Return to home
page Book Reviews, Book Lover Resources, Advice for Writers and Publishers
Home / California Bookwatch

California Bookwatch

Volume 16, Number 12 December 2021 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Christmas Shelf General Fiction Shelf
General Fiction Shelf Historical Fiction Shelf Literary Fiction Shelf
Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf Biography Shelf
International Studies Shelf Theatre/Cinema Shelf Criminology Shelf

Reviewer's Choice

A Gathering of Broken Mirrors
Anthony E. Shaw
Atmosphere Press
9781639880560, $17.99 Paper, $7.99 Kindle

Like many a Holocaust survivor's story, A Gathering of Broken Mirrors: Memories of New York Survivors should be featured in any definitive collection about New York City's places, peoples, and times. Their stories capture the city's atmosphere through various types of survivor memories, gathered here lest their immediacy and eyewitness perspectives be forgotten or diminished by third-party studies as time goes by. The first thing to note about this collection is that it moves back and forth in time, capturing different nuances of New York City lives.

Anthony E. Shaw focuses on the process of daily survival. Each profile selects a different individual whose unique place in time in that city reflects a different milieu and survival tactic. Think "survivor" and "New York City" and the specter of 9/11 automatically comes to mind; but as Shaw demonstrates, the resilience and determination of New Yorkers extends far before and after this event, and is reflected in these stories. Their diversity is notable. "On the Mountaintop," for example, is set in 1999 New York's Manhattan financial district and reflects on a femme fatale, love and loss, and processes of self-destructive behavior patterns. In contrast, "Civic Duties," set in Brooklyn Heights in 1977, considers a union job, the Italian restaurant business, ethnic pride ("There are Italians like this. Their heritage is such a thing of beauty that they've traced the roots of family names and can tell you within a town or two where your family is from. That's Italian pride."), and political involvements.

Shaw adopts no singular perspective or approach in compiling this collection. Its purpose is to gather atmospheric vignettes that center on individual experiences, yet reflect the City's diversity and scope over the decades. Any collection interested in New York culture and experience must include A Gathering of Broken Mirrors, while individuals seeking a personal set of life-changing encounters that resonate beyond a singular memoir alone will find it compelling, thought-provoking reading. Together, these 24 stories are portraits not just of individual courage and conviction, but represent the heartbeat that is New York City.

The Christmas Shelf

Sleigh Bells on Bread Loaf Mountain
Lindy Miller
9781645480785, $14.95 Paper/$4.99 ebook

In Sleigh Bells on Bread Loaf Mountain, New York fashion editor Roxanne Hudson finds herself more involved with family obligations than she would like when she reluctantly returns home to celebrate the holidays with her family at their Vermont cabin. A blizzard redirects her attention and life when she is rescued by a park ranger, Mark, who represents a contrary picture of everything staid and set about her life's trajectory. Roxanne has just ended her on-again, off-again relationship with model boyfriend Hunter currently away at an overseas photoshoot. She has a high-powered career and goals that place her in New York on the path to success. The last thing she expected (or needed) was a romantic obstacle and interlude. Perhaps predictably, both occur during the holiday season in a Hallmark-style story of the unexpected. Less predictable is Roxanne's unexpected connections with her grandmother, who provides her with an alternate vision of what could prove to be a life-changing series of events.

Lindy Miller does an excellent job of providing a cozy, warm holiday romance that follows a sea change in attitude and perspective. It moves from past to present and then future expectations while drawing readers through Roxanne's changing world and its contrasts. As Roxanne becomes a better version of herself through revised experiences and perceptions, a reader follow her through the influences and encounters that lead to new revelations about her set course in life. Hers is no simple journey. Her reaction to some of these changes is to draw back and feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. Lindy Miller's close attention to following these emotional transformations and their wellsprings provides a realistic, understandable story that draws readers with unexpected twists and unanticipated connections. The result is a delightful holiday read highly recommended for romance readers seeking a blend of life-changing encounters and love to be found only when personal values change.

The Truth About Elves
Ekta Garg
Atmosphere Press
9780996443227, $13.95 paper, $7.99 ebook

His regular gig is working a bar in Las Vegas on the Strip; a job at which Curtis shines. His secret job is something far different. The Truth About Elves explores what Curtis chooses to do with his time three months of every year after an event ten years ago changed everything. It also depicts what happens when Curtis is called upon to repay an extraordinary favor with an astonishing effort that shakes his comfort zone. Curtis isn't the only one who leads a double life. "When she wasn't working her Quarter Force shifts for Mr. C., Prerna lived in Florida. Reading the Orlando papers always made her feel closer to home when she had to come to the Circle for her three months here."

