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California Bookwatch

Volume 19, Number 5 May 2024 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Social Issues Shelf Health/Medicine Shelf
Christian Studies Shelf Biography Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Poetry Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

Old Kicker Legs: The Tooth Faerie
Robert Rubenstein
Independently Published
9798873923700, $10.47

Old Kicker Legs: The Tooth Faerie adds another surreal adventure to the Old Kicker Legs series of fourteen books. While its pictures and tone might suggest it's for advanced elementary to high school readers, adults will be the best audience for this tale, which offers many thought provoking (and likely controversial) topics.

This story takes place at the beginning of COVID, documenting the many forces, both internal and external, that buffet a family as they take refuge at home from a worldwide pandemic. The story opens with the unexpected arrival of Auntie Kirsi, who claims to be a tooth fairy, but arrives with nefarious purposes and baggage to immediately take over.

Prior readers will enjoy how characters from the previous book make their entry, with the Color Wars games appearing early in the story to add familiar background and nuances to a tale that evolves around changes on the home front.

Robert Rubenstein excels at injecting his whimsical story with thought-provoking passages throughout: "What if you can't win today nor tomorrow? Does that make you a bad person?" "Charlie, an apple doesn't get rotten in a day or two."

He also provides reflections and twists on events that will keep readers intrigued by its language and vivid descriptions. These work together to paint an uncommon portrait of events that swirl around Auntie Kirsi's invasion and impact: "No, Auntie Kirsi." It was Toni who tried to push past her. But it was easier to remove a nightmare from a dream. Toni cried up the stairs where Marty was hiding. "Daddy, take her away." But Marty couldn't bear to face his own family, nor go one-on-one with Kirsi that day. He rolled into a ball, and left in a puff of fog."

As Auntie tries to banish Old Kicker Legs and dispel other family connections, isolation threatens them in more than one way as the story unfolds, creating unique lessons and examples about control methods that include isolation and abuse.

Vivid color illustrations throughout capture the nuances of plot and character, bringing to life the dilemmas Toni and others face as invading forces come in more than one guise. From dysfunctional family members and stranger danger that accompany questions of connection, disconnection, and false memories to a curse that only Old Kicker Legs can properly address, Rubenstein creates a compelling story. It operates on deeper levels than that of a whimsical adventure alone -- and certainly belays the notion of a youthful audience, with its many adult themes that are wrapped the guise of a children's book.

Libraries and adult readers will find Old Kicker Legs: The Tooth Faerie a compelling vision of threat, survival tactics, friendship, and a Tooth Faerie turned bad as action-packed events head towards a showdown that will test the characters and enchant their readers.

The Social Issues Shelf

From Ideas to Impact
Michael Sheldrick
c/o Wiley Professional Trade Group
9781394202348, $30.00

From Ideas to Impact: A Playbook for Influencing and Implementing Change in a Divided World draws important connections between policy change and social impact, whether readers come from business management, government, or social issues circles.

The teachings apply equally to all facets, painting an intriguing picture of a "policy entrepreneur" who can spearhead these connections and changes. The eight-step review of how a policy entrepreneur hones vision, enacts it, and drives changes that lead to the betterment of humanity as a whole may seem to harbor lofty ideals (and, it does); but behind the visionary hope lies a pragmatic, down-to-earth focus on how systems and policies work - and why and how they can fail.

Chapters are built as much upon applied theory as they are around these ideals, fostering new possibilities by charting real-world success stories and how they came to be. "Be part of the solution in a world on fire" is Michael Sheldrick's call to action. But the special attributes in his book lie in its blueprint of 'how to' and its roots in real-world experience. These provide the building blocks of understanding about how positive visions and change are translated in all levels of society, government, and business.

Chapters promote many concrete ways of cementing the reader's vision, whether it be obtaining and promoting positive success stories on social networks to foster hope and excitement, or creating opportunities for transition from habits as engrained as choosing coal over cleaner energy choices. These wide-ranging examples drive the program Sheldrick creates and promote in From Ideas to Impact, taking his effort far beyond that of an idealistic dreamer and well into the realms of possibility.

Consider From Ideas to Impact a blueprint for eco-warriors, visionary leaders, and individuals who would link social change and growth to attitudes and habits that foster new opportunities. Then, read From Ideas to Impact for uplifting examples of success stories, and the foundations of how they were achieved, and how readers might enact their own programs and visions as they move through life.

Libraries will find From Ideas to Impact not only worthy of collection inclusion and recommendation to a disparate audience of social thinkers, but perfect fodder for book club discussion groups.

The Health/Medicine Shelf

Status Quo Thinking is Harming Your Health
Dr. Sarah Hallberg
Olio Media
9798989986101, $17.99

Status Quo Thinking is Harming Your Health: A Physician's Final Plea represents the late Dr. Sarah Hallberg's magnum opus, synthesizing her research and reflections on the American healthcare system which (she found as an insider and participant) worked as much against her healing efforts as they professed to support them.

Dr. Hallberg did more than chafe against these barriers to helping her patients. She opened a clinic in Indiana which refuted the common notion that a low-fat diet was essential for good health, observing concrete results in eliminating diabetes and other diet-related symptoms by adopting a low-carb, high-fat diet.

The contention that diabetes can be reversed by diet is not a new one. What is new, here, is the research and findings which indicate that the type of diet being promoted to manage the disease does little to actually cure it, placing the disease's management and stasis over a real solution.

The idea is simple: eat better and live longer. It's not a new notion, but one which has been vastly revised, here, where it expands to include not just issues of diet and health, but how the healthcare system as a whole does an injustice to patients with its focus on managing symptoms over finding real, lasting solutions.

