Breakfast with the Dirt Cult
Samuel Finlay. The Red Dirt Syndicate, $11.99 Paper (318p) ISBN 978-0-615-62299-6
Rude, raw, and rambunctious, this tour of duty into the no man’s land of sex, politics, and societal expectations gleefully bashes politically correct gospels. Army solider Tom Walton’s life is altered by a chance meeting with ex-stripper Amy, who promises him “a passionate affair” if he returns from Afghanistan. Amy is a sensuous metaphor for Tom’s evolving love-hate relationship with the human condition; her sensuality is a ghost haunting him, from the evocatively captured misery of military training to the terror of deployment. But, if Tom makes it back to Amy, is he facing another battle in her arms? Finaly creates in Tom a contradiction of good humor and angst, parading instead of disguising his emotional warts. Occasionally overwritten and erratic in structure, this intense semiautobiographical novel is as much a sobering examination of a man’s maturity as it is a righteous condemnation of self-serving cultural roles. Fiction as it should be: dangerous, hurtful, and cathartic.
Calves in the Mud Room
Jerome O. Brown. Tetonwolf, $6.49 paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-615-96750-9
Brown presents an intimate portrait of the modern-day rural life of teenagers that deftly combines text-messaging jargon and the complexities of cattle farming. Brown’s protagonist is Wade Summers, who longs to escape his smalltown life of pickup trucks and cows and is—to his surprise—asked to the school dance by the beautiful and rich Glory Schoonover. Of course, nothing goes according to plan: Wade is forced to deliver a calf on his way to the dance and has a disastrous evening with Glory. With this novella, Brown offers an engaging exploration of a young person’s search for his sense of self in a seemingly (but not altogether) bleak landscape.
I’m Still Here
Potter Wickware. Rolling Circle Press, $14.99 paper (382p) ISBN 978-1-4949-7506-7
Wickware’s urban fable of Central American refugees suffering political hypocrisy and cultural persecution suffers from scant dramatic tension. Taken in by guerillas after surviving a death squad killing in El Salvador, young Eliazar (aka Loco) finds refuge in a brothel and then an old school before catching a train to L.A., where he becomes an ambitious gang leader. Sparks fly and cultures collide when Loco meets Rosanna Castaneda, the deputy district attorney’s daughter, who eventually follows him to El Salvador after he is deported. Waickware’s narrative is lethargic, with static characters—many of whom are little more than caricatures. Rich descriptions and appropriate details reflect the author’s research into gang life in El Salvador and Los Angeles, but accuracy isn’t enough to enliven the otherwise torpid plot.
Smoke and Mirrors: The Suspicious Deaths of the Bioweaponeers
C.R. Harris. Lennox Books, $19.99 paper (380p) ISBN 978-0-9926497-3-9
In Harris’s thriller, biological warfare, political intrigue, and international terrorism surround a resourceful young woman’s struggle to climb the professional ranks as a journalist and fix a fractured marriage while staying ahead of the various secret service organizations that want her dead. Reporter Chloe Moreau is attacked shortly after investigating the mysterious deaths of several scientists. But against a backdrop of murder and multinational terrorists, can Chloe stay alive long enough to expose a horrific conspiracy? Harris has written a solid and suspenseful thriller, full of labyrinthine plot twists and solid characterization. And despite occasional problems with narrative flow, fans of the genre will enjoy this straightforward tale of espionage and intrigue.
Rebecca Rogers Maher. Promised Land Books, $1.99 e-book (65p) ISBN 978-1-62921-006-3
Jack has just returned from a stint in the Peace Corps in Guyana to attend brother Henry’s wedding. At a roadside stop, on the night before the ceremony, he meets a mysterious woman with whom he shares a night of passion. The next day, he meets her again and learns she is the bride’s sister, Tanya. But Tanya is full of self-loathing about her past and relationship with sister Christa—and this threatens her burgeoning relationship with Jack. This sequel to The Bridge and final installment in Maher’s Class Acts Trilogy reunites readers with Henry and Christa (the protagonists of the previous volume), with Jack and Tanya’s story serving as a clever follow-up and an entertaining tale in its own right. Tanya’s feelings of self-revulsion drive the narrative and readers with experience of addiction will recognize her complex emotions. And while Jack’s character is less well developed, readers (particularly those of Maher’s previous work) will enjoy watching these two fall in love, almost in spite of themselves.