Ekta Garg excels at capturing nuances of the Christmas holiday season, from the all-popular hot chocolate that permeates the North Pole world to Curtis's challenge in navigating a temporary job that doesn't include alcohol, but does feature teen angst. His special assignment takes him into a world of hope and discovery as Curtis moves towards a surprising revelation about events at the Arctic Circle and comes to realize broader truths about his place in the world, his fears, and the holiday spirit. Not only Curtis, but Prerna and Mr. C come to life: "He couldn't remember the number of times his elves had expressed wonderment about how he knew something would happen. These young whipper-snappers didn't realize he'd been around for a long time. Times changed - fashions changed, he noted wryly, as he glanced down at his jeans - but people didn't. And the longer he lived, the more life experience he had to help them." But, how can a holiday helper in Mr. C.'s world make a difference if he's afraid to perform the one function that makes Christmas possible?

Arriving just in time to assuage the pain of another Covid year in 2021, The Truth About Elves offers a romp through goodwill, new possibilities, and transformations that represent a touch of fantasy and a heavy hand of psychological inspection. Its story of hope and revelation is the perfect seasonal literary hot chocolate for readers seeking a holiday story with a difference. The Truth About Elves should be in any collection seeking to represent a piece of the Christmas spirit.

The General Fiction Shelf

Crosshairs of the Devil
Yancey Williams
9780986031656, $10.00 Paper/$7.00 Kindle

In his heyday, author Eddie Jablonski was a noted crime fiction writer; but in Crosshairs of the Devil, he is now an old man regulated (against his will) to the inaptly-named Garden of Eden retirement community by a daughter who cares only for his money. Unshaken from his mission to write, Eddie continues to capture his world, including its ironies. Yancey Williams presents these with a wry sense of humor from the start: "Location: Room 315. The Garden of Eden, Retirement Village & Nursing Facility. Senior Living and Memory Care at its Finest. Edek Jablonski, or Eddie, the resident, sits comfortably with Jenkins, his attendant-orderly. Jenkins has been Employee of the Month four straight months in a row. Jenkins doesn't play favorites ... against company policy. But Eddie is his favorite." One would think that the end of the line at a retirement home would stymie all creative forces, much less the efforts of a murder mystery writer. Think again. The elements of intrigue can be present everywhere, and as Eddie captures his milieu and pursues his craft, he comes to involve the real world in mobsters, crime, and his own dabbles in the past. What is truth and what is fiction in his life is left for the reader to discern as Eddie embarks on a flamboyant romp through the underworld and reality, bringing readers into a milieu where reality and fiction blurs.

As Eddie goes on the lam and encounters some ghosts from the past and threats in the present, mystery and missions move him right along. These take his readers on a vivid journey through mobsters and crime relationships powered by meetings of unusual minds, possible romance, and the unlikely adventures of an old man who is determined not to be forgotten. Readers will appreciate the way Yancey Williams involves his character Eddie in a myriad of challenges, both from within himself and in the crime world, as well as the aging process. This multifaceted story is not quite crime fiction, but more than the usual novel about an aging man. Crosshairs of the Devil will delight readers who like memorable personalities who simply refuse to quietly die.

Rebecca Chianese
Mt. Nittany Press
c/o Eifrig Publishing
9781632332776, $16.99 Paperback, $29.99 Hardcover, $7.99 ebook

Imagine a happy, healthy child who quite suddenly becomes shy and reclusive. Her best friend is somehow involved. And her mother is totally puzzled, at first, finding no reason for her daughter's sudden change or the distressing new cutting habit she's adopted. What's a concerned mother to do? Investigate, of course. And what she finds is eye-opening.

Hannah's mother Alicia Calding has spent her life making sure her daughter's world is dream-like perfection, from the beautiful bedroom Hannah inhabits to creating perfect meals for her family. She's involved in other things, too, like her book club, so her family focus isn't singular and she feels she's being realistic in her ambitions and focus: "This, she knew, was her best character attribute; the genuine desire to make others comfortable and happy. Alecia, however, possessed enough self-awareness to understand the pitfalls - the terror - of coming up short."

When Alicia discovers that she has failed her daughter in an epic and frightening way, she hatches a scheme of redemption that involves not only her family, but an innocent spectator who also suffers from a dangerous discovery. Unspoken is a riveting, emotionally astute, unsettling story of abuse's ripple effect on family and community. It delves not just into secrets, but how they are perpetuated and their widespread impact. It also probes damaged mother/daughter relationships, ideals reconsidered and found lacking, and two families who find that tragedy entwines them in unexpected ways, eventually involving the entire community in a conundrum fostered by a single man's choices. Rebecca Chianese does an outstanding job of contrasting the rationales of two different mothers and their daughters. She does cursorily explain the male's perceptions, but the main focus is on the women of the community and their involvements with one another.