Dr. Hallberg wrote her book while battling terminal cancer. She made a point of staying on the diet she was recommending to her patients, even though she did not share their symptoms, in the interests of staying fit and better understanding what her patients' struggles and experiences.

She is candid about presenting her naivety over the process of participating in research studies and their ultimate ability to help her patients, forthright about the joys of meeting personal and processional goals, and spirited and lively in her delivery: "I was doing what I loved and felt as if I were helping lots of people, and working on methods that could help a substantially greater number."

Status Quo Thinking is Harming Your Health is much more than a physician's condemnation of systems that don't achieve their ultimate goals of good health. It's also a lively memoir; a story of study, research, and blending these efforts with the bigger picture of supporting health routines and ideals; and a powerful consideration of medical attitudes and objectives. It will be especially pertinent reading for medical school students and classrooms debating the ultimate impact of health management systems and their underlying politics, goals, and influences.

Status Quo Thinking is Harming Your Health should be part of any collection appealing to medical personnel who hold a greater vision for a healthy future than traditional rote thinking and approaches to healthcare. It's also highly recommended for general-interest library collections concerned about healthcare approaches.

Food and Freedom
Sue Van Raes
New World Library
9781608688746, $21.95

Food and Freedom: Discover Your Personal Recipe to Eat, Think, and Live Well comes from a functional nutritionist and food psychology specialist. Sue Van Raes maintains that relationships with food are changing, leading to biochemical-level changes in food choices, digestion, and spiritual connection.

From how to identify and align personal biochemistry and body cycles to make better food choices to linking states of mind to food's impact, Food and Freedom advocates far more than dietary changes. It draws important connections between food and symptoms of 'food stress' that will prove enlightening to many.

Health libraries, self-help collections, and readers interested in nutrition's bigger-picture thinking will welcome Food and Freedom's outstanding, thought-provoking connections.

The Christian Studies Shelf

Hidden Price Tags Volume 7: Et Cetera...
C.J.S. Hayward
C.J.S. Hayward Publications
9798376522851, $20.00 Hardcover/$10.00 Paperback/$5.00 eBook

Hidden Price Tags Volume 7: Et Cetera... compiles thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy which did not fit into other volumes of C.J.S. Hayward's writings. This results in a wide-ranging set of subjects suitable for book club or spiritual group discussion, covering matters of Orthodoxy theology and its intersection with technological and social trends.

Of special note is how Hayward offers not just critical inspections of technology's impact, but solutions to its influence, such as converting an Apple watch to an instrument capable of supporting a slower, more reasoned life. From theology's mystical connections to how Orthodoxy operates as an intrinsic foundation of societies and civilizations, Hayward creates a dialogue that is very suitable to analyzing technological and spiritual challenges, showing how to observe them in a different light and mitigate their conflicts and technology's impact.

The clear discussions of Orthodoxy's foundations provides students and thinkers with far greater comparisons and thought-provoking contrasts than the usual discourse on the subject: "In Orthodoxy, all theology is "mystical theology", meaning what is practically lived in the practice of Holy Orthodoxy. Systematic theology is off-limits, as a kind of formal book exercise that is not animated by the blood of mystical theology. Clinical psychology offers what Dixon terms quasi-theology, and I would more specifically term quasi-mystical theology."

Questions suitable for discussion reinforce this book's concept, encouraging lively debates among thinkers allowed to go past the usual theological focus and into subjects relevant to modern social concerns and experiences. The result may be considered especially wide-ranging by some; but that's the beauty of Hidden Price Tags Volume 7: Et Cetera... Its ability to tie together seemingly disparate subjects and approaches to daily living and theological thinking make it another Hayward winner that is highly recommended for any library interested in Orthodoxy's applications to the modern world.

The Biography Shelf

Freeing Teresa
Franke James
The James Gang, Iconoclasts Inc.
9781999406103, $39.99 Hardcover/$16.99 Paperback/$9.99 eBook

Freeing Teresa: A True Story about My Sister and Me is the compelling saga of siblings in conflict over one sister's disability and the right thing to do.

Franke's siblings wanted to place her Down syndrome sister Teresa in a nursing home. But Franke protested about the quality of life her sister would receive in such an institution, sparking a family controversy that extended when the siblings then chose a long-term care home that once again challenged Franke's ideals of what her sister's life should be.

Franke and Teresa found themselves virtually alone, standing against forces of medical, legal, and psychological systems bent on declaring Teresa incompetent and institutionalizing her for the rest of her life. Surprisingly, Franke's work as an environmental activist and the lessons she learned from that job translated nicely to her efforts on her sister's behalf, providing a foundation of methodology, approach, ideology, and confrontation that served her well in her latest battle.

From decision-making empowerment and voting rights to navigating possibilities for Teresa, Franke's interactions with her father and siblings provides a powerful set of discourses that examine ideals, realities, and the mix of special interests and perceptions that can create a perfect storm in a family.

Of particular interest are the points of contention that clearly outline different possibilities in acting and reacting to family members: "Weren't Deirdre and Conrad still in charge? Probably, I said. But the alternative was seeking guardianship through the court system, and that could take six months or more. If we went down to Aiker Place with Dad, he could ask to see the paperwork, and maybe there would be another way. We both believed that Dad would have the moral authority as Teresa's father and her primary caregiver. Maybe that would be enough."