★ Tehran Moonlight
Azin Sametipour. CreateSpace, $14.99 paper (278p) ISBN 978-1-4912-6519-2
Personal choice, gender, and traditional Middle Eastern morals collide in this provocative romantic drama. Twenty-three-year-old Mahtab is a believably flawed heroine whose struggle for independence is a microcosm of Iranian society. She’s a violinist seeking to escape her morally rigid father, Rasool, and violent brother, Pasha. Mahtab’s life is further complicated when she reluctantly falls in love with Ashkan, an Iranian-American. Discovering that her family wishes her to marry Emad, she must choose between Ashkan and tradition amid harshly depicted escalating domestic abuse. A robust, confident style and probing characterizations highlight this startling novel that celebrates love without blinking at the pain of its protagonist. Sametipour juxtaposes violence and passion, tenderness and cruelty to startling effect. It’s not your typical boy-meets-girl fantasy; here actions have consequences, and while love occasionally triumphs, it comes with a price.
★ The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte
Ruth Hull Chatlien. Amika Press, $17.95 paper (484p) ISBN 978-1-937484-16-3
When young Betsy Patterson marries dashing but irresponsible Jerome Bonaparte—the brother of Napoleon—she dreams of an exciting new life at the French court. Instead, her brother-in-law’s hostility leads to her bitter struggle to legitimize herself as a Bonaparte. Meticulously researched, engrossing in detail, and full of the customs, values, and prejudices of the era, Chatlien’s novel brings to life crucial moments in history alongside Betsy’s quest for recognition. The chaos of Napoleon’s reign and maritime hostilities engross without overshadowing Madame Bonaparte’s heartaches and small triumphs. Chatlien doesn’t flinch from exposing our hunger for wealth and power, and confronts difficult themes such as slavery and domestic inequality. A solid example of its genre, this account of one woman’s stubborn determination will appeal to romance aficionados and historical devotees alike.
The Art: Frost and Flame
David Newman, illustrated by Laura Juncker. Keating & Guthrie, 99¢ e-book (72p) ISBN 978-1-63173-409-0
Kenton Fassler wakes up in a hospital bed with no idea how he got there. A doctor informs him that he’s been in a coma for a week and was legally dead. As he’s trying to process this information, a man bursts into his room and tells him that they have to escape. Beyonders, giant ice creatures bent on death and destruction, are chasing them. It turns out that dying and returning has turned Kenton into a sorcerer—and now he has to learn how to control his art to save his life. Newman’s novella is fast paced and the Beyonders are truly terrifying. While readers will empathize with Kenton, they aren’t given enough time to get a complete sense of his world in this slim volume. Still, there is enough here to hook readers on the book’s basic premise and get them ready to read the next installment.
Gene Stone and Jon Doyle. The Stone Press, $14.95 paper (221p) ISBN 978-0-615-94464-7
Across the globe, nonhuman mammals suddenly gain humanlike awareness: an understanding of themselves, the world around them, and the way in which they have been exploited by humanity for centuries. Soon war begins, with the newly awakened animals attempting to kill the human population, which is caught off guard by the attack, but quickly begins to fight back. The novel is told from the perspective of four animals: a circus elephant, a slaughterhouse pig, a wild bear, and faithful pet dog. The premise is a fascinating one, but the authors offer no explanation for the animals’ sudden intelligence—and this will prevent many readers from buying into the narrative. Additionally, the book’s ending is rushed, and the use of four protagonists hampers readers’ ability to engage fully with any of them. Still, this novel is thought provoking and will make readers question their relationships with animals and the planet.
The Dark One: Dark Knight—The De Russe Legacy
Kathryn Le Veque. Dragonblade Publishing, $27.99 paper (772p) ISBN 978-1-4936-4098-0
In Le Veque’s lively novel set in 15th-century England, a battle-weary knight falls for a beautiful lady. After a crushing defeat, Sir Guy Stoneley is imprisoned in the White Tower, leaving his fortress of Mt. Holyoak Castle without adequate defenders. When the fortress is captured by the notorious Dark Knight, aka Gaston de Russe, Lady Stoneley is resigned to face him. But Lady Stoneley is surprised at the knight’s tenderness, as she and her sisters suffered much abuse from her husband. As Gaston becomes enamored of Lady Stoneley’s beauty and spirit, the two become lovers—with their romantic, sensuous interludes forming one of the highlights of the book. Much of the novel’s drama stems from Remington and Gaston’s quest to overcome the obstacles that threaten their future together. And as they seek an annulment for Lady Stoneley, their love is truly tested. Le Veque’s novel is a winning epic complete with knights and damsels in distress.
