fiction

Review of ‘Secrets of the Asylum’

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After the disappearance of her two-year-old son, Elizabeth is committed by her husband to an asylum. Fifteen years later, her daughter, Meg, returns to Traverse City, MI from Chicago, after a breakup with her fiancé, hoping to discover if her mother is really insane, and what happened to her brother. She finds an unlikely ally, Abby, a Chippewa spirit woman, and begins a journey that will change her life, and the lives of those around her, forever.

Secrets of the Asylum by Linda Hughes is a slow-paced, but chilling, tale of life in the age of the Flapper. Like the peeling of an onion, it lays bare family secrets and lies in the context of an era when women had no identity separate from their husbands or fathers, and when the line between sanity and insanity was exceptionally thin, and social mores were in transition.

This book reads like a cross between a generational saga and a finely tuned mystery, as Meg slowly discovers family secrets that have been kept hidden far too long. The author does an amazing job of providing just enough information to cause a reader to begin to see the truth behind the murky veil that circumstances have thrown up, and will be shocked at the denouement.

A disturbing, but entertaining and enlightening, read. I received a free copy of this book.

I give this book four stars.

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Review of ‘The Edge of Revolt’

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King David is getting old, and must face the inevitability of his demise. His eldest son Amnon is next in line to the throne, but when he rapes his half-sister, Tamar, David, though shocked, remains silent. Then, Tamar’s brother, Absalom, lures Amnon to his death. David still remains silent, even though these events have rocked the kingdom. When Absalom moves to oust him from the throne, David is forced to flee, setting in motion a chain of events that will rock Israel to its roots.

The Edge of Revolt by Uvi Poznansky is the third book in the series about David, slayer of Goliath and king of the Israelites. In David’s own words, the story of palace intrigue and family betrayal is chillingly told. This one stands on its own.

I give it five stars.

Review of ‘A Dog’s View of Love, Life and Death’

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A Dog’s View of Love, Life and Death by J.R. Archer is a multi-layered book. On the surface, it’s a collection of stories of man’s best friends and how we relate to our canine companions. Below the surface, though, is a complex dissection of the roles that animals play in our lives and us in theirs, coupled with philosophical and ethical questions that readers must answer for themselves. There is a premise in the book that animals communicate telepathically, not only with each other, but with humans, who might or might not realize it. The author provides the ‘voices’ of the animals in a way that makes sense, and the way they communicate ranges from the seemingly basic and instinctive, to intellectually evolved. These are animals that are at once in our service, but also portrayed as more advanced, and more at peace. The themes in this book are heavy, and the reader should expect to run the full gamut of emotions. Evoking the deepest of existential quandaries through the eyes of our four-legged friends, J.R. Archer has crafted a tale that will be easily relatable while making you ask the tough questions.

The book is well-written and well-edited, and the characters are well-drawn. The humans in the book are at varying stages in their lives, and each is facing a conflict of personal struggle of some kind. The role that dogs play in their lives is different for each, but the dogs often take on the position of empathetic but removed observer, asking spiritual questions and pontificating on the motivations and fears of their ‘masters.’ I put ‘masters’ in quotes because, as previously mentioned, this book will make you ask who the truly evolved life form is. The setting compliments the chaotic nature of the humans’ world, and Archer paints a New York City that is bustling and unforgiving. The stories move along at a quick pace, and it was easy to get through several in a sitting. While the subject matter is tough, the book itself is digestible. This is a book that will grab your attention, but refuses to hold your hand. While each character’s story arc ends in a satisfying conclusion, readers will find that many of the queries raised in the book will have to be answered by the readers themselves. While this is a book that will appeal most to animal lovers, there is something here for everyone. This is easily a five-star read.

I received a free copy of this book.

Review of ‘The Bucket List’

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Leah Clarke thought she had her life finally in order. Then, a new neighbor moves into the house next door, and it turns out to be her old childhood friend, Damon Holling, who she hasn’t seen for five years. When she learns that he’s terminally ill, with just a year left to live, the two of them set out to complete a bucket list of all the things they’ve ever wanted to do. In their pursuit, Leah discovers that their friendship is much more than she’d ever realized, and learns some valuable things about herself in the process.