From issues of control to others about empowerment and battles not only between family members, but institutions and systems designed to protect developmentally disabled individuals, Franke lays out a candid, clear course of struggle. This will engage a wide range of readers, from those coming from legal circles to families facing their own internal and external truths.

The discourse tackles models of freedom, healthcare, personal choice, and more in a manner that book club reading groups (whether general-interest or with specific interests, such as psychology or legal advocacy) will find thoroughly absorbing. The result is more than a memoir: it's a testimony to how 'tickets to freedom' are gained through fighting and love, displaying how Teresa's own wishes and interests add fuel to the fire of empowerment on many different levels.

Personal, professional. community and college/university libraries will find Freeing Teresa an essential collection addition.

You Can't Make This Sh!t Up
Stephanie Geller
Precocity Press
9798989204373, 15.95 Paperback, $15.95

You Can't Make This Sh!t Up: Stories of a Badass Life is a memoir of collected life experiences that evolve over time, and incorporates a wry and ironic sense of humor about life's opportunities and snafus. Often, the pros and cons of a given situation are presented side-by-side, as in the chapters 'How Gymnastics Saved My Life' and 'How Gymnastics Almost Ended My Life'.

Her story of growing up Army and poor, receiving some and fielding other opportunities, and making friends and learning about people, jobs, and places reflects a life story filled with memorable moments, engrossing encounters, and insights on growing up and absorbing the values that reinforce life decisions: "Home is a place where you can cook and eat whatever you want whenever you want. Cold slice of pizza at 4:00 a.m.? Yes please. Home is a place where you get to make the rules."

As these individual experiences contribute to the bigger picture of being a "badass," Stephanie Geller explores the core encounters that represent life lessons, even in such events as selling typewriter ribbons over the phone or partying for days: "I woke up and had no clue where I was. Coffee. It's now Sunday morning and all this started on Thursday.

'Did you have fun last night?' I asked as I sat drinking coffee on Josephine's balcony and watching people walk their dogs.

'Absolutely,' she said. 'What a great day.'

'I have to get home before I totally crash,' I said. I grabbed my bag and walked to the parking deck to my car. Time to make the 30-minute drive home. It'll be Monday morning soon. I'll sleep when I die."

The result is a rollicking ride through life that pairs adventure with growth and life realizations. You Can't Make This Sh!t Up is about forming and achieving dreams, letting go of some of them, and living life to its fullest. It provides memoir readers (and libraries catering to them) with a multifaceted, lively draw that both entertains and holds thought-provoking moments about cultivating a zestful life lived to its fullest... and most badass.

As a sad concluding note, Stephanie Geller passed away unexpectedly just after this review was written. Her admonition "I'll sleep when I die" has come true; but the legacy of her life and writings live on here. You Can't Make This Sh!t Up.

The General Fiction Shelf

The Coast
John Enright
Black Heron Press
c/o Independent Publishers Group (dist.)
9781936364428, $16.00 Paper/$9.99 eBook

"Morey was pissed. Well, screw Morey. Patrick was just following the signs. How was he to know (middle of the night, Morey sound asleep in the back) that he shouldn't have taken the turn-off that said San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge but kept on straight for Oakland and some other bridge? Patrick had never been here before."

So begins a narrative about four decades of experience that link Patrick, Joanna, and Daisy as they embark on new experiences in San Francisco, where they discover that their relationships may be strained by changes to come, but that close connections will remain alive, at the end.

It's no easy task to capture these decades in succinct moments and through the eyes of different participants who each find that their evolutionary process is transformed by a city under siege, from hippies to Vietnam . Yet John Enright does so with a seasoned and compelling set of insights that swirl around characters whose experiences drive and influence their relationships and choices. They find themselves at the vortex of and representing these changes, which ripple through San Francisco 's neighborhoods.

These milieus are presented with the astute observational style of moments immersed in not just culture, but Bay Area environmental quirks: "There were no vehicles leaving Bolinas. He walked all the way to Stinson before catching a ride. It had started to rain. In all his months in the Bay Area it had rarely rained. It was a cold rain, relentless and bored. Another long wait with his thumb out at Tam Junction. It was like he'd become invisible."

Through its portrait of natives to outsiders drawn to San Francisco for disparate (yet sometimes similar) reasons, the ultimate power of The Coast lies in its ability to realistically and grippingly portray and contrast the environment and culture of the times through the coming-of-age of four individuals who find themselves caught up in and transformed by their choices. Think Jack Kerouac's classic On the Road, but with a wider-ranging journey and a more contemporary band of adventurers who reside in an era where everything feels possible and nothing is set in stone.

Of special note is the clash between dreams and ideals, and the realities that settle in as opportunity shifts to become adversity: "Eric was a cokehead when we got together. That was alright, though he was getting sort of paranoid. But when he got into the angel dust, he started getting weird -- pushy, possessive. I wanted to move out, but I had nowhere to go until the dorm opened up again. Then when he found out I'd had drinks with your pal Douglas, he had a fit. I was packing when he attacked me."

The result is a vivid account of individual lives changed by choice and circumstance which vibrates with the Summer of Love and moves forward into its aftermath and ultimate impact on the adventurers.

Libraries and readers seeking San Francisco-centric novels steeped in Bay Area culture, neighborhoods, and norms will find The Coast compelling and thoroughly engrossing.

Larry Terhaar
Hat City Publishing
9798990036208, $14.95 Paperback/$5.99 eBook

When the Champlain Towers collapsed in Surfside, FL, in June of 2021, the resulting deaths and questions vied for media spotlight and attention. Larry Terhaar's "Oceanside" is a novel-in-parts consisting of three stories that follow the 40-year lifespan of the building, blending the reality of events with a fictional overlay that dramatizes and enhances the appeal of the events and their impact.