The contrast between two mothers who hold very similar values and their different methods of tackling their daughters' challenges is nicely outlined, as are each mother's desire to recover from trauma, themselves, albeit in different ways: "She wanted, more than anything, a couple of hours to be alone in her house, away from other people and the burden of fixing them. A trait she knew, people desired from her and despised her for." Unspoken crafts a drama that builds, then evolves. It begins with the issue of self-injury and its rationale and moves into unexpected circles of confrontation, redemption, and change. Unspoken is an outstanding story that lingers in the mind long after its reading, and is especially recommended for women's fiction readers and those who enjoy stories of contemporary mother/daughter relationships, community connections and struggles, and accounts of predators and their impact upon all.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

Under the Weeping Willows
Jenny Knipfer
Independently Published
9781733320283, $2.99 Kindle

Under the Weeping Willows is Book 2 of a Christian historical fiction series, and opens with a daughter's sorrowful reading of her mother's words in 1983. It then follows family lives changed by Alzheimer's, historical events, and new possibilities. In order to capture the full impact of these changed lives, Jenny Knipfer moves between Robin Holcomb's ongoing battles with trouble and mental illness in 1918 as she moves forward in her marriage and child-rearing, to adult daughter Enid Fenton's struggle to better understand her mother's past and its influence on all their lives. To call Knipfer's story historical fiction would be to assign it the impartial world of facts and a backdrop that, in truth, comes to life in a very personal manner in her story. Her characters tackle a difficult relationship made all the more challenging by the intersection of Alzheimer's and history. Driven by emotional interactions between all family members, the tale excels in capturing both daily challenges and the impact of a family secret in peril due to dementia's relentless progression.

The multi-generational encounters are especially well presented. It's rare to see a love story entwined with a story of change and loss that operates on so many different levels beyond affection alone. From religious inspection and the heartbreak of seeing a mother change so essentially to a daughter's revelations about her mother (thanks to a diary which reconnects them), Knipfer is astute at creating memorable moments of discovery that will resonate with a wide audience. An old willow tree gives forth its secrets as a daughter finds a way to include her infirm mother in the future one last time in a compelling story that proves hard to put down. Part of the charm of Knipfer's writings lie in their spiritual inspection as the evolution of relationships moves through health crises and the passage of time. Her first-person character's observations, emotions, and insights carry readers into this world, cementing these new discoveries with reflections on past and present. These are presented in an evocative manner that brings readers into the experience of grief and recovery alike.

More than a historical fiction piece, Knipfer provides a compelling family saga that moves from 1918 to 1988 choices and their contrasting impacts. Under the Weeping Willows creates a candid story of Wisconsin family legacies of depression, dementia, and the process of uncovering treasures and wealth against all odds.

Where Flowers Grow
Barbara Anne King
Cypress Point Press
9781733536974, $4.99 e-book; $16.99 print

Where Flowers Grow takes place in Watsonville, California. It weaves history with family experience in a story that compellingly opens with the aftermath of a whirlwind courtship in which Richard Bankston impulsively has married, and is awaiting the arrival of his new bride, Gina, in California. In 1953, such quick marriages were relatively rare. California residents and those familiar with the Bay Area, in particular, will be thrilled about the cultural contrasts between the sophisticated San Francisco and more rural Watsonville, many miles away. Barbara Anne King does a fine job of bringing both the times and regional differences to life, creating a backdrop for the history and drama which unfold to embrace and change Richard and everyone around him.

Of particular note are the cultural observations resulting from unexpected encounters between races that are still recovering from the aftermath of World War II. As this milieu forces Gina and Richard into new territory and unexpected developments in their marriage, readers receive a social and political whirlwind of change that reaches out to touch the couple's lives and separate them. As they are introduced to Japanese culture and the flower farm efforts that Sam Yamamoto's family has been involved in, as cultivators and owners of flowers in California for almost one hundred years, the lure and history of the region's flower production begin to grow on Richard. This farming history and the flower-growing effort receives excellent attention in a book that considers the impact of a new flower farm's efforts, which fits in well with Richard's growing bigger-picture dream of a project that all the boys can get behind. Many details about the flower-growing effort provide realistic insights into farming and social challenges alike as everyone struggles with social and environmental change.