The Bucket List by Emily Ruben is sort of chick-lit, but with a difference. Instead of a light, frothy story of young love, it’s a story about discovery and coping with loss. The author takes the reader inside the minds of the characters, making you cheer for Damon’s recovery—despite the fact that it’s made clear that it won’t happen—and sad when the inevitable happens. At the same time, it leaves you with a feeling of hope as Leah learns to love herself in the process of falling in love with Damon.

A sad subject written about in hopeful, though very direct and hard-hitting terms, this story will stick in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.

I received an advance review copy of this book.

I give it four stars.

Review of ‘The Last Bastion of Civilization: Japan 2041’

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The Last Bastion of Civilization: Japan 2041 by Andrew Blencowe is not non-fiction, but it takes facts and events from history, and weaves them into a fictional narrative that might best be described as ‘fictional journalism.’

In this series of fictional essays, Blencowe takes on many modern-day assumptions about politics and society, as he traces the rise of Japan to the status of the world’s sole super power by 2041. Well-written, it will disturb many, but not, I think, for the right reasons. The debunking of much of much of accepted political wisdom hits the mark, but the views expressed regarding people and cultures of color are disturbing because they follow the thinking of many who see the world divided between superior and inferior races. One can’t be sure that this expresses the author’s views, or if this thinking is attributed to the characters writing the essays, but it is no less disturbing for that.

Despite being unsettled by the tenor of the book, I found it interesting reading. Contained in the ethnocentric diatribes are a few nuggets of wisdom. If you have an open mind, and are able to read past some of the racist assumptions, you just might enjoy this book.
I also found it intriguing that the only two nations that good consistently good marks in the book are Japan and Germany. While Japan comes out on top of the hierarchy, the Germans are not far behind, and are held out as the only two nations that read the tea leaves correctly as the 21st century matures.

I give the author high marks for his use of prose, but have to subtract a few for the obvious biases contained in the book. My net rating is three and a half stars.

 

Review of ‘Stormer’s Pass’

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Max Stormer is a top athlete in the small town of Pinecrest, but he’s also a free spirit who doesn’t take too well to regimentation. Aidos is also a free spirit, but she’s not yet been really exposed to the real world, living as she does in a cabin in the woods with her reclusive father. She is, however, wiser of the world than many who live in the city. He soon introduces her to other youth in the area, who are as taken by her guileless wisdom as he is.
Max and Aidos’s paths cross when he catches her ‘observing’ him and his friend, and he’s instantly drawn to her. When powerful economic forces are on a course to destroy the pristine wilderness that Aidos calls home, the youth of the area come together and reject the hypocrisy and greed of their parents.
Stormer’s Pass by Benjamin Laskin, though it has young people as the main characters, is not a typical YA book. And, even though, it shows young people on the road to maturity, it’s also not a coming-of-age novel. What it is, though, is a competently-crafted story that shows the power of change, trust, and faith—primarily the faith one has in one’s self.

A bit choppy in places, but overall, a well-written story. I give it three and a half stars.

Review of ‘The Garment Maker’s Daughter’

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Lena Rothman arrived in New York, an immigrant who wanted to live the American dream. After getting a job in a shirtwaist factory, she makes friends, but her world is torn apart when she falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, Jake, and is pursued by an ambitions night school student trying to overcome his turbulent past, Daniel. When she becomes pregnant by Jake, after a fire in the factory, leaving both her and Jake thinking her friend has died—only to find out later that she survived, but is crippled for life, Lena leaves New York, and hopefully her past, behind.

The Garment Maker’s Daughter by Hillary Adrienne Stern is a multi-generational saga that follows a Jewish-immigrant family through the middle of the twentieth century. Through the eyes and lives of the characters, it dissects immigrant dreams and sweatshop realities, corporate greed and women’s rights, and most of all, shows how determined people survived some of the most turbulent times in American history.

At times disturbing, this is on balance a heartwarming story that reaffirms the strength and resilience that enables people to survive, and even thrive, despite the obstacles that life throws in their way.

It’s fiction, but it has more than a grain of truth.

I give it four stars.

Review of ‘A Peek at Bathsheba’

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A Peek at Bathsheba by Uvi Poznansky is the second book in the David’s Chronicles series. In this volume, David is besotted by Bathsheba, the wife of one of his faithful soldiers, Uriah. Consumed by his lust, he gets her pregnant, and in order to cover up the scandal, sends Uriah to his death.