The first responders to the collapse in June of 2021 open the story, but flashbacks take readers back to the roots of the building's tragedy, using an investigative tone to consider building errors and omissions and their ultimate impact. This lends "Oceanside" a fine aura of intrigue that requires no prior knowledge of Florida, the tragedy, or its influences in order to prove accessible and riveting even to readers with little natural interest in building collapses.

Terhaar employs the vivid immediacy of the first person to capture the opening events from the eyes of a first responder firefighter called to the most extraordinary scene in his decades of facing disasters: "The alarm tone jarred me awake. A computer-generated voice announced, "Units ten and eighteen respond to building collapse at 88th Street and Collins Avenue ." Then the announcement repeated, beginning with the alarm tone. I glanced at the clock and saw it was 1:30 a.m. It was go-time. We had performed this routine countless times over my twenty-five-year career as a firefighter. If it wasn't a real emergency, then we performed timed practices. We needed to be on the engine, ready to roll within a minute. We all slept in natural-fiber underwear that wouldn't melt in extreme heat."

As events shift between present and post, with donor special interests, political ambitions, and reasons for cost-cutting actions taking place, readers are treated to a vivid story. It cuts to the chase of not just the physical causes of structural collapses, but the very human motivations for pursuing profit and politics against the best interests of fellow human beings.

At each step, Terhaar creates a satisfying dichotomy of events that contrast the choices and consequences which lead to the preventable deaths of nearly a hundred people. This, in turn, provides much material for book club or classroom debate as the novel contrasts homebuyers, politicians, builders, and others whose lives are inextricably and forever fused by the disaster.

The authentic, realistic aura of these events comes not just from research, but personal knowledge which places Terhaar in a uniquely qualified position to produce this story. He is a recently retired real estate developer who has built a condominium complex, and serves on the board of directors of a high-rise condominium in southern Florida .

Libraries and readers seeking a vivid novel filled with satisfying twists and turns, that is astonishingly and frighteningly based on real events and situations, will welcome "Oceanside" as a novel that's hard to put down.

The Poppy Field
Caroline Kellems
Grand Canyon Press
9781963361049, $16.99

The Poppy Field is a novel that will appeal to women interested in stories of missionary work, transformation, and marriages challenged by new cultural experiences. It revolves around Indiana wife and mother Katherine, who finds her family and predictable life uprooted when her husband Phil is assigned to Guatemala for missionary duty.

Not only does she face vast tests in living in a third-world country, but her unhappy children need to be homeschooled. Her husband is gone for extended periods, leaving her to the attention of wealthy neighbor Steve, who both educates her about Guatemalan culture and lures her into a romance which challenges both her marriage and her family values.

Intrigue and mystery enter the picture with further entanglements that complete the circle of angst newly surrounding her life and relationships. Suddenly, Katherine doesn't know who she is, where she is heading, and what is even real. Caroline Kellems builds a fascinating story that will attract a disparate audience of readers, from those interested in thrillers and suspense stories to others who enjoy vivid women's fiction that blends romance with bigger-picture thinking.

Questions of wealth origins, influences, and objectives permeate both Katherine and Phil's relationship and the reasons why they moved to Guatemala in the first place:

"I mean, what if he's a drug kingpin?" There, she'd said it. Why would a drug lord fund a church?" Phil takes a deep breath. Alfonso's wealth does seem a bit much, but surely God has a hand in all of this. "Without money how can we build a church? Without a church, we'll never have a steady congregation, and if we don't have a congregation, what are we doing here?"

Readers will appreciate the social, spiritual, and cultural interplays that test both relationships and moral and ethical viewpoints as The Poppy Fields evolves a gripping sense of wonder that features twists and turns charged by relationship realizations. The candid portrait of both Phil and Katherine as they contemplate their influences and choices is particularly well done: "If he only knew. "Do you think I wanted the neighbor, our landlord, to be the one to comfort us? The one to solve our problems? You're the head of the family." Phil decides not to mention the misunderstanding. It will only make him look like a fool. If he'd have known that thieves had broken into their house, he might have returned home, he thinks, but probably not. He screwed up again. He should have kept in better touch."

While The Poppy Fields will be a solid entertainment choice for libraries and readers seeking novels about cross-cultural experiences, its inclusion of bigger-picture themes also make it the perfect choice for book clubs seeking discussion and debate material about relationships facing missionary work and cultural encounters. The exquisite marriage of suspense, revelation, and marital and extramarital relationship snafus lends to a riveting story that's hard to put down.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

The Condor's Riddle
Marcelo Antinori
Secant Publishing
9798985148992, $27.00 Hardcover/$.99 eBook

The Condor's Riddle is the story of an older French archivist who stumbles on a murder, then becomes involved in employing his photographic memory and circle of friends to not just solve one crime's riddle, but calm a community in turmoil.

The story is replete with French atmosphere, from scenery to friendship connections, as a reclusive thinker and dreamer is pulled into circles and situations he is both ideally and ill-equipped to handle: "He seldom spoke - better be unnoticed - that was the first lesson he got from his uncle. He learned to think and dream in silence, without bothering to explain himself."

The lessons this experience forces upon him are many, bringing a delightful sense of adventure and discovery to readers who will identify with the older, shy Bebei as he finds his life transformed in unpredictable ways. Bebei doesn't operate in a vacuum in this story. A cast of memorable characters swirl around him and receive equal attention to detail, adding to the disparate atmosphere that embraces his efforts, and the mystery that attracts and enchants him.

