luke becomes embroiled in the struggle between light and dark, he must tap into his own unknown potential. Cope conjures up an idyllic setting that feels a bit like an Americanized take on J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world (albeit much more modern in attitude); the leisurely approach to the storytelling means the plot can lack urgency. Still, Cope imbues the novel’s familiar elements with atmosphere and charm, making for an engaging read. Ages 6–12.
The Riddle of Prague
Laura DeBruce. CreateSpace, $12.99 paper (212p) ISBN 978-1-4848-8453-9
Drawing on time spent living in Prague, DeBruce debuts with this thriller, first in a planned trilogy, set in 1991 following the fall of Communism. Eighteen-year-old Hana Silna returns to her exiled family’s Prague home to reclaim it on behalf of her ailing mother, and is immediately sucked into a bizarre mystery involving multiple murders. It turns out that different factions are seeking a flask that holds the key to immortality, lost centuries ago, and Hana has accidentally discovered the only clues to its whereabouts. She must find the flask before it falls into the wrong hands, but with immortal schemers around every corner, and everyone out for themselves, she’s not sure who she can trust—including Alex, a dashing young American, and David, who turns up when least expected. DeBruce does a lovely job of drawing on historical lore, local atmosphere, and the post-Soviet era (marvel at the brick-size mobile telephone!), but the somewhat convoluted plot and frequent twists can make the narrative hard to follow. Some characters come off as flat or inscrutable, and the inconclusive ending lands abruptly. Ages 12–up.
Hamster S.A.M.: Odd-ventures in Space!
Dave McDonald. DM Creative/Sweet Corn (www.davemcdonald.com), $9.99 paper ISBN 978-0-9798445-2-2
McDonald has clearly never met a pun he couldn’t put to good use, and he packs the pages of this graphic novel with them, along with plenty of pratfalls, groaners, and gags. Illustrated in b&w in a style that slots somewhere between SpongeBob SquarePants and Walt Kelly’s Pogo comics, the story introduces an over-serious classroom hamster named Sam with a double life as an agent with the Secret Adventure Patrol. After receiving a mission that will take him to the Hamster-national Space Station, Sam falls in with a wisecracking, mullet-wearing mouse named Fescue, and the two are on their way into space (in an outhouse strapped to a booster rocket). Potty humor and slapstick are abundant (Sam winds up covered with bird droppings, molten cheese, and the contents of a clogged toilet at various points), and Sam and Fescue gleefully mug for readers as they deliver their punchlines (“Now that’s how you blow a nose!” cheers Sam after they take out a nose-shaped enemy spaceship, the “Schnozzola-3000”). A lighthearted interview with real-life astronaut Gregory H. Johnson closes out this proudly goofy adventure. Ages 7–up.