Told in ‘his own words,’ this story explores David’s torment over his transgression and his desire for redemption. What he lacks, however, is the will to do what’s necessary to redeem himself. The author uses modern language, but the atmosphere of the place and time comes through clearly.

An interesting alternate history of one of the Bible’s most famous figures.

I give it five stars.

Review of ‘Roam’

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A date gone wrong on her 21st birthday, Sarah Cate finds herself stranded on a lonely highway after a confrontation with her manipulative, abusive boyfriend. She’s given a ride by Kevin, a high school student who wants to be a writer, and who has vowed to do at least one good deed a day. After a confrontation with her mother, who is also locked into an abusive relationship, she turns again to Kevin for help in getting to the home of her old friend, Scotty, a man haunted by his own devils.

Roam by Erik Therme is a haunting tale about dysfunctional or barely functional people dealing with demons, real and imagined, and a chance meeting that has deadly consequences. It moves slowly and inexorably toward confrontation and discovery with dips into the psyches of people struggling to survive in a world they don’t understand.

The ending will stay in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.

I received a free copy of this book, which is a solid five-star work.

Review of ‘Don’t Mess with Mrs. Sedgewick’

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Roberta Sedgewick is a widow, living with her late husband’s dog in a house that rattles. She decides that she and her three best friends and golfing buddies, also widows, should sell their houses and buy adjoining condos. Then, she talks them all into hiring the same maid—who turns around and blackmails them for their past crimes. In some cases, these crimes aren’t minor. One of them could go to jail. When criminals from the past start showing up, and their real estate agent turns up dead, the heat is on. But, widows they might be, they are not helpless. Roberta still has her husband’s gun collection, and some of her friends are willing to consider using them.

Don’t Mess with Mrs. Sedgewick by Marie F. Martin is a humorous, while at the same time a bit scary, mystery with four septuagenarian characters who you can’t help but love. An entertaining read, totally worth the effort.

It made me laugh. I give it four stars.

Review of ‘Dion: A Tale of the Highway’

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After a really weird dream, a man wakes up naked on a road in the middle of nowhere. There’s a car there with a note; drive straight along the road until the end, and then drive some more. Failure to do so will have harsh consequences.  He begins to drive, and when he makes an unscheduled stop, he learns that the consequences are indeed harsh.

Dion doesn’t know if he’s crazy or just having a crazy hallucination, and as he meets people along the way, things just get stranger.

Dion: A Tale of the Highway by Jonathan Maas is, well, I guess you have to call it experimental fiction. It’s a journey into the human mind, exploring the borders between good and evil, and between heaven and hell. It’s hard to follow in places, moves quite fast in others, and the author keeps you guessing until near the end when he finally identifies Dion—trust me, if you’re not paying real close attention, you’ll be surprised.

It’s an interesting read, but not a book you should expect to just zip through. I give it three and a half stars.

Review of ‘Dex’

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Dec is a young chef with a problem. His arch rival is trying to take his grandmother’s restaurant. With the help of his sister and friends he must pull out all the stops to thwart him. Dec by Shari Lynn Fishbach is a rollicking read that will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It might seem incredible, but nowadays, anything’s possible. I received a free copy of this book.

I give it four stars.

Review of ‘Excalibur Rising: Book One’

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At one time, Marcus Ryan was a rising star, the host of his own treasure exploration show. Now, though, in his mid-forties, his show has been cancelled, he’s lost his family, and is reduced to being the curator for rare relics for a Vegas Mafioso. When an old friend arrives at his hotel with an improbable tale of the fabled King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, and is later poisoned in front of Marcus, his boss makes him an offer he can’t refuse—find that sword. They rush off to Florida to consult with Violet Chambray, a con woman who just happens to have the ‘gift’ of being able to find things.

Pushed into an unwilling alliance, Marcus and Violet go off to England, where in the mist-shrouded moors, they uncover a secret that can change their lives forever; provided they can survive the encounter.