The Flies of August
P.J. Lee. Saltwater Publishing, $9.49 paper (287p) ISBN 978-0-9894588-0-1
Donna Bradley is a rookie police detective in Webster, Conn., tasked with finding Amber Zajac, a missing teenager. Meanwhile, the local police are investigating the murder of affluent insurance executive Nathan Weisz. As Donna works to piece together Amber’s secrets, she comes to realize that the two cases may be linked. Lee’s murder mystery has a strong protagonist, a sleepy town, surprise twists, and a strong undercurrent of class tension that serves to highlight the fact that justice and the law are not the same thing. Donna’s personal troubles add color to the story, and readers will find this an enjoyable whodunit.
The Jasmine Tree: Love in the Time of Revolutions
Maha Khalid. CreateSpace, $12.99 paper (246p) ISBN 978-1-4954-9163-4
In Khalid’s overly sentimental novel, set in Cairo during the recent Egyptian Revolution, an Arab woman with a tragic past meets an American journalist at a political protest. The two fall in love, but politics, life, and love are never straightforward. From Cairo to Beirut, Khalid’s heroine deals with the vicissitudes of Middle Eastern politics and prejudices. Unfortunately, the promising theme of spiritual love quickly fizzles into a repetitive tale of loss. The book features potent images of victimization and interesting philosophical questions about the nature of relationships, but it’s hampered by an awkward narrative structure.
The Kramski Case
J.J. Ward. FeedARead, $14.95 paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-78299-895-2
When a series of paparazzi are murdered in America, England, and Russia, a covert team of operatives is formed to investigate the crimes. Lt. Det. Commander David Bronstein of the NYPD, Insp. Jonathan Hartley-Brown from London’s Metropolitan Police, and a Russian patriot with a criminal past named Col. Orlov try to uncover a connection between the paparazzi murders. But what they discover is international espionage and a vast, sinister conspiracy. Ward’s plot is extremely difficult to follow, and the book’s final payoff is disappointing. While the author maintains tension effectively throughout and the well-developed supporting characters are given room to shine, this isn’t enough to make up for the confusing and illogical plot.
This Is Where It Gets Interesting: Stories
John H. Matthews. Six Slug Books, $13.99 paper (202p) ISBN 978-0-615-64475-2
Some stories in Matthews’s entertaining collection are wacky and imbued with dark humor, while others are heartwarming examinations of humanity. Still others focus on characters that could be taken straight from the pages of comic books. In “Stormbringer,” a young man awakens to discover he’s been transformed into a giant Norse warrior. “Hero” is about a character named Dr. Mayhem who sets about to terrorize America. In “Bullets Have No Effect,” a seemingly immortal death row inmate defies the state’s attempts to put him to death. Visiting spirits and ghosts inhabit many of these stories and often serve as mediums for life-affirming messages to the living. The strongest stories are those that are less quirky. “The Wall” is an examination of modern-day class segregation, gated communities, and a suspect security apparatus. And “Mercurochrome”—a haunting story set in a small neighborhood below a section of highway that is the site of many deadly accidents—explores human reactions to tragedy. Matthews’s stories are more charming than affecting, but they’ll certainly appeal to anyone looking for humorous, fun reading.
Headwinds: The Dead Reckoning of the Heart
Thomas A. Reis, AuthorHouse, $16.95 paper (198p) ISBN 978-1-4918-1952-4
In this uneven memoir, Reis describes the ups and downs of his fascinating life. Though born with physical disabilities, he became a skilled Little League player. Though he hated school and considered himself an “intellectual lightweight,” he’s now a professor of human services at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. At the heart of the book is the story of how Reis—who suffered from low self-esteem—decided to bike solo across the U.S. the summer after his college graduation. The author recalls that journey throughout the book, sometimes with humor, sometimes with travelogue descriptions, and occasionally with confusing detours. The last quarter of the narrative is the strongest, with Reis documenting his chops as a professor and describing topics and exercises he employs in his popular college courses. But the book fails to completely explain why Reis’s cross-country bike trip—a magnificent accomplishment, certainly, but one that occurred 30 years ago—is responsible for his self-confidence today.
Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian
Courtney S. Diehl. BookCrafters, $12.95 paper (179p) ISBN 978-1-937862-66-4
Equine veterinarian Diehl presents a fascinating account of her life and work that should be required reading for anyone interested in a career in veterinary medicine. The author has been a mobile vet for most of her career, driving around the Colorado Rockies and working out of a large truck that accommodates her medical equipment, her husband, and their two small daughters. In this lively memoir, she describes her love of animals, medicine, and science. Diehl’s colorful stories cover everything from the humorous to the humiliating, with tales of equine gunshot wounds, castration, artificial insemination, and moon blindness. Animal lovers will find a lot to like here.
NOC—Non-Official Cover: British Secret Operations
Nicholas Anderson. Miura!, $19 paper (383p) ISBN 978-1-4929-7847-3
Writing under a pseudonym, a former spy irreverently dissects his work for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), where he worked between 1973 and 1993, in this “documentary thriller.” Scoffing at the glamorous James Bond image, the author summarizes the world of intelligence as a dismal struggle among predators. Despite his conscious straddling of the border between fact and fiction, Anderson presents scenes vividly, including his break-in to a Libyan chemical weapons plant and his encounters with famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal. The author moves from the intricacies of espionage to the money-hungry machinations of pharmaceutical companies. His theme here is not espionage as such, but rather his life as a spy. And, the experiences he describes in the first person infuse his work with an informed, if disenchanted, perspective that will appeal to anyone interested in the world of intelligence operations.
Children's Picture Books
Every Turtle Counts
Sara Hoagland Hunter, illus. by Susan Spellman. Peter E. Randall Publisher
(www.PERpublisher.com), $16.95 (36p) ISBN 978-1-931807-25-8
Hunter (The Lighthouse Santa) introduces a seven-year-old autistic girl named Mimi, who discovers a sea turtle on the beach in Cape Cod and refuses to leave it there. “Dead as a doornail,” insists one of the locals, but a representative of the Massachusetts Audubon Society gives Mimi hope when he’s called to pick up the turtle: it may just be “cold-shocked” after being trapped in the waters of the cape. Hunter gives an honest, unsentimental portrait of Mimi’s developmental difficulties, and the emotional range of Spellman’s (Oscar the Herring Gull) watercolors underscore the important connection Mimi makes with the rescued turtle, Ridley 3. After Ridley 3 is moved to an aquarium to rehabilitate, Mimi tries to help feed it with tongs. “ ‘Eat, turtle,’ she said, tickling the sides of its mouth.... It was the first time Mimi had ever put her own sentence together.” In a moving epilogue set 30 years in the future, Mimi re-appears as an adult scientist, driving home the idea that the oft-repeated message of the title applies to more than just turtles. Ages 5–9.
The Sword of Demelza
J.E. Rogers, illus. by Guy Atherfold and William Hulbert. Acadia Publishing Group, $12.95 paper (338p) ISBN 978-0-615-70994-9
In this entertaining debut, Rogers uses her love of Australian wildlife to deliver a rousing Redwallesque fantasy, in which a coalition of creatures embarks on an epic quest. Erik and Emma, kowarie siblings, must gather the ingredients to brew a potion to save their mother, who is dying from the bite of a brown snake. They’re sidetracked when they meet Devon, a red fox looking to avenge the deaths of the bilby monks who raised him from childhood; this brings them into alliance with a rebel army amassed against the tyrannical king Cynric and his vicious thylacine enforcer, Flitch. While the
elements of the story are all familiar, Rogers gives it a twist with her use of exotic and often endangered species, crafting an adventure that fits right in the anthropomorphic animal fantasy mold. The story is accompanied by a number of finely detailed pencil illustrations by Atherfold and Hulbert, which help bring the odd creatures to life and allow readers to properly envision sword-wielding marsupials and wombat-riding warriors. Ages 6–12.
★ The Casquette Girls
Alys Arden. FortheARTofit Publishing, $3.99
e-book (522p) ISBN 978-0-9897577-2-0
In this Southern Gothic love letter to the spookier side of New Orleans’s storied past, Arden spins out a moody tale of magic and mystery, set against the backdrop of a city recovering from disaster. Two months after a massive hurricane nearly destroys New Orleans, 16-year-old Adele Le Moyne and her artist father return to a half-underwater home, where rebuilding goes hand in hand with curfews and scavenging. As Adele tries to return to normal, she’s swept up in inexplicable events, with strange people drifting in and out of her life and bodies turning up like clockwork. Adele finally discovers that the French Quarter is home to a clan of vampires and that only she, as a descendant of the coven that originally cursed them, can break the centuries-old spell that holds them there. The sense of place and weight of history are strong in this slow-burning dark fantasy, filled with colorful characters and growing tension. While the cast occasionally grows unwieldy and the story can get convoluted, it’s still a thoroughly satisfying page-turner and a strong debut for Arden. Ages 12–up.