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California Bookwatch

Volume 18, Number 3 March 2023 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Economic Studies Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Historical Fiction Shelf Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf
Poetry Shelf Christian Studies Shelf  

Reviewer's Choice

My Days with Emma
Paul Dunion, EdD
Atmosphere Press
9781639885718, $17.99

My Days with Emma: A Soulful Path to Elderhood holds the trappings of a memoir combined with the spiritual reflection of an inquiring mind, and is a moving account of a mentor relationship between a senior wise woman and a younger man contemplating aging and life.

The entry into golden years ideally involves a form of inquiry that re-assesses remaining life and choices made past, present, and future. My Days with Emma solidifies and highlights this inquiry process by following the author's journey into being an elder; reviewing the ambiguities of aging, changing relationships between men and women; and considering the promises and purposes of maturity and growth during later years.

Many books have surveyed the spiritual progression of such an effort; but, more so than most, My Days with Emma represents a unique journey not because of its subject, but because of its presentation. Paul Dunion offers a raw inspection of the process of developing compassion, gratitude, and a realization of the special opportunities of this time of life.

Another fine example of the difference between his efforts and other memoirs is the acknowledgement of not just the process, but the difficult challenge of achieving wisdom and clarity: "...gratitude for a single breath was not something I could easily access. It made sense to me and, at the same time, felt extremely foreign." The differences between this concept of 'soulful eldering' and books on aging which talk about how to inject power and prowess into one's revelations for future generations lies clearly on the side of a more spiritual attitude towards not just aging, but one's changing relevance to the world: "Soulful eldering is not interested in arriving but rather in being devoted to serving something larger than oneself."

By entering a potentially foreign place, tackling its possibilities and challenges head-on and with a spiritual flavor to psychological growth, and surveying how a "mature spirituality" unfolds and flowers, Paul Dunion has done the hard work of outlining paths of new positivity, growth, and possibilities.

Spiritual and philosophical-minded readers interested in a different view on aging, meaningful relationships between all ages, and elders who embark on a "soulful path" to discovery will find the encouragement, ideas, and insights in My Days with Emma offer a focus on opportunities which don't exist in most similar-sounding books on either aging or spiritual enlightenment.

Libraries looking for memoirs that hold the potential to reach widely outside the genre of either memoir or spiritual reflection will welcome the opportunity My Days with Emma brings to the discussion table, and can easily recommend it to book clubs looking for vivid reflections that encourage soulful self-inspection.

The Economic Studies Shelf

What the Hell is An Economy?
Eric Johnson
Independently Published
B08HTSQNWR, $2.99 Kindle

The title of Eric Johnson's book might lead some to think this is another basic primer on economic terminology, history, and structure; but What the Hell is An Economy? offers much more than a cursory overview of government and banking processes. It makes the case for a decentralized economy, pointing out the pitfalls of the historical direction of banking and business.

In the course of this exploration, Johnson (an engineer self-educated in finance and business) reveals not just answers to questions about economic direction and processes, but insights into the steps that consumers can make to protect their money through better understanding and decision-making. That his fifteen-year self-education resulted not just in personal empowerment and enlightenment, but this book lends to its accessibility by a far broader audience than the usual business reader or economics student.

Johnson assumes no prior reader familiarity with (or even an interest in) economic subjects. He goes beyond translating economic terms, creating lively discussions that clarify and survey such potentially confusing subjects as bitcoin: "Think of bitcoin as a ledger, a digital record of transactions, with this ledger copied on thousands of independent computers. The ledger stores a perfect record of an ever-growing list of all bitcoin transactions, keeping track of the transfer of ownership of bitcoin from one owner to the next. It helps to imagine that all bitcoins are stored in virtual lockboxes, where a "digital key" (a long unique number) is used to mathematically transfer the bitcoin from one lockbox to another. Whoever possesses the digital key to open the lockbox owns the bitcoin inside."

And for the definition of money itself: Money is anything that many believe can be used to store and transfer wealth." Whether it's bank transfers, government spending and borrowing, or investment funds under discussion, Johnson applies this same attention to detail, clarifying the processes and terms that allow newcomers to economic concepts complete access to all manner of business and government relationships and economic interactions.

The result is much more than a primer of terms. It's a wide-ranging, accessible discussion of the perils, pitfalls, and promises of management and economics that involves all levels of reader in better understanding money management on individual, corporate, and government-wide levels.

Containing a powerful message promoting decentralization, ("The same unwinding that normalizes interest rates will also push our economy back towards more decentralization. The decisions on the allocation of wealth will be made by the empowered many and not the few. It is the decentralized portions of the economy that will create the wealth that the centralized portions require for redistribution, and that will allow us to recharge the dollar wealth battery."), this second edition of What the Hell is An Economy? ideally should reach discussion groups interested in understanding the notion of economic centralization and decentralization and its influences on wealth, compassion, and social programs alike.

The General Fiction Shelf

The Bones of the World
Betsy L. Ross
Atmosphere Press
9781639886944, $18.99 Paper/$26.99 Hardcover

"Here we are again. How can it be that we don't learn, that we clutch at low-hanging branches of wrongs and misunderstandings from the past, fearful always of difference? Why this continuing predisposition toward creating otherness?"