Excalibur Rising: Book One by Eileen Enwright Hodgetts is an amusing mix of Medieval history, paranormal, humor, and violence, in a story that spans centuries and across dimensions, adding a new twist to the mythical tales of Camelot and the Round Table. The author pulls you into the story and holds you fast as she takes you on a whirlwind ride through fantastic settings and improbable events. I can only describe this book as ‘not-put-downable.’

I received a free copy. A nice rainy-day read. I give this book four stars.

Review of ‘Bittersweet Memories’

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When Anne Barnes’ childhood friend, Martha, dies, and shortly afterwards, she learns that her estranged younger brother, Ned, has also died, she’s plagued by family memories; in particular, a family tragedy involving Ned that caused rifts in the family that after 50 years still haven’t healed. As a bequest, Ned has left her his last invention, a Memory Enhancer (ME); a machine that enables the user to plug into past events and remember them in vivid, accurate detail. He’s leaving it to her to decide what to do with it.

As Anne uses the ME to relive moments from her past, she discovers just how unreliable unaided memory can be, and how events from the past, remembered differently by the participants, can have long-lasting impacts on human relationships.

Bittersweet Memories by Lynn Osterkamp is a compelling novel of human relationships and memory that once you start reading you’ll be unable to put down. As Anne struggles with her decision, contending with her own demons, she’s besieged by her family, and by others who, having learned about the ME, want it for their own purposes. The author has created unforgettable characters, and a story that will catch your attention and hold it like a vice. While the ME is a fictional device, the idea that assistance in resolving memory conflicts is a mixed blessing is imminently credible.

This is a solid five-star read!

Review of ‘In the Days: A Tale of the Forgotten Continent’

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At one time, the Kingdom of Atlantis, under the rule of Empress Tatho the Immortal, was the most powerful on earth. While the kingdom was occasionally threatened by the Mexicas and other barbarian tribes on its borders, in general, peace prevailed. But, there was a rot at the core of this peaceful appearance, with plotting and intrigue, and moral decay threatening the stability of Tatho’s realm. One man, Deucalion, the Chancellor and confidante of the empress, is given an opportunity to see the future—a future that will see the utter destruction of Atlantis if its people do not mend their ways. As the one chosen to deliver such a message, Deucalion becomes a target of those who would conspire to usurp the throne.

In The Days: a tale of the Forgotten Continent by Andy Peloquin is a finely woven sci-fi/fantasy that offers the reader an alternative version of what happened to the fable continent of Atlantis. Characters are believable, and invested in their quests, making it easy for readers to empathize with them; the world is believably constructed; and magical and scientific elements so well integrated into the narrative, the tale becomes . . . believable.

Peloquin shows great promise, and is an author to keep an eye on.

I received a free copy of this book.

I give it four stars.

Review of ‘Then She Was Born’

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In a little Tanzanian village a child is born, but her parents’ joy quickly turns to horror when they see that she’s different in a way that brings bad luck to the entire village, for she’s an albino. In many African cultures, albinos are objects of scorn and hatred, neither human nor animal. The father rejects her, refusing even to give her a name, and the villagers want her taken to the forest and left to die. But, her grandmother, remembering her own terrible experience when she gave birth to an albino child that was left to die, begs to be allowed to take the child and raise it.

Through a rare stroke of luck, the grandmother, Nkamba, convinces the village chief and the shaman and is allowed to take the child, which she names Adimu. Adimu grows up suffering the scorn of the village until she meets Charles and Sarah Fielding, a wealthy white couple who own a mine near the village. A bond develops between them, but Charles, a man consumed by the desire for wealth, suffers financial loss and falls sway to the village shaman, who covets power, leading him to make a decision that imperils Adimu’s life, his relationship with his wife, and his sanity.

Then She Was Born by Cristiano Gentili is a profound, thought-provoking novel that highlights the plight of albinos in Africa through the life of one such individual. The characters are brought to life on the pages, as is the physical and cultural environment and its impact on the people inhabiting it. The author could have preached about the terrible treatment inflicted upon albinos, but instead does a masterful job of ‘showing’ the reader through Adimu’s encounters with other villagers, with the gangs who hunt albinos for their supposed magical powers, and the relationships between black and white Africans, people who are united by a common culture while at the same time divided by race and class. Character motivations are also shown by their reactions to events; for instance, the shaman’s obsession with power as he puts his traditional beliefs up against the lure of Christianity, brought to Africa by the white missionaries, but carried on by local converts. At the same time, the way locals carry two belief systems and reconcile them in their daily lives, and the conflicts this causes, is highlighted. Throughout the book, the strength of the human spirit, and its ability to redeem is abundantly apparent.