King is also adept at injecting the headlines of the times to place these changes in historical perspective: "In early December, Federal Marshalls arrested Chavez and held him in the Salinas jail. To add to the drama, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, accompanied by Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson, stopped by the jailhouse to visit him, incurring attacks by an anti-union mob. By the end of the month, Chavez was released only to call for more strikes. In March, an agreement between the UFW and the Teamsters giving the UFW the right to organize farmworkers brought the strike to an end." The fact that readers needn't be familiar with California history or the evolving history of the times lends a special educational quality to Where Flowers Grow. It juxtaposes personal choice and consequence with broader political and social influences and concerns unique to the times and place.

The Cosmos flower referenced in book and title represents love, but it needs to be protected from the wind. As the characters adapt to this changing world, they nurture survival skills, love, and feelings that allow them to be more interactive with their environment and more in touch with their feelings and responsibilities. Where Flowers Grow is a powerful story that functions on many levels of historical, social, and psychological inspection. It's highly recommended for California and history readers alike - and for those interested in gardening history in general and flower farm evolution in particular.

The Literary Fiction Shelf

Before Our House Fell Into the Ocean
William J. Cook
Independently Published
9798461759896, $3.99 Kindle

Before Our House Fell Into the Ocean: Stories of Love and Death is a literary collection of short works that each center on a bizarre character's dilemma. It is highly recommended for literature readers seeking outside-the-box representations and scenarios. Take "Bad Seed," for example. Here, a depressed husband faces a fed-up wife who is tired of his attitude and ongoing regrets over "the biggest failure of his life," and who walks away from the seminary and the priesthood to become a psychotherapist and husband. What she doesn't know is that the demons of the past and the decision that causes him to hear voices and suffer are alive and well in the present. A visit to the source of this haunting reveals its roots. It also provides the narrator with a different choice. William J. Cook writes these descriptive lives with an attention to description and detail that draws readers into each life: "The dragon cannot be slain, only kept at bay. A deep weariness washes over my body and soul, like a receding tide sweeping debris from the beach."

Belief, vows, faith, and Church enter many of these works, which also offer astute psychological inspections from diverse perspectives. One example lies in "Coffee," in which a zombie longs not for flesh, but coffee made by the "sorceress of coffee" barista Suzie, who has a special gift. The sense of humor over Joey's dilemmas as a zombie comes to life: "Nobody wants to date a zombie. And nobody wants to stay married to one, either. Righteous types call us the New Lepers." The ironies of experiences which move into the territories of acquittal, social dilemma, and psychological transformation contribute to writings which are compellingly unique. Before Our House Fell Into the Ocean is a collection designed for the literary thinker. Its inspections and haunting stories of souls on fire in different ways will find a home in any literary collection, and in the hearts and minds of readers who enjoy twists of plot that leave them thinking.

Inside Out
Michael Tuberdyke
Five Senses Publishing
9780578985657, $10.00 print / $3.99 Kindle

The short stories of Inside Out are entered on the lives that unfold in a three-story apartment building on Exchange Street. Managed by middle-aged woman Marge, the apartments are inhabited by tenants young and old: "...simple people whom like the building itself reside on the edge of town with walls, which conceal them from the world outside." As Michael Tuberdyke moves these tales from apartment to apartment, lives unfold. In Apartment Two, Todd Brown listens to his radio after midnight, then arises. He's always wanted to be in show business. Now he listens to mood music from the past that brings this milieu to life; an observer rather than the participant he'd imagined himself to be. He'll do anything not to be alone in the darkness that has become his apartment world. Over in Apartment Three, Nick and Claire lead very different lives. Claire's last job consumed her, and she's beginning a new one in hopes that her life will change. Although connected in some ways, the couple is actually disconnected in fundamental manners of communication and expectation.

As Tuberdyke navigates readers through these very different apartment dwellers' lives, the juxtaposition of their hopes, dreams, memories, and worlds comes to life. Succinct language and description contribute to a literary collection that is quietly thought-provoking. It should be noted that in order for these works to assume their status in a position of literary power, all of the stories need to be closely read. While they initially might seem to be independent depictions, they build upon one another to create an intriguing synthesis of diverse experiences around a central theme: a sense of place that houses disparate personalities and ideals. The collection operates as an intriguing inspection of home and disparate personalities, and will attract literature readers who will find within its pages a finely tuned instrument of life experiences that offer studies in contrasts. Short story readers who enjoy slice-of-life vignettes will find Inside Out a treat.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Blaze In, Blaze Out
Joseph Lewis
Black Rose Writing
PO Box 1540, Castroville, Texas, 78009
9781684338535, $21.95 paper/$7.99 ebook

Blaze In, Blaze Out is a detective story that takes place in the aftermath of the conviction of a Ukrainian crime ring. Detectives Pat O'Connor and Paul Eiselmann have finally brought the perps to court, and justice has been served.