From a Chinese ex-stripper to a Caribbean ex-president, the disparate personalities that swirl around Bebei add color, life, and unexpected delights to the novel to enrich its progression and scenery. The exotic nature and pursuits of these participants interlock in an intriguing manner, much like a puzzle of pieces which at first seem dissimilar, but soon prove to be connected in more ways than one.

These participants harbor their own special interests and unique methods of supporting or confronting the protagonist: "I'll tell Bebei that we no longer need his reports, which can now give him some free time to find out about the monkeys who hide out in the Golden Castle and who sooner or later will invade Santa Clara ." Then, after a quick pause to ponder a new thought, the Lady turned to Grena and said: "Better yet, his reports are quite entertaining, and if you agree, we can just let him continue to report to me, and I'll pass them on to you."

Comedy, tragedy, and mystery thus coalesce in an uncommon and evocative manner designed to attract a wide audience, from genre mystery readers to those interested in Latin American literary devices, French-infused stories, and plots which prove unpredictable and hard to put down.

Libraries will find The Condor's Riddle a fine addition to literature and fiction holdings, highly recommendable to patrons who seek memorable stories, colorful characters, and uncommon, original plot progressions.

Lisa Towles
Indies United Publishing
9781644567128, $29.99

Angus Mariner is on a quest for truth and revenge after the death of his wife. But, in Codex, it's difficult to achieve either, as the perps are elusive and their purposes equally mercurial. That's what makes Codex so thought-provoking, supercharged with a tension that comes from loss, grief, problem-solving, and extraordinary circumstances that are impossible for either protagonist or reader to predict.

The story attracts from its opening lines: "I shouldn't be here. I know I shouldn't. But sometimes the decisions of the heart immobilize the brain and body. While my conscious intentions might challenge the tenets of logic, a more wicked part of me decided, long before today, that Wendell Peters must die."

The contrast between good intentions and bad decisions in a mission that sizzles with controversy and struggle brings readers right onto the playing field of confrontation and discovery as Angus finds there is far more involved in his wife's death than murderous intention alone. What he believed to be a case of confronting a wealthy adversary entangles him in a conspiracy that moves far beyond individual intention and action. This drives him into showdowns between influence, wealth, and intentions gone awry, leading him to wrestle with the overwhelming grief that marks his days.

Characters that operate around Angus serve as backdrops and sounding boards to this grief process, which translates into both proactive behavior and revised struggles to define new goals and visions of the world as events unfold. The sheer complexity of this story might seem to limit it to seasoned thriller genre readers -- but that would be a shame.

Readers seeking an action-packed and equally thought-provoking story will find that Lisa Towles crafts both in a tale that intersects personal concerns with bigger-picture thinking. Between vivid descriptions, three-dimensional characters, a myriad of action and shifting special interests, and intrigue and espionage that emerge from unexpected places,

Codex is a genre-busting read. It is highly recommended to libraries and individuals seeking a story that is absolutely compelling in how it breaks all the rules of predictability, then puts them back together in unexpected ways.

Diamond and the French Blue
Karen Gilleland
7th Clue Publishers, LLC
9798878998970, $3.99 eBook/$14.99 Paperback

Diamond and the French Blue is the third book in a cozy mystery series featuring the partnership and intrigue confronting Hope Diamond, the founder and head of Diamond Security; and FBI Special Agent Matt Dennison.

Familiarity with the prior books in the mystery series is highly recommended for a fuller-bodied feel of ongoing character development as Hope now finds herself immersed in political ambition and deadly surprises.

Novelist Karen Gilleland provides a thought-provoking, astute inspection of political strategies gone awry as Hope and Matt become mired in a new situation that places Hope in the position of being a potential victim. Special permission has been granted for the Hope Diamond to leave its secure home. Now Hope is charged with keeping it safe against all odds and influences. As the Hope Diamond and Hope's future become inextricably linked, readers will revel in the sense of threat, discovery, and new opportunities that Hope and Matt face in the course of engaging in some dangerous moves for the sake of the greater good.

Also at stake is their evolving relationship, which comes with questions and serious considerations: "Matt, who had been getting Frank's beer, felt a pang of jealousy. He liked Frank, but when he and Hope were together, Matt felt like an outsider. It wasn't only Frank. Matt would have to come to terms with her business and whether he could totally support her, which he would be bound in conscience to do. Until now, he never doubted that it wouldn't interfere in their lives. But both their jobs required twenty-four-seven dedication, and clarity around that fact made him flinch. Could they have a happy marriage if they were both going in different directions with no time for one another?"

Hope fills in the blanks of what happened in the aftermath of a murder, tackling the underlying possibility of a curse affecting holders of the enchanting diamond also called French Blue, and the real meaning the blue stone holds for serious gem collectors. From questions of who stole the Hope Diamond to who is willing to commit murder to keep secrets hidden, Hope and Matt are again mired in another diamond-backed adventure that lands them in turmoil both in the world at large and in their own relationship.

The foundations of Diamond and the French Blue lie in its predecessors, Diamond in the Desert and Diamond on the High Seas. Readers of all three mysteries will find the action and intrigue builds upon past events while creating an outstanding interplay of personal and professional challenges that lead each investigator to grow and learn, both separately and together. That's why Diamond and the French Blue is highly recommended for libraries seeking a strong series addition, readers who have enjoyed the previous exploits of Hope and Matt, and book clubs seeking a delicious combination of mystery and personal revelations that offer many thought-provoking points for discussion amid the action and investigative intrigue.

Rogue Mission
David Nees
Independently Published
9798374624762, $14.95 Paperback/$3.99 eBook

Rogue Mission is the seventh book in the Dan Stone thriller series, where Dan finds himself not only struggling against a terrorist plot, but the processes and people in his own organization.

The story opens with a terrorist attack in Canada, then moves to small-team CIA operations as an anthrax threat blossoms in a way that no operative or organization seems capable of addressing. Enter Dan Stone (but not until Chapter 3, when precedent, motivation, and setting have been established). Dan is a very successful contract killer (nee: assassin) for the CIA, whose job involves special situations. Few have proved as special as this one. Even Dan's traumatic previous assignment, from which he has mostly recovered, pales in comparison.

David Nees presents the recap from that job in a succinct, involving manner: "Life felt good. He had acquired enough money to live as he desired. He was not extravagant but could purchase the best of whatever item he wanted. His wounds were healed from his last mission to Yemen . It had been a harrowing, painful expedition, but he had avenged Carrie's horrific death." This form of explanation is also employed as Dan's latest challenges play out in the process of tracking a threat that is elusive and puzzling.

Dialogue and events move from Dan's experiences to those of organizations on both sides that operate around him, creating additional atmosphere and insights into how and why Dan feels he must break the rules in order to achieve his goals:

"Dan hasn't communicated with us since that last message," Fred said. "That's been six hours ago."

Jane exhaled in frustration. "You carried out a dangerous op without my knowledge or permission. If the shit had hit the fan, I would have been left looking stupid or incompetent, or both."

"With all due respect," Fred said, "it would have given you deniability. That was something Dan said you wanted."

As Dan relies increasingly on intuition to answer questions the Watchers only hint at, and to follow his own independent path in resolving problems, his increasingly rogue status challenges not only his supporters, but the approaches and values he has cultivated throughout his career.

Nees provides just the right dip into intrigue and psychological revelation to spice Dan's story with a sense of purpose and procedural challenges. This approach produces new insights on good, evil, and the special issues involved in containing darkness: "His conversations with Watchers over the years rarely went beyond the crisis of the moment. But a crisis still existed. Dan sensed it. He felt driven to approach and wrestle with it even though he worried about the lines he might have to cross."

As Dan both taps into and alters his views of the Watchers and his other support systems, he finds himself going rogue in more ways than one in an unusual bid for freedom that involves challenging authority and romantic possibilities alike.

Libraries and readers looking for a thriller that operates as both a satisfying adjunct to the series and a stand-alone suspense story will welcome the twists and turns of Rogue Mission. It focuses as much on the process of personal growth and ethical and moral quandaries as it does on the fast-paced adventure which engages and challenges Dan Stone and his readers.

The Scorpion
David Nees
Independently Published
9798819477991, $14.95 Paperback/$3.99 eBook

Book 6 in the assassin Dan Stone thriller series, The Scorpion, depicts contract killing made personal when a killer successfully targets someone he loves, then retreats to the Middle East, leading Dan on a chase through Europe to exact revenge and retribution.

Why would a killer play such a game? Is it to lure Dan away from the support systems which back his actions, or to challenge Dan by targeting those he holds dear, because of some previous assassination? Either way, strip Dan of his support systems and the real nature of his efforts, personality, and limits become exposed to the very killers he needs to confront with strength; not weakness.

Once again, David Nees succeeds in filling out more facets of a character whose life is steeped in murder and espionage. Given the nature of his job, Dan has long accepted that normal relationships will likely forever be beyond his ken and control: "You know the problem. My life exposes me to danger. That exposes those close to me to danger. It seems to have come home in a terrible way. One that may ruin my relationship with this other person forever."

His mission subconsciously attempts to change that dynamic by personally confronting the elements which keep love and connection at bay in his personal life. But, working against him is the cleverness and underlying motivations of The Scorpion, a clever killer whose sting contains new possibilities and objectives that even Dan doesn't always see coming.

David Nees crafts his story as much on the psychological confrontations and conundrums of his protagonist as on the fast-paced cat-and-mouse games that plague Dan's life. Throughout this process, friendships, support, and enemies emerge from unusual places to influence and change Dan's direction and thinking.

Libraries and readers seeking a whirlwind of action, intrigue, mystery, and psychological mind-bending games will welcome The Scorpion, whether they are reading it as a stand-alone story or in conjunction with the previous five Dan Stone thrillers. Either way, its ability to not just enhance its predecessors, but spin a complex yarn with divergent threads that all come together seamlessly at the end makes for an exceptional story that pairs edge-of-your-seat action with reflective insights key to a thriller steeped in Middle Eastern cultures, politics, and subterfuge.

Stolen Lives
Joyce Yarrow
All Bilingual Press
9798989794638, $16.99

What would you do if you were a reporter researching a mystery of the past that revolves around tons of gold and children that are shipped to Russia during the Spanish Civil War, in the course of researching a different, more contemporary story about Spain 's stolen babies? What if past and present were somehow entwined? That's what journalist Alienor Crespo discovers as she delves deeper into an island's secrets, which lead her from a present-day conundrum to hidden history.

Readers who follow Alienor's first-person account of her journey will discover that the historical backdrop that merges with the tale offers a satisfying sense of reality and authenticity as her investigation leads to unexpected routes and connections reinforced by historical precedent: "Thousands of mothers gave birth under anesthesia in clinics only to wake up to the news that their newborns were dead. How could they know that as they wailed and cried, their perfectly healthy children were being given away to families that were loyal to Franco's regime."

As Alienor faces conflicts of purpose between rescuing and kidnapping children and the deeper moral and ethical implications of her investigation, she finds her own roots shaken by discoveries that strike too close to home as her own position mirrors those of other women. However, Alienor's special knowledge about these events places her in a potential position of power to overcome the typical course of unfolding events.

Joyce Yarrow again crafts a compelling story steeped in history, social conundrums, and Spanish experience which opens on a small island, then moves seamlessly into present-day challenges. This sequel to Zahara and the Lost Books of Light can easily be read as a standalone. Her ability to feature and probe evolving relationships, whether it be with nuns, inspectors, or those who harbor second sight visions, lends the novel a multifaceted feel that is atmospheric, emotional, and historically compelling. This is why libraries will want to recommend Stolen Lives to readers looking for a successful marriage between history and intrigue. Its ability to bring both to life against the backdrop of Spanish culture makes the tale compelling, educational, and hard to put down.

Too Much Tinsel
Amy Wolf
Independently Published
9798872936190, $14.99

Too Much Tinsel begins with a few surprises: a collection of 1940s slang used throughout the book, a list of characters, and a few Yiddish words. All this is designed not to daunt, but to make the reading easier.

From PI Nicky Forenza and the punk goon that confronts her at the door of her apartment to events that test her mettle and uncommon (for a woman in the 1940s) investigative abilities, Amy Wolf creates an atmosphere not only replete with 1940s references and insights, but a wry sense of observational humor: "The punk's pal was slightly older, and just as cheaply dressed. These guys need to find a good tailor, I thought, as the older hood pulled his piece."

But that isn't the biggest surprise. An early amazement is the nature of Nicky's partner. Another surprise lies in how Nicky employs feminine wiles to add to her grab bag of tools and problem-solving abilities. From a president who tries to reassure the country that it's on the upswing to a woman who is "barely a cop, much less a detective," Wolf crafts a realistic, compelling story immersed in the atmosphere of the 1940s.

The saga is spearheaded by a feisty female who dares to go where no woman has gone before.

Readers of noir mystery and detective stories will find Too Much Tinsel a study in accidents, executives, special interests, and a savvy female protagonist who weaves her way through alien environments with purpose and talent. The sense of humor throughout is a delightful accompaniment to Nicky's confrontations and epiphanies:

"What can I do for you, dollface?"

There was nothing worse for a woman than being compared to a doll."

The result is a sultry character who tackles a puzzle, only to find herself embroiled in unexpected events.

Libraries seeking exceptional strong female PIs whose sense of purpose and possibility are tempered by their wry inspections of life and people will find Too Much Tinsel beautifully rendered, exquisitely steeped in the 1940s, and hard to put down. It's also worthy of recommendation to murder mystery book clubs, who will find much to discuss and enjoy in Nicky and her Hollywood dilemmas.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Circle of Peace
Sophia Kouidou-Giles
She Writes Press
9781647428488, $17.95

In Circle of Peace: A Greek Tale of Perse's Great Hall, Queen Perse, the mother of Circe and wife of the sun-god Helios, returns to the palace with a demand that her husband build her a hall fitting to assemble goddesses. You would think that having a palace with a thousand rooms would already fit that bill, but Perse's ambition and energy has no limits.

From the start, her relationship with Helios is depicted as one of distance: "Here, massage my back and neck," Perse ordered her maid. "It's not like my husband to spoil anyone but himself. He asked me to come back. I just happen to be the one he favors today. Do you know what he wants from me?"

She arrives with a peacemaking gift meant as a gesture of apology for the past. The baggage she brings along, however, ushers in new turbulence as events introduce unprecedented grief and change into her life, transforming her from a selfish and forceful leader to a woman far more interested in peace than war.

Novelist Sophia Kouidou-Giles does an outstanding job of capturing the nuances of legend and entwining them with the emotional realities of a couple and country under siege. Her depiction of ancient times brings the atmosphere, approaches, and intentions to life as each character discovers potential for approaching the world in a vastly revised manner. But Kouidou-Giles stays the course in making sure the root motivations and psyches of her characters remain in sync with their social, political, and psychological transformations.

Her astute reflections on the attitudes and points of view of legendary gods offer much food for thought and book club discussions: "Perse smiled a bitter smile. 'I am glad to see you are finally angry, sister. I think of your son's loss and then of Icarus's death, and 'golden ichor' boils in my veins. Immortals have no compassion for humans, using them like harriers to the winds. I think of Troy, a proud city now destroyed. One day it is Zeus's whims and on another day it is King Minos's possessiveness that destroys.'"

The richness of these interpersonal reactions and the events that rock each character's ideal of life and the future provides a wealth of points where readers may wish to stop and adjust their own classical training in mythology and their knowledge of the politics and motivations of people in the distant past who form the stuff of Greek legends.

Circle of Peace is very highly recommended reading for readers who enjoy twists on traditional stories of the Greek gods, as well as those who enjoy a blend of fast-paced action, transformative events, and insights into the psyches of characters forced to confront the underlying influences of the world they have built and reside in.

Libraries will want to place Circle of Peace in any collection where retakes of Greek times are of interest, and will want to recommend it to reading groups interested in fiction that sizzles with action, insight, and a reimagined mythology worthy of discussion and debate.

C.T. Fitzgerald
Independently Published
9798874138172, $11.99 Paperback

"Altered" by C. T. Fitzgerald features sci-fi short stories that center on new possibilities and consequences for humanity's decisions on technology and the quality of life. It creates disparate and inviting stories that should give rise to debates in book club and discussion groups about the values and directions humanity is on the cusp of choosing, that could irrevocably affect how freedom and the future plays out.

Take the opening story, 'Inevitable Antiphony', for example. Here, an unusual dialogue between human and robot, presented in a unique two-column format, surveys the boundaries of artificial and biological life, considering the moral and ethical choices in life, death, and what lies in-between. The dialogue is structured to slow the mind's tendency to read too quickly, injecting pauses that, though they may seem artificial at first, result in emphasis and enlightenment that is usually harder to achieve in the standard paragraph form. From the moral concerns of human-generated creation processes to the types of transformation that will be produced by AI, the conversation takes on deeper undertones of reflection that will delight by its form as well as its content.

In contrast is 'Made to Order', in which a futuristic result of genetic engineering leads to some extraordinary and frightening traits. These prompt the narrator to admit that his more-than-human semblance actually represents a being incapable of exhibiting or feeling the emotions that make for a human being. What, exactly, is this new creation? By his own admittance, the narrator has no feelings about his life, purpose, or those who are deciding his future: " this point in my life, I had no idea about what I wanted to do, and to make things worse, there was nothing that motivated me, no emotion, no great need or fear, no drive to pursue anything specific. I was, quite literally, a blank slate that someone had to fill in, and that someone would never be me. No problem." Deemed a legal and social nightmare, can one who is 'barely human' be tailored, altered, or trained to re-integrate into society without dire consequences?

C.T. Fitzgerald raises tough moral and ethical questions in each of these cases of altered states -- questions that will especially intrigue and delight book club participants as well as philosophy groups considering what makes us human. "Altered" is thus highly recommended reading not just for its entertainment value, but for its series of examinations that, libraries will find, lend perfectly to broad recommendation to patrons interested in the intersection of sci-fi, technology, philosophy, and the future of human affairs.

LOY and Beyond
Todd David Gross
Sunlit Lane Productions
9781737942627, $17.99

"LOY and Beyond" continues the series with a post-apocalyptic story of different forms of survival (first introduced in "LOY: In the Forests of the Mind"). Prior fans will discover the ongoing survival challenge continues between a shamanistic culture and a society bent on returning industrial activity to the world, despite its having been nearly destroyed by such ventures.

This time will be different. Is it a form of insanity to repeat the same mistakes in hopes of a different outcome? Maybe it is. "It was a new day, a new dawn, a new dream now set into motion..." Really? In some ways, the patterns are different. New opportunities evolve. In other ways, the potential for stepping into old habits poses dangerous possibilities. "Truth propels. It is formless. It exists between one movement and the next."

As this sequel unfolds, readers who enjoyed the first narrative introducing the vying forces that attempt survival by employing very different ideologies will find that Gremer, Reena, and others embark on journeys of new discoveries. These, in turn, demand from them different responses and perceptions of their place in the world.

As success in influencing those with different thoughts becomes the very mechanism of their undoing, Todd David Gross crafts a story that continues to expand the conflicts of a world that moves steadily away from the LongPast while confronting its legacies. Gross is particularly adept at contrasting these evolving and opposing viewpoints in a manner that does not embrace black-or-white thinking. He considers the gray areas in right and wrong, world-building and domination efforts, and the contrasting ideologies which drive the characters to consider their individual impacts and choices in remaking the world.

The result is a dystopian epic fantasy that will interest libraries building strong collections of works that prove worthy of book club discussion and higher-level thinking about choice, consequences, and long-ranging results of shifting roles: "My role will soon end," Donan continued. "I will be remembered for what we once were. But you will be looked to for what we can become. It is you they will seek out in the coming times."

The Poetry Shelf

White Noir
Robert Fleming
Old Scratch Press
9781957224183, $8.99, Paperback

The first thing to realize upon choosing White Noir is that Robert Fleming is not just another poet. He's a word artist who wields his emotional forays like a sword, cutting to the bone with a rich, powerful, challenging style that transforms the usual poetic approach free verse. This marries black and white images and world-changing structures of observation in an entirely new manner.

Newer generations attracted to succinct, powerful impressions will discover this union to be especially attractive, as in the portrait of Dorothy (of The Wizard of Oz), who assumes a decidedly un-Oz-like position accompanied by the one-liner "the wizard gave them a country." It doesn't take a genius to absorb the messages in these works, but it does require a flexibility of approach to poetic style and form, and the acceptance of reinforcing imagery that both clarifies and transforms the written word's meaning and impact.

Readers who sojourn through White Noir's milieu will discover elements of surrealism, existential thinking, ironic juxtapositions of subject and emotion, and odd, original pairings of subject and intention.

One example is a piece framed by a bowler hat in which Abbott and Costello confront Frankenstein ("Costello's Frankenstein's baby daddy"), the Mummy, the WhereWolf (spelling intentional) in Costello, and more. Contemporary often clashes with traditional in unusual ways in these works; all of which require a thinking mind not laden with the expectations of tradition... even a free verse tradition, which pales under the onslaught of the words and imagery featured here.

Some (usually those already steeped in predictable poetic routes and choices) may dislike Fleming's approach. His style isn't for everyone. That said, those passing on it are missing out; because the tempo, emotional connections, rich and unexpected overlays of subject, and excitingly thought-provoking approaches to poetry deserve wider appreciation than the typical contemporary poetic presentation.

Libraries interested in contemporary literature, especially those looking for creative and powerful experimental poetry, will welcome White Noir's strange and alluring creations, which follow no rule, break many, and emerge like a butterfly from the chrysalis of staid poetic form and reader expectations.

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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