It's rare to see a novel about suffering, redemption, religious clashes, and social inspection blended with a time travel piece that tests the patterns and illusions of different cultures and peoples, but The Bones of the World speaks the language of pain and contrasts experiences ranging from Holocaust to Inquisition through Rachel's observant eyes.

The first note to make about this story is its lovely associations between myth and reality. Rachel awakens in a strange mansion, having been delivered by Harry, who may have drugged her to take her away from danger and protect her. The rich inspections and contrasts between mythical figures and the strange reality Rachel finds herself floundering in create a powerful surreal atmosphere from the start: "Inside the high stone walls, oaks just visible from Rachel's second-story window reached for the heavens, dreaming of the selfless beanstalk that gave its life to provide for Jack and his mother."

This sets the stage with a sense of place that continues to steep the novel with "you are here" immersive experiences. Characters (such as Ines, charged with honoring the Ancestors by tending their tombs, even though the Children are her latest charges) are introduced to reflect the nature of loss, survival, and ghosts that haunt the living, dead, and graveyards alike. Ross is a master of contrasts as different worlds collide: "The first time the teenaged boys, festooned in red, white, and blue, appeared on the streets of the old city with automatic rifles, Rachel had been returning from a night at the opera."

Among the astute historical and social inspections that move Rachel from past to present are thought-provoking questions about the choices her Jewish people have made to survive, and the costs they may have unwittingly incurred as a result. This gives the novel an added layer of social and philosophical reflection that will lend to book club debate as Rachel navigates Ghetto experiences, the Golems of Jewish legend and their various forms, her incarnation as Sariah, living in Portugal before the Inquisition changes her life, and disappearances that terrorize the Jewish community facing new survival tactics and choices during the Holocaust.

Rachel's legacy brings with it the mandate to decide how she will react to and live with her peoples' history of ancestral suffering. These are far from reasonable times, as Ross points out. Indeed, has reason ever guided the Jewish people to lives not infused with trouble? As Rachel's proximity to an enchanted cemetery forces her to re-examine her history and progression, readers receive a story that is thought-provoking in its contrasts of worlds and the familiar patterns seemingly disparate situations evolve.

Ross's novel is atmospheric, compelling, and thought-provoking. Ideally, The Bones of the World will not only become part of any Jewish fiction library, but will be profiled as a book club or reader group discussion option lending to revised inspections of Jewish experience and tradition as "lives are left unlived" and everything changes.

Hiking Underground
Amy Smiley
Atmosphere Press
9781639885923, $17.99

"Was the whole world dreaming, or just one young woman?"

Hiking Underground is a novel about ordinary daily life in New York City that assumes the surreal overlay of descriptive personal experience. It opens with the chapter 'I.Alice', which poses the image of a woman who "...always walked between two worlds, so it was hard to say where one began and the other ended."

The juxtaposition of these milieus leads Alice and her readers into her past and present, from recovering from a tonsillectomy as an adult to rejecting the vapid reactions and popularity of teens in favor of an individualistic attitude that leads a boy to love her because " was the very thing that made her beautiful, said the first boy who ever loved her - that way she had of expressing what lived inside of her, while others seemed to rove around, staring into cyberspace as they chatted from the sides of their mouths."

From her middle-class New Jersey roots into adulthood, Alice has been stirred and shaken by the influences and tides of society and her own role as an outside observer during much of it. Between her relationship to mother Jenna, who observes her daughter with mixed pride and puzzlement, to the tides of life which wash her from past memory to present-day experiences and choices, Alice's world and conundrums come to life with simple, yet powerful reflections: "It was all she ever wanted, to love with ease and laugh with ease. To just be."

Her father Hank might also wonder about the inevitable progression of his life away from its dreams: "For all she knew, her father, Hank, was at his desk at that very moment, staring off into space and measuring the gulf between himself and the world around him, full of disgust for family, work, and all the other absurd conventions that pinned him down when what he really wanted from life was adventure. That was gone now, beaten out of him, and it was getting harder to find a reason to go on doing anything at all."

Amy Smiley draws this family's disparate individuals and their dreams together with the deftness of a tightly-knitted emotional quilt of dreams. She captures, within this overlay, a sense of life's changes and the unexpected influences that both attract and pull apart individuals, families, and relationships. Her close attention builds atmospheric detail, philosophical and psychological reflection, and close inspection other characters' lives (such as Emma, who tackles the challenges of motherhood with an attention to detail that belays any insufficiencies in traditional approaches). Son Adam reflects part of his mother's fluid fascination with life's realities and demands.

As mother and son move through urban and nature worlds, the paintings and metamorphosis that links Emma, Adam, and Alice become evocative dances that move through seemingly disparate personalities to make deft connections. The result is a novel that reaches out and grasps the heart of life's progression and the family relationships that form, break away, then rejoin in unexpected ways.

Libraries looking for powerful stories of everyday life juxtaposed against the undercurrent of extraordinary abilities and observations will find the descriptions and connections of Hiking Underground a surreal, compelling attraction.

Holy Water
Robert Schwab
Warren Publishing
9781957723648, $18.95

Holy Water is the coming-of-age story of new adult (and would-be doctor) Landon Ratliff, who has come to New Orleans to pursue his passion for healing people. Instead of immersing himself in traditional medicine, he confronts the passion and purposes that brought him to this point and profession, encountering alternative ideas in the process.

The first note to make about Holy Water is its astute examination of not just a career, but life's meaning. Landon is an impressionable young man new to the wider world, and New Orleans culture offers not just opportunity, but insights into the diverse and changing nature of that world -- and his place in it.

From the story's opening lines, it's evident that young Landon is not your typical staid medical student, but holds the uncommon ability to see life in a very different way: "If you tattooed a map of the United States onto the tanned, toned back of a pretty girl in a skimpy top, the Mississippi River would coincide roughly with the course of her spine." Anatomy never looked so good -- and neither has the story of an aspiring doctor.

The time is 1993 - the perfect setting for a journey of discovery. This sense of extraordinary events to come emerges even during a plane trip and the observation of the map of America that lies below him which is, here, compared to the opportunities offered by the opposite sex. This literary descriptive tone lends an inviting aura to a story that sashays through medical and social challenges alike, steeping Landon's world in an added New Orleans flavor that pulls him away from preconceived notions of his training to become a doctor.

As he is forced to confront memories that he's kept hidden, Landon finds his future is at stake. His long-time mentor Kiki confronts the forces changing his relationship with Landon as he moves into a love entanglement that also introduces currents of change.

Robert Schwab builds an exquisite, delicate tension from Landon's life that at times demonstrates flowery, compelling language and at others assumes the languid flow of daily life and realizations of growth: "There was a girl and music and a place to learn who he was and what he could become." People are entitled to their secrets. Even doctors. What Landon experiences in the course of immersing himself both in medicine and in the culture of New Orleans becomes a lesson in love, complex entanglements, and the introduction of fate and fortune that leads him on an unexpected journey.

With its troubled waters that are stirred by new revelations and unexpected chance encounters, Landon's world comes alive through metaphor and experience to reach out and grasp a wide audience: "...he needed an anchor, something to remind him who he was. It seemed as if everything had changed. Even the river, so golden and beautiful at sunset last night, was an angry mess now, belching trash and tree parts into the gaps between the rocks guarding the levee."

Libraries and readers looking for novels replete in New Orleans flavors that follow a blossoming young man from his career ambitions to personal success will find Holy Water an evocative read.

The Judges
Eric J. Matluck
Next Exit Press
9798986425306, $22.95 Hardcover/$16.99 Paper/$3.99 ebook

The Judges shows how much life can alter when a simple task prompts transformation. It tells of acclaimed pianist Mary Sorabi, who wins First Prize in the Graffman International Piano Competition in Philadelphia at age thirty, and finds her world changed because of this achievement.

The judges who award her this honor open the ceremony by stating that their decision was fraught with challenge. Mary's response is simple: "Bullshit, Mary thought. No decision is ever difficult. What's difficult is rationalizing it, especially when you have to rationalize it to someone else. And whose benefit is that line for? The winner is going to think he or she didn't really win by that much, and the loser is going to kick himself or herself for having come so close but not quite making it. Losing by a single point is as ridiculous and cruel as being told by a doctor that he could have saved you had you seen him yesterday."

While these opening events might portend a foray into musical territory, Eric J. Matluck's novel takes quite a different turn, because Mary's world isn't altered by her win so much as by the presence of a different judging panel that appears in her home to assess her life. They aren't there temporarily. They are assigned to judge various experiences as Mary works through controversy and achievement, only to find her every choice rated on a different scale than she's ever known.

Matluck's novel embraces spiritual, psychological, and social perspectives from the viewpoint of a nameless observer who narrates the affairs that change Mary's trajectory. This multifaceted examination lends the novel a metaphysical feel that will attract thinking readers interested in a foray into musical circles and higher-level considerations of their impact on ordinary audiences. Mary is prompted to do much self-examination about her life purpose, art, and her impact on the world. This (and the presence of the mysterious judges) leads to different inspections of her life purpose. As an artist, a critic, and a self-examiner, Mary finds within her new music program and accompanying judgments about it the courage to reconsider her life's accomplishments.

Matluck injects wry humor into these inspections, but the real meat of the story lies in its philosophical and artistic connections between and reflections of music and life, which create astute and thought-provoking passages of revelation to draw readers on different levels: "...she realized that she never could and never would know what Schumann was thinking, not because she never knew him but because she never was him. You can know someone as intimately as you like, but you'll never really know what's running through his or her mind, because everybody's thoughts are locked away; cloistered. So she started going through her own thoughts, letting the music conjure memories of people and places she knew and remembered, and by doing so the music started to reveal itself, with certain phrases and certain passages evoking images from her past that meant a lot to her. And finally, she realized, Kreisleriana did touch her and did move her, and that was when she understood the magic of how music communicates."

The result is a powerful story that cultivates musical notes to interweave artist, composer, and judge, expanding the subject into the greater issues of life. Libraries looking for thought-provoking stories of artistic and personal transformation will find The Judges an astute reflection of the power and nature of right, wrong, and those who would define and influence both.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

Pull of the Moon
Joanne C. Parsons
Independently Published
9781734943634, $11.99 Paper/$3.99 ebook

Edmund Kenney is not the kind of man to push a woman around. Even in the 1800s, the setting of Pull of the Moon, he's a poor Irishman with dreams beyond struggling to survive. Maybe that's why he moves from a Massachusetts home and family to embark on a journey that moves him from shame and life between households and countries to new possibilities: "I stood tall despite my trembling legs as my feet touched land after the long voyage. No longer the mangey Irish greenhand, I was Edmund Kenney, whalehunter."