You'd think this would be the end of the story; but in fact, it's the prologue to a new conundrum which opens with an intriguing image: "He sat his boney ass on the unyielding wooden bench in nearly the same spot, sometimes for up to six or seven marathon hours give or take, minus a lunch break or whenever the judge decided to give the jury a break. It wasn't often, but it was enough." Neither detective expected head honcho Dmitry Andruko to organize a vendetta against them from jail - but this is what takes place, and the quiet repose each officer sought after their challenging case takes an ominous turn as elusive contract killers threaten everything they love. Joseph Lewis specializes in a fast-paced action story that takes the time to build compelling atmosphere around its events. There are also subtle moments of comic relief injected into the story of multiple killers and attacks from all sides.

Lewis also presents the point of view of the contract killer challenged to do his job. This nicely rounds out the dilemma and viewpoint of the detectives as they face their pursuers and struggle to survive long enough to capture them. It should be noted that some of the violent encounters, as when Indian boy Two is attacked, are quite graphically described. Mystery and detective readers will be used to this kind of description, though, and it's entirely in keeping with the plot. There are also many surprises, as when the killer proves to have a heart, saving a potential victim even as he plots to complete his assignment. It only goes to show that proving guilt is sometimes the beginning of the journey - not the end. Blaze In, Blaze Out is highly recommended for detective story readers and libraries catering to them. Mystery readers seeking a compelling saga will find this story of detectives and four teen adopted brothers who face a clever killer to be fast-paced, involving, and filled with satisfyingly unpredictable moments. All this is tempered by fine tension that builds up to a thought-provoking conclusion, leaving the door ajar for more.

The Camel Driver
Leonard Krishtalka
Anamcara Press LLC
9781941237328, $29.99 Hardcover, $18.99 Paper, $9.99 ebook

The Camel Driver is a Harry Przewalski P.I. story recommended for fans of historical mysteries and hard-boiled detective audiences, and profiles paleontologist-turned-investigator Harry's latest case. The destruction of a famous 140-year-old museum diorama invites Harry to finger the perps, but when he applies his penchant for meticulous excavation to this case, what he uncovers turns out to be more than a prank. His journey leads him into a historical inspection of a stolen, mysterious bundle of goods that results in not just further museum attacks, but revealing the trail of a globe-spanning mystery that takes him from Africa to Europe. The saga opens with a bang that is immediately satisfyingly puzzling: "Somebody sewed a child up in the camel's belly." Detective John Mazeroski took a toothpick out of his pocket and looked around Stewart's office for the reaction."

No other investigator seems as uniquely qualified to find out what was in that stolen bundle. And nobody else can make the historical connections that lead to surprising facts like Harry does. Leonard Krishtalka is adept at connecting the dots between past and present, providing chapters that juxtapose legal and criminal processes of different eras and characters who each contribute a piece to the puzzle. The overall intellectual tone of the probe and its revelations incorporates a dose of humor and social and political inspection to elevate the story's appeal to circles who look for more than a simple whodunit. Readers seeking open-and-shut cases and processes may be surprised at the amount of historical and archaeological inspection that surrounds Harry's process. However, mystery buffs looking for more complex reads will be simply delighted by the attention to detail that contributes to unexpected twists and turns throughout.

Harry moves through events that lead to a scholarly bombshell and explain why relics that represent events of ancient times are worth killing for in modern ones, and the sub stories work together to contribute to the main event. Readers might anticipate that a prior familiarity with the art or history worlds is required. But the only prerequisites for appreciating this delightful, educational romp through time are an interest in noir detective stories and an appreciation for unique, complex problem-solving approaches. Any collection strong in historical mysteries or hard-boiled, noir detective pieces needs to include The Camel Driver in its holdings. Its tension, characterization, backdrop, and suspense components are simply outstanding.