The cover, a simple graphic showing hands of different colors clasped, highlights both the conflict and cooperation that exists in the story.

Without preaching, the author highlights the plight of Africa’s albinos more effectively than all the UN pamphlets or political speeches.

Another great strength of this book is that, though it was written originally in Italian, the English translation is so smooth, it’s not at all apparent that this is a translation.

Most westerners are unaware of the problems faced by albinos in traditional African societies, but after reading this book, can not only become aware, but might just be called to action to help do something about it.

I give this book five stars for theme and execution. A compelling read that you should not miss.

Review of ‘The Order of St. Michael’

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Bud Hutchins, an eccentric genius, has invented a machine that allows people to teleport. Now, someone has stolen it, and the key to its recovery is the grisly murder of a monk who belonged to an order formed to keep evil spirits at bay.

In J. B. Michaels’, The Order of St. Michael, Hutchins travels Salem’s forests to Louisiana’s bayous to the Welsh countryside, fighting witches, zombies, and monsters along the way, in his quest to retrieve his machine before it’s used to create total chaos.

An entertaining supernatural mystery, and though the prose is a bit choppy and monotonous in places, was an enjoyable read.

I give it three and a half stars.

Review of ‘One Plus One’

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The battle between the forces of light and dark continues. For Kyle Fasano, a millionth, and Napoleon Vila, a police detective who voluntarily went to hell in an effort to save Fasano, it’s a time for making the choice between love and heaven—the choice that each makes will surprise you. While these two men struggle through hell with the Gray Man, Vila’s partner, Detective Evan Parker, must fight against the forces of evil who have come through the thin veil that separates this world from the next; a struggle that is complicated by the fact that he’s one of a few mortals aware of the opening rift.

One Plus One by Tony Faggioli is the concluding book in a fascinating trilogy that explores the meaning of theology, belief, and love. A chilling read that will make you question the premise of unquestioning faith like no other.

I received a free copy of this book.

Four stars.

Review of ‘Nobel Peace Prize’

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A completely undistinguished employee of a green startup company, William Wright gets a call informing him that he has been selected to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He thinks that this is a prank set up by his friend, and that it will not change his life, but what follows is a complicated journey through the past, with commentary on politics, capitalism, music, and a host of other things, with Wright and his family central to each tale.

Nobel Peace Prize by D. Otter is a piece of experimental fiction that explores life, politics, and just about everything else one can imagine.

If you like fiction that challenges your thinking, you just might like this book. I had some problems with the e-book version due to spacing issues and confusion in dialogue, with more than one character speaking in the same paragraph. The author has a handy way with words, and this is adequate experimental fiction, if a bit unfocused. With some editing attention to the e-book version, which is what most readers will probably choose nowadays, it would be four stars. I, though, can only give it three.

Review of ‘Unexpected Rewards’

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Olivia Davenport wants nothing more than to continue her training as a knight. So enamored is she of her martial pursuits, she even disguised herself as a boy to join in a campaign against the king’s enemies, during which time she distinguished herself in battle, and added a new love—she and Prince Liam fell for each other. Her reward, though, was unexpected, and unwelcome; the king has assigned her to be a lady in waiting for the queen. Doubtful that she’ll be able to comport herself properly in the protocol regime of the palace, Olivia nonetheless endeavors to fit in. But, intrigue awaits her. When Niobe, the king’s seer, predicts that an attempt will be made on his life when spring comes, Olivia finds herself deep into a deadly conspiracy.

Unexpected Rewards by Jane McGarry is a fast-paced read as the author takes us on a perilous journey into palace intrigue, both deadly and petty. Olivia is a strong female character who refuses to compromise her principles for the pampered life of a princess. An interesting story, but for the switching between past and present tense in the early chapters, which is a bit jarring and disruptive. The supporting characters, heroes as well as villains, are interesting and well-developed.

This author shows promise. I give this second book in the series three and a half stars.