Frances Foster is an orphaned Irish immigrant who left her home with family in search of a better life, only to find herself indentured and trapped in poverty and servitude. Her new life in America feels like "lambs going for slaughter" as she and her sister, fifteen and sixteen, find themselves alone and buffeted in a world that requires them to be linked to a man, whether by marriage or in servitude.

Where is God when Frances needs him? Apparently nearby, because she is called upon to help the frail Lenora and care for her newborn. Everything changes as she is "sold like a cow" and ensnared in a different manner than Lenora, who is married to Edmund.

Pull of the Moon follows the journey of three strangers, who each suffer broken promises, heartache, and ultimately, for some, the courage to start over. It does so with a special gift for profiling different characters, their motivations, and the rationale behind their perceptions and actions, giving the story a strong psychological depth that keeps readers thoroughly immersed.

The strata of social standing in the Irish immigrant community in America come to life as James Wilson confronts the "shanty Irish Catholic" who would wed his daughter, and Edmund in turn thinks little of Wilson's heritage: "You're a waste of my time. Find another fish to hook. I'd be lowering myself to marry into your family. A bunch of fallen Catholics who didn't have the courage to stand by their faith." He sneered, "All for money." Little about their beginning relationship has to do with love. It's a practical arrangement that evolves into something more complicated than Edmund, his father-in-law James, or Frances ever could have imagined.

Joanne C. Parsons does an outstanding job of probing concepts of greed, slavery, and cultural influences that move from Ireland to Massachusetts and into forays around the world. The story moves between third- and first-person discussions, involving readers in different ways as the entwined lives and loves of Lenora, Edmund, and Frances come to life.

Especially notable are the discussions of women's and men's roles in a world where love, fairness, and servitude aren't readily defined as they are today. Each character is in thrall in different ways, both by their heritage and by their perceptions of themselves and their roles in life. The result will heavily draw historical fiction readers especially interested in the Irish community and its strata of relationships and social standings, providing strong literary writing that blends high drama with choices and consequences that invite understanding and new realizations.

Parsons creates a compelling story of three very different yet entwined lives whose choices, secrets, heritage and objectives bring them together in complicated ways. Libraries looking for powerful stories of the 1800s Irish community in America and especially for tales replete with social and psychological inspection will find Pull of the Moon especially compelling in how it portrays these disparate lives and the forces that influence not just their progression, but their relationships and how they perceive opportunity from angst and repressive circumstances.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Manning a Raptor
AA Freda
West Point Print and Media LLC
9781957582931, $24.99 Hardcover/$14.99 Paper

Thriller readers can here expect another powerful interplay of the commanding personalities of James and his wife Sam, who navigate business, political, and personal interests with a forthright assertiveness that powers both their relationship and the story's evolution. Here, the Coppis head a powerful global empire that influences (if not holds) the effort to overthrow governments. Their latest venture into acquiring railroads and fielding accompanying political and economic controversy involves both characters in a fight that challenges not just their opulent lifestyle and ambitions, but their relationship with their growing family.

AA Freda paints an involving story of power, love, and international intrigue that carries the characters from their lavish lifestyle and success into the murkier waters of political influence and control. The obstacles and complexities that wealth introduces to their family life also tests ethical and moral compasses as employees, employers, and friends find their connections tested and their commitments questioned. Events unfold in cat-and-mouse games that became complex as interplays between characters introduce further issues into the husband-and-wife relationship and the structure they fight to preserve around their family life.

As fictional writer and company controller Miles Cornish surveys the above-board proceedings and back-room operations of the business and its leaders, it's hard to say what element is more commanding or compelling: the personal strengths of the main characters, or the issues that arise to test them. James notes: "Sic transit gloria mundi." When Sam questions his conclusion, he lets her know what someday she will have to step up to replace him as leader: "It's Latin - - an ancient Roman saying. The literal translation is, 'thus passes the glory of the world.' What it means is that 'all glory is fleeting.' It's to remind someone who is having success that it won't last forever."

The rollicking journey of intrigue that Sam and James experience will delight both newcomers to their action-packed adventures and those who have enjoyed previous Coppi stories. Libraries and readers interested in thrillers that profile two equally powerful partners in love, business, and foreign affairs will find Manning a Raptor a powerful exploration that grabs with social, political, and psychological inspection and doesn't let go.

A Song for Leonard
A.I. Fabler
Wild & Lawless
9780473638436, $16.99 paper/$3.99 ebook

"How long is three minutes when every second commands your attention, and every one of them ends up being relived over and over, until it has become a pattern in your DNA?"

A Song for Leonard presents a mystery of a different ilk, opening with the reflective passage above and moving into an unusual encounter that takes place in 1978 on the streets of New York City, where a beautiful singer/songwriter is murdered on the streets. Was she a perp that chose the wrong victim? One wouldn't expect a polite New England girl to demand money in a street mugging, to own a small gun to back her demand, or to smile with a mouth full of blackened teeth like a nightmare Medusa.

Fast forward to 1996, eighteen years later, when Charles Bateman returns to New York City to confront his demons and the mystery surrounding Suzanne Finch's murder and the implication of Charles, her intended victim, in the crime. Intent on clearing his name, Charles embarks on a journey of discovery that juxtaposes his defense with his investigation into the singer's motivations, life, and the legacy of her songs -- particularly 'A Song for Leonard', which may hold strange answers to dangerous questions.

Readers who follow this New York-steeped crime story will find Charles's foray into the arts world inviting and thoroughly engrossing. A.I. Fabler creates an atmospheric, tension-laden read in a tale replete with unexpected twists and turns. The story and characters come to life in ways the typical murder account don't touch, making A Song for Leonard a powerful investigation of New York City culture and conundrums that grabs the imagination with many possibilities couched in a powerful series of revelations and self-discoveries.

Libraries seeking exceptional intrigue that unfolds over different social strata of New York City's culture and changing times will find A Song for Leonard a standout. Its intrigue and inspection lingers in the mind long after resolution is reached and answers provided in this musical interlude of discovery.

Fade to Blue
Hank Scheer
Top Reads Publishing
9781970107357, $16.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

Combine a thriller story with the ethical inspection of an overworked medical researcher convinced that her work can change the world for the foundations of a powerful examination of medical possibility and danger that is Fade to Blue.

The story opens with pain ... Sarah's pain, as she struggles to rebuild her stamina after quitting smoking. This effort accompanies a brutal work schedule surrounding the search for a treatment for Alzheimer's that could change the world. It all could be so much easier if she were free to conduct the one forbidden experiment that could result in real change.

The lure proves too much as Sarah gives in to her convictions that her research is illuminating a path of positivity that others can't see, only to find that, in fact, its results introduce a nightmare, involving her in terrorism and brain-destroying power.

Hank Scheer crafts a powerful story and a set of characters that swirl around Sarah's decision with equally significant objectives and perspectives that clash in unusual ways. There are chase scenes, foreign backdrops, and forces set in motion that jeopardize not only Sarah's life and her purpose, but the results of an experiment gone dangerously awry.

As deaths mount and Sarah finds herself far from her objectives and her supportive friends, readers follow her into a world replete with ethical and political twists. Scheer masterfully accents the changing landscapes and situations that move from a research's illicit decision to lives and nations affected by the release of a new force of adversity and challenge into the world. He navigates Sarah's changing perceptions with a deft hand to outlining criminal and legal special interests alike; both of whom intersect with Sarah's life in unpredictable ways.

Thriller readers (especially those interested in medical conundrums which lead the protagonist into uncharted ethical territory) will relish how the technological and medical aspects of the story neatly dovetail with individual perspectives and special interests. Libraries seeking medical thrillers which do a fine job of adding international intrigue into their mix will find Fade to Blue a powerful story of pain, redemption, and an earth-shattering mission to deploy a drug which could be used for good or evil, depending upon who controls it.

The strong characters, fast-paced action, and ethical dilemmas create thought-provoking reading suitable for book club discussion, contrasting nicely with other standout medical thriller genre reads.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

The Blanchard Witches: Stitches in Time
Micah House
Kendrell Publishing
9798985607574, $26.95 Hardcover

The Blanchard Witches: Stitches in Time continues the story introduced in Prodigal Daughters, starting where the last story left off -- with the disappearance of family member Beryl. This third book in the series expands family relationships and realizations as the witches move through both familiar and unexpected territory on a journey that tests both their paranormal abilities and their survival.

The current leader of the coven, Artemis, finds her edict to guide the family greatly challenged by forces both within and outside its circle as more members vanish before their eyes and the entire family structure is threatened. Who will be next? Everything is about to change in a way even wise elder Zelda can't see coming. She knew about Beryl -- but the others were a surprise even to her.

As connections between witches, blood Blanchard kin, and wry irony intersect with the growing mystery, readers are introduced to a realm in which family ties are tested by their own members. Micah House cultivates an undertone of discovery which traverses generational differences and individual and clan abilities alike.

Dialogues and new considerations create surprising insights: "Can you guys imagine what's going to happen whenever we find a way to get everyone back and we tell Fable - militantly atheist Fable -- that there is a God, and it's her big sister!"

Readers may not expect the time travel component which intersects with family lives and experiences, but this adds to the paranormal fantasy elements to create a vivid timeline of unexpected connections, family secrets, and intrigue solidly rooted in Southern traditions and culture. These revelations, in turn, encourage thought-provoking assessments of powers and their underlying influences: "How could she be expected to police thought. A person couldn't help what thoughts crossed their mind. But she'd been thinking about it lately and had come to the conclusion that the thought itself wasn't the catalyst, it was her speaking the thought which turned it into a spell."

As further details about the Blanchard family unfold, prior series readers will especially appreciate the time taken to evolve further inter-generational connection. An attempted rescue via time travel creates a deadly repetitive cycle that traps a would-be savior in a fatal loop of past and present conundrums. The Blanchard family's incarnation through various timelines and influences between past, present, and future evolves a delightful foray into possibilities that are affected by choice, motive, and surprising family identities.

Readers of paranormal fiction and libraries looking for standout series reads will find this latest addition to the Blanchard family saga a riveting story that juxtaposes love, proactive efforts, and paranormal heritage in a moving saga that's hard to put down and impossible to predict.

In the Heart of the Linden Wood
Ekta R. Garg
Atmosphere Press
9781639887460, $18.95

"The strength of a heart doesn't have limits."

In the Heart of the Linden Wood is a novel of magic trees, evil kings, grief, and courage. It tells of Christopher, a king wracked with sadness upon losing his wife and child. Lily was the only person who truly believed in him, so her loss is an especially hard blow. Nothing can shake his focus on himself -- until the magical trees begin to die and he is tasked with not only finding out why, but embarking on a mission to save them (and himself).

This involves a quest into the heart of betrayal, evil, and redemption. Christopher may be unable to mend his own broken heart, but his kingdom rests upon his ability to regain the self-confidence and strength which he had placed in his wife's hands. Christopher's search for the courage and heart to rule Linden is, in effect, a search for his own abilities and heritage, which brings him deep into a woods of his own making as well as those which support his rule. Is Christopher too deep in his grief to leave his castle and re-enter the world to discover its connections and solutions?

Ekta R. Garg's story may seem like just another classic fantasy, but under the veneer of kings, struggles, and magic lays an attention to emotional details that make In the Heart of the Linden Wood as much a psychological draw as an adventure story. The magic of heart stones reveals truths and revelations Christopher has never anticipated at this point in his life, bringing readers into an evocative story of self-discovery that holds many lessons on how magic involves strengthening the heart by any means possible.

The potential of In the Heart of the Linden Wood to draw from a wide audience and to serve as a discussion point in reader groups interested in tales of self-discovery, growth, and ripples of impact in the world makes for a highly recommended tale that libraries will find multifaceted and compelling. Christopher's journey of self-exploration translates to a newfound ability to direct his kingdom onto more positive paths of discovery, reinforcing the ideals of courage and leadership.

Alien Plague
Christopher Koehler
Independently Published
9798402449732, $8.99 Paper

When interstellar probe The Sagan returns from its investigation of a nearby star system, it brings with it an alien plague that challenges mankind in a way no other has ever done. Dr. Avery Hutton is both the narrator of this story and part of the experiment to bring back complex life. His effort should have been safe, as these samples were limited to space station Randleman, in orbit above Earth. It would have been, if the plague had been anything like Earthly plagues. But, it's not.

Events unfold with high-octane tension and high-tech revelation as Dr. Hutton discovers that the Hortus microbes contain properties that make them uniquely deadly and impervious to the usual obstacles faced in an alien environment like Earth. Hard science is nicely wound into the story, from issues of adaptation and repeat exposures to how Beta Strain life moves from quarantine to a threat. The cure might require mass gene therapy or leaps in infectious disease control.

So many facets of this story feel familiar to modern-day pandemic experience that Alien Plague should receive additional attention from those who will find its interpersonal dialogues and reactions frighteningly similar to today's methods of addressing COVID. As a total breach of containment looms, Dr. Hutton may be the only man able to save humanity from what it has brought back from the stars.

Readers who anticipate an action-packed thriller alone, such as Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, will find more psychological depth in the characters' interactions in Alien Plague. Dr. Hutton and his boss, Dr. Diane Victorovich, make headway in their research and their efforts to control disaster by creating yet another virus, drawing readers into a futuristic story that holds many familiar-sounding quandaries. The story may be set in the distant future, but its relevance both in building interpersonal and professional relationships and its methods of addressing threat and evolving survival tactics will resonate beyond the usual sci-fi audience.

Libraries looking for genre crossovers that tap into modern experiences, yet pose an otherworldly conundrum, will find Alien Plague an intriguing read recommendable to a wide audience of sci-fi, thriller, and social issues readers alike.

Forged of Fire
Stacy Von Haegert
Dragon Crest Publishing
B0BMSKYXPF, $17.99 Hardcover/$11.99 Paper/$3.99 Kindle

Forged of Fire is the first fantasy in a new adult trilogy. It opens in 776 BCE where Zander's father (the king) oversees a ritual that promises either death or rebirth to its participants. It's one which could change the balance of power and Zander's own future, but a surprise twist introduces darkness into the ritual to produce unexpected results.

Fast forward to the present, where retired warrior and royal Ashdon LaGoryen seeks a solitary, peaceful life, only to find that the House of the Dragon has stretched its talons and powers beyond the usual boundaries to immerse him in conflict and new possibilities for his future.

Kielyn Allister also finds herself transported into realms she never knew existed as she faces the stuff of legends via a "farce of a marriage" to a vampire and a new life in a castle. The meeting of these minds (and hearts) produces (perhaps an inevitable) romance, but also creates a dangerously powerful connection where a legend seems to have predetermined their destinies. All they have to do is walk into their new roles. Or defy them.

The blend of romance, fantasy, and intrigue simmers tension and twists of story, inviting those beyond the usual fantasy genre followers to appreciate the special challenges faced by two strong characters whose union is not exactly on either's radar. Of added value are dashes of humor which present irony and interest to spice the story's action. All these elements contribute to the trappings of a fantasy which is a cut above the ordinary genre production in its embrace of both adversity and growth-inducing new possibilities for each of its main characters.

Readers will find much more than an attraction between a moral and an immortal in Forged of Fire. Its story of adaptation and revised perceptions of the world and one's place in it creates believable, engaged characters whose decisions are unpredictable and involving.

Libraries seeking new adult fantasies forged in fiery confrontations, nefarious deals, and dragons will relish the different brand of psychological and interpersonal confrontations that marks Forged of Fire.

The Triumph of Beauty
Robert Albo
Independently Published
9798366081894, $14.99 Paper/$4.99 ebook

The Triumph of Beauty adds to the Dark Matter Necklace series and is set in 2052. Alice Blair wakes up in the future sporting a middle-aged body and the knowledge that she was responsible for changing the course of humanity, producing a drug-dependent world that quashes hope and dreams. All her friends have grown up, literally overnight, leaving her alone in this future world, with its new technology and frightening lack of positive possibilities.

Alice has managed to form new daily routines, navigating this strange milieu through special spider glasses, but is determined to rectify her bad influence of the past to lead the world into a better milieu. This effort involves interacting with a power-hungry artificial intelligence, making a deal with it to re-introduce beauty to a forsaken world in exchange for helping it get to an alien planet.

Young adults who choose this book (and who have a grounding in the prior books in the series) will find Alice's challenges and determination powers a sci-fi scenario that is anything but predictable. This new society's blind obedience to authority, sacrificing beauty in the process, leads Alice to traverse dangerous territory both on Earth and beyond it as she makes an impossible deal and searches past history for salvation via her connection to dark matter. She is the only one who can embark on this process of personal and global redemption, and her choices and challenges will determine the fate of humanity itself.

Robert Albo's thought-provoking and wide-ranging adventure embraces the spirit of a young woman who doesn't settle for guilt over the results of her past actions, but decides to remain proactive and engaged in the future.

While The Triumph of Beauty both adds to the series and creates a stand-alone story of achievement against all odds, it also holds many possibilities for discussion points that would lend to a YA sci-fi book club audience's enjoyment and debates.

From truth and lies to the wellsprings of inspiration and possibility, The Triumph of Beauty crafts a story that deserves a prominent place in any YA collection (and many an adult sci-fi holding) where there's an interest in stories that move beyond fast-paced action and technological challenge into arenas of moral and ethical quandary and discovery.

The Poetry Shelf

Anastasia Lindsey
Atmosphere Press
9781639887057, $22.99

O C E A N is a poetry collection about tides of grief, waves of healing, and the pull of something bigger than the human soul. Life itself is steeped into works that arrive with no title to portend the punch of the poetry.

Anastasia Lindsey produces weeping words that sparkle and glisten with evocative free verse phrasing: "I dreaded the rain/every time the clouds/came rolling in/I knew it was my collection/of tears from the week/ready to let me have a/taste of my own sadness."

The poems present a storm of sorrow before metamorphosing into the healing rains of an ocean of life promises. Before this transformation, they move from first-person pain to third-person observation in a form that demands of its readers an emotional flexibility in moving fluidly from observer to observed: "she doesn't show the bad and the ugly - she doesn't show her tears/although bright, warm, and vibrant/she's hidden/amongst her fears and insecurities - she feels forgotten/just when you think you/couldn't love her enough - she stays awake at night/wondering if she is loved."

The intersection of the ocean comes later, in a wave of evocative poetic description that marries heart and soul with the unrelenting tides of nature: "I am immersed into the undiscoverable/our human eyes have not seen/can you see me?/a second passed and a whisper entered my ear/"welcome... to the Milky sea..."/bioluminescent film coats the top of the water/it's on my skin, filling my pores/in my eyes, they are glowing."

It soon becomes evident that this collection is about more than grief or healing, but is ultimately about love and inevitability. These threads wind through the collection, joining the poems in a mosaic of extraordinary word pictures that depict relationships, transition points, and growth.

Anastasia Lindsey's exploration of her life and the tides that consume and carry it will appeal to readers of emotional free verse autobiography that brings with it a sense of place, purpose, and connection that expands from personal experience to universal ties. Lindsey lets her "wild side" free in these works, and libraries looking for emotional explorations of that side in contemporary free verse will find O C E A N a draw.

Our Lives in Verse: Everyday Poetry
Ann Brubaker Greenleaf Wirtz
WestBow Press
9781664276390, $9.95 Paper/$2.99 ebook

Our Lives in Verse: Everyday Poetry pays tribute to common, ordinary life in a simple yet evocative manner that translates to its accessibility and understanding by poets and non-poets alike.

Here, the trappings of literary strength lie in both a lifelong familiarity with and appreciation of poetry and Ann Brubaker Greenleaf Wirtz's desire to comprehend, capture, and embrace everyday experience. Her fine art creates a work that both celebrates poetic efforts and remains vivid and easily understandable to her readers. She achieves this with poems that reflect experience through the lens of her faith, adding a spiritual component that will especially reach readers on similar paths to linking everyday experience with spiritual reflection.

There's a fine line between poem and prayer, which Wirtz traverses with a delicate step. Some of her writings are more spiritual letters to God, as in 'Our Community, a Prayer in Verse': "Regardless the generation,/Challenges are ever present,/For certainly the way is never easy,/But good-hearted faith and the/Determination to succeed do prevail./Thank You, Dear Lord, for our town,/A vibrant refuge, life-giving with hope,/For our place and time in its history, and/Upon this, our sheltering home..."

Others celebrate ordinary wonders, such as a summer's drive in the country, captured in 'The Hay Bales of Summer': "My car made its way/Down the winding road,/A lazy jaunt to see the sights/Of farmland and pasture/In the afternoon light.../Garden flowers were rioting,/And farm fields flourishing,/When startling my gaze/As they came into view,/Were hay bales to frankly amaze."

In representing moments of everyday life and times and injecting these with expressions of gratitude and wonder, Wirtz pays tribute not only to God, but to life. Libraries seeking literary works that remain true to poetic form and description while celebrating miracles of place and time will find Our Lives in Verse: Everyday Poetry a fine choice that holds the ability to reach literary and non-poetry readers alike.

The Christian Studies Shelf

Peace in the Midst of the Storm
Kaleb Thompson
Resource Publications
c/o Wipf and Stock Publishers
9781666733990, $28.00 Hardcover/$11.00 Paperback/$6.99 Kindle

Peace in the Midst of the Storm will appeal to Christian readers and collections interested in literary connections to faith. It focuses on overcoming obstacles that impede faith and confidence, on adopting a selfless behavior set that approaches both mortal and spiritual life with hope and proactive thinking, and it solidifies the kind of faith that connects individuals to the freedom of choice they must maintain to strengthen their spiritual bonds: "I choose to live the rest of my life in peace/Through my battles and mistakes, I'm forgiven..."

From acknowledgement of the spiritual presence left behind by a dearly departed one in 'Heavenly Shadow' ("The battle you fought was won and the race you partook in was gracefully completed/Another angel was chosen; no need to tirelessly be included with a world deemed so shallow and dense/Our minds have processed that you are no longer with us, but with our hearts, you will never be deleted...") to a foray into another's egotism and the karma it transmits into the world in 'Broken Mirror', Kaleb Thompson's strength lies in an ability to connect daily life events with ethereal considerations of growth and Christian perspective.

These elements weave through every poem to solidify its spiritual and emotional draw. Whether discussing imperfection and humility or "...the importance of spiritual and mental release as I am no longer held captive to an unapologetic nightmare...", Peace in the Midst of the Storm depicts a variety of life-inducing storms and the methods by which peace (both emotional and spiritual) are derived from closer inspections of choice, consequences, and paths towards enlightenment. Peace in the Midst of the Storm will especially appeal to readers of faith, who will find within its poetic notes a wisdom about how to approach life and its deepest currents of challenge, and connections to spiritual thinking.

Christian collections, in particular, will find it both literary in form and filled with food for thought and debate in its subjects.

The Greatest Love Story Never Told
Avi Raa
Nirvana Foundation
9798374196740, $18.95

The Greatest Love Story Never Told: Liberating Jesus and Mary from Christianity should be a mainstay in any Christian collection not because it explores the usual contentions of Christian history; but because it defies many of these traditional perceptions. Its controversial message won't be for every Christian -- but it should be, because within its challenge of Church doctrine and the extreme efforts made over history to rewrite the image of Jesus the man lies an intention to place Jesus in the kind of perspective that makes him even more of a spiritual figurehead: "When it comes to understanding Jesus, the single most important question humanity has failed to ask is, 'What did this young man find within him that he was willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of sharing it?'

If only Christians had asked this one question, without supplying it with a two-thousand-year-old stale biblical answer that he was a "Messenger of God", they would have discovered an entirely different Jesus -- one more alive and vibrant than he who hung on the cross."

Vibrant, uplifting, and filled with reworkings of traditional Christian history, The Greatest Love Story Never Told indeed walks the dangerous path of revisionary works in challenging some of the most closely-held legends of Christian belief. From Mary Magdalene's real role as the wife of Jesus and one of his apostles to her very human broken-heartedness over his crucifixion and the roots of why he was envisioned as rising from death after three days,

The Greatest Love Story Never Told not only adopts a broader perspective in re-interpreting the life of Jesus, but does so with fiery passion. This often translates to condemnations of not just Church doctrine, but challenges to the form of history that it created in the name of not God, but its own special interests.

Many of these passages will offer much food for thought in other ways, envisioning possibilities that could have stemmed from events if they were interpreted and presented differently: "...there is no Christianity without Mary and her internalization of Jesus' truth. If Mary Magdalene had been a man, in all likelihood her Christianity would have replaced that of Jesus'."

By now, it should be evident that, inherent in the controversial reworking of Christian history, there is enlightenment in the discovery of a living man who was something even more intriguing than the mystical figure the Church created from his life. Christian collections willing to consider this book's revolutionary and outspoken revisionist approach to Christian history will find it sparks not only debate and food for thought, but a different, more revealing appreciation for the path Jesus walked.

Libraries appealing to Christian readers and thinkers will find The Greatest Love Story Never Told: Liberating Jesus and Mary from Christianity essential for reading groups interested in different views of how Christian fact and fancy evolved. The book encourages reflection and debate as it forms an unusual perspective on Jesus' life and the way it was taken over and interpreted by the special interests of a Church undertaking to cement its power in the world.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

Diane C. Donovan, Editor & Senior Reviewer
12424 Mill Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
phone: 1-707-795-4629

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