The Reisman Case
Andrew Diamond
Stolen Time Press
9781734139235, $4.99 Kindle

Readers of P.I. thrillers are in for a treat with The Reisman Case because its progression and intrigue offer many surprising twists, opening with the bang of a letter directed to "Freddy" that lays out details of the Reisman events. Once again, Claire Chastain is called upon to solve a case...this time, a seemingly simple open-and-shut affair of employee theft. This particular case, however, evolves into something quite different and challenging as Claire senses that theft isn't the real issue. As events evolve that point to Claire as a murder suspect in her own investigation, she must call upon all her resources and savvy to solve an increasingly puzzling case. Its elements involve a dysfunctional family, investigator Freddy Ferguson's probe, and Anton Durant's penchant for charming juries in the face of irrefutable facts as he tries to help Claire prove her innocence. Claire is forced not only to confront impossible facts, but how close she, herself, has come to mirroring the adult woman whose childhood fears have come to life: "I felt a sudden pang of sympathy for that young girl and for the woman she had become. Looking at my own face in the mirror, I wondered how close I had come to being like her."

Diamond demonstrates a fine ability to bring not just the investigator's private life into a bigger picture of murder, dysfunction, and mystery; but to involve a host of characters on both sides of the law in a growing dilemma. His inspections both within and outside the courtroom and investigative process juxtapose memorable, likeable characters with events that test their ability to consider options and look at themselves in the mirror of their pasts, as well as present-day evidence about struggles and reality. As The Reisman Case traverses DNA evidence, suspicious associations and circumstances, and Claire's penchant for honesty over comfort, readers gain insights into her growth and recovery processes and how these intersect with her P.I. skills to create both opportunity and adversity. The result is a memorable mystery that will especially delight fans of Claire's prior case, but which needs no prior introduction to appeal to newcomers who appreciate solid mixes of psychological and crime revelations.

Still Not Dead
Charles Levin
Munn Avenue Press
9781735210858, $17.99 Paper/$4.99 Kindle

"When you fade away, what's left?" Memories and motives. Sam's son is angry at the constant comings and goings of his father, even if his father no longer walks among them.

Thriller readers, especially those who enjoyed the prior Sam Sunborn stories in the series, will find Still Not Dead a fitting, compelling read that adds another adventure into the mix of Sam's ongoing escapades, which continue even beyond the traditional grave. Family ties and angst don't end with the digital world, as Sam finds out in his non-corporeal existence. Monica is angry with him, his son is dismayed, and work pulls him to the world of the living with yet another futuristic crime to solve. This task requires wife Monica's help to stop a deadly female terrorist who has escaped prison with a new plan to launch a mass amnesia attack on America using a neural weapon. It may take a presence from beyond the grave to stop her, but Sam is limited in his new milieu, while his deadly adversary employs all the options of the physical world in her quest to weaponize and attack the mind. As D.C. investigators Michelle and Rich explore "wild ass theories," readers receive a truly haunting story of a digitized personality who refuses to quit, and who remains as engaged in the world of the living as when he had a body.

Although Charles Levin's story joins others in the series, newcomers need have no prior familiarity with past events to appreciate this stand-alone thriller. It takes a few chapters to absorb the milieu Sam operates from, but when readers do, Sam's world and that of the terrorists who plot another devious attack fueled by high technology comes to life. Levin excels in crafting a cat-and-mouse series of encounters that revolve not just around Sam, but his wife Monica, his son Evan, and the technology that crashes his reappearance in their family just as she's drawing back from asking him for a divorce. From the psychological challenges of living as an uploaded digitized personality to relationships challenged by physical and non-corporeal entities, Levin creates a thriller that operates on both personal and international political arenas. Readers who look for gripping action both in the field and at home, fueled by high-tech snafus and challenges, will find Still Not Dead a powerful story. It operates well on both intrigue and psychological levels, creating a thriller that is unpredictable and hard to put down.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Jeckyll & Hyde Inc.
Simon R. Green
Baen Books
P.O. Box 1403, Riverdale, NY 10471
9781982125288, $25.00

Jeckyll & Hyde Inc. will delight readers who enjoy stories of monsters, revenge, crime, and vampires, and incorporates a quirkly sense of humor into a story that intersects these themes and more. The sexy and clever Hyde clan may be the only clan that stands in the way of other monster Clans gaining control of the world. For, these monsters are now involved in shady underworld crime. Each holds a different nefarious objective and pursuits, from the Frankenstein Clan's terrible surgeries to the blood-feasting Vampire Clan and the Clan of Mummies. Amidst all these factions is Daniel Carter, a typical London cop determined to bring justice to the world when he runs headlong into these monsters...monsters nobody else believes in. Should he join the Hydes, or will this just make him another monster in the mix? An outstanding interplay between crime, justice, and the pursuit of safety evolves.

Tim Rayborn
Thousand Acres Press
9781737276296, $14.99 Paper/$9.99 ebook

Readers of Rayborn's prior fantasy Qwyrk will find Lluck, the next book in the series, equally attractive, engaging reading.

It opens with just the kind of compelling one-liner that grabs attention and interest ("I'll be dead in a few seconds... or worse."), then poses a new dilemma as an encounter with goblins quickly moves to an extraordinary festive celebration enjoyed by human Jilly Pleeth and the magical two-foot creature Blip. Rayborn excels in descriptions which are vibrant representation of the atmosphere and characters that populate this extraordinary milieu: "Resembling a bipedal frog sporting a handlebar moustache and a proper Victorian-style mutton chop beard, he strolled along the pavement in his Regency riding boots, while swinging an ornate walking stick, every so often accidentally hitting a passerby and eliciting an astonished yelp. A red, woolen scarf wrapped snugly around his short, froggy neck completed the ensemble." But, don't let Lluck's whimsy and fun fool you. Serious matters are afoot which challenge a host of characters while juxtaposing humor (as in the specter of a pillow fight with Father Christmas). As Qwyrk (who has been out of touch with them for a while, until now), Blip, and Jilly once again find themselves confronting strange happenings in a world replete with magical realism, a new adventure evolves to test all three with a situation where "...crazy magic just happens right under everyone's noses and nobody even sees it." It is the habit of these extraordinary creatures "to be inconspicuous and let the mortal world progress on its own."

Tim Rayborn does an outstanding job of expanding this magical world and the challenges posed by changing friendships and adversity alike. His ability to explore both outer and inner battles and bring to life a realm of magic that overlays reality and involves a number of characters in life-changing events will attract all ages, from advanced elementary children through adults. The vivid stories as Qwyrk's encounters with young abandoned orphan boy Lluck changes her world adds another misfit to the mix. Tim Rayborn's series is fun, lively, unexpected, engrossing reading. Lluck is just as highly recommended as its predecessor, adding another series of encounters to an involving fantasy series.

The Pystead Group, second edition
James Pryor
The Techner Group
9780692156995, $15.56

The second edition of The Pystead Group represents an update that tightens the story and romance of a tale set in 2052, where cognitive scientist Philip Russell seeks to escape the crippling fears of life in the U.S. by accepting a tech job in the West Indies. At first his new life appears to be a success, as he falls in love with a fellow employee and becomes privy to company secrets. But, soon, those processes draw him into a world just as conflict-laden as life in the U.S. ever was, placing him in a central position of turmoil. When he finally becomes privy to The Pystead Group's 'Plan B' and its impact, Philip finds himself entangled in a social, political, and technological experiment that tests his own moral mettle, leading to many questions and conundrums. James Pryor's special blend of social, political, technological and psychological inspection will especially appeal to readers who look for more than action and adventure from their futuristic reads.

This updated second edition provides a tighter, more compelling set of encounters that keeps a firm hand on the rudder of moral decision-making while remaining strong in the adventure component. This will keep readers involved and guessing about outcomes. As humanity faces its greatest challenge and opportunity, The Pystead Group becomes a pivot point of transformation, opportunity, and danger that Phillip must navigate on many different levels. His readers will follow in his footsteps as they receive an engaging, thought-provoking story of personal accountability in the face of technological and social change. Any science fiction reader holding strong opinions about social and technological inspection should consider The Pystead Group a basic acquisition that is both astute and involving.

The Biography Shelf

Three Funerals for My Father
Jolie Phuong Hoang
Tidewater Press
9781990160042 $21.95

Three Funerals for My Father: Love, Loss, and Escape from Vietnam is an unusual memoir. It captures the experiences of a large family faced with not one, but three separate challenges to escape the Communist regime that took over in Vietnam in the 1970s. Jolie Hoang's father arranged three escapes for his family of ten children. One cost him his livelihood. One successfully brought six of the kids to safety in Canada. And one cost him his life. Three Funerals for My Father is presented in a dual narrative style by daughter Jolie Hoang, who juxtaposes her experiences with reflections from her father's ghost. This unusual approach allows for a more personal contrast between family experiences, opening with a captivating introduction that neatly sets the stage for the memoir that follows: "I died on June 15, 1985, when I was fifty-nine years old. My death was not natural. I died escaping Vietnam with my wife and my three younger children, hoping to reunite with my six older children who were living in Canada, halfway around the world. I died in the Pacific Ocean, trying to shorten the distance between us all."

More so than most stories of immigrant experiences (even the ones replete with danger and drama, such as this), Three Funerals for My Father features a passionate disparity between generations and lives that captures and contrasts parallel worlds and experiences. More so than most such stories, the saga captures the essence of life under Communist rule in Vietnam when a family is divided. Daughter Jolie Phuong Hoang's ability to give voice to her father's experiences, concerns, and conflicts brings this world to life and furthers the cause of understanding immigrant ideals, experiences, and the trials many endure when embarking on the long road to freedom. At no other time in history is this story and its underlying message so necessary as in modern times, as immigrants are maligned and questioned in American circles that traditionally welcomed them. These experiences come to life in a rare look at sacrifices made during the quest for freedom, providing an intimate examination of hardship and courage that should be on the shelves of any collection strong in immigrant stories about Vietnam refugees, in particular.

Pandora's Lockbox
Nico Griffith
9781737719946, $15.95

Memoirs about real estate experiences typically don't earn the descriptors "vivid" or "exciting" in their reviews; but Pandora's Lockbox: An Award-Winning Real Estate Agent's Memoir of Love, Sex, Murders and an Alligator is this and more. It documents a vivid heyday of buying and selling in the 80s and 90s, when real estate agent deals were not as regulated (or staid) as they are today. The lack of computers, automated systems, and instant tracking lent the industry (as with so many others) a flexibility and Wild West-type atmosphere. Depicting this world is one of the strengths of Pandora's Lockbox, which captures these deals and the heady atmosphere of emotionally charged client/agent relationships. You really have to read it to believe it. Pandora's Lockbox is anything but predictable: "She was making me an accessory to MURDER, and she hadn't even bought a house from me yet."

Nico Griffith cultivates a wry sense of humor about these encounters and the special milieu of buyer/seller relationships as well as the camaraderie between fellow agents. This is evident not just in her professional encounters, but in descriptions of the influences that led her to pursue a career in real estate. From soap opera lives to crazy open house experiences and crime scenes involving real estate agents, Pandora's Lockbox offers a wealth of unexpected events that keeps readers laughing and learning about an industry that is sometimes privy to some close-held (and potentially dangerous) secrets. While this book will certainly be added to many a memoir collection, it also deserves a central spot on any real estate professional or aspiring agent's reading list as a powerful romp through bygone years and real estate conundrums that are never outlined in the typical "how to be an agent" course.

Nico won a creative writing contest in the memoir category for one of the chapters from Pandora's that she submitted. It's easy to see why: its vivid stories will delight the general public as well as would-be and existing real estate pros as they traverses a lively world filled with surprises and heart-stopping moments. One thing is for certain: readers will never think of the real estate industry or agents in exactly the same way after absorbing the trials, tribulations, and some law-skirting home sellers that involve the agents in turbulence and trouble inside Pandora's Lockbox.

The International Studies Shelf

Chasing the Chinese Dream
William N. Brown, PhD
Springer and NewChannel Education
9789811606533, $59.99

Business professor William N. Brown doesn't present his analysis, Chasing The Chinese Dream: Four Decades Of Following China's War On Poverty, from the safe distance of America. He teaches at Xiamen University, and his background and physical proximity to Chinese culture and its social issues lends to a personal familiarity with his subject that couldn't be matched by those analyzing a fair distance from Chinese affairs. China's goal to alleviate poverty may be surprising to readers who might know little about their efforts, but it actually can be held up as a model not just of achievement, but of the processes that make a difference in the real world. Given the nation's complexity and bulk, these success stories become all the more eye-opening.

Dr. Brown provides an inspection of reforms that goes beyond major cities to examine all aspects of rural and urban Chinese experience. Neither does he operate from the comfort of a city classroom. Dr. Brown cultivates a hands-on attitude that captures both his enthusiasm and the diverse experiences of tackling poverty in China: "If I had scripted my own life from cradle to grave, I could not have conjured up a more exciting or fulfilling adventure than witnessing firsthand the world's most populous nation single-mindedly eradicate absolute poverty. For over three decades I've explored every corner of the country by bicycle, boat, car, train, plane - even farm tractor a few times, as well as on foot into inaccessible valleys. I've interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life - farmers, fishermen, teachers, doctors, engineers, merchants, street sweepers, barbers, scientists, and athletes." His is a "social travelogue" through Chinese attitudes, experiments, cultures, and transformative efforts that operates on many different levels.

As he undertakes his journey, Dr. Brown profiles the stories of individuals who contribute to this new era of possibility and achievement. In keeping with his research background, Dr. Brown peppers these accounts with footnoted references to facts, statistics, and examples to provide fellow researchers with further reading and supportive material. While his pro-China view may provide special food for thought for those well aware of its other social issues and history, in this case, it serves as a strong, positive viewpoint that pinpoints areas of success over failure. No matter what the reader may believe about China's politics and social issues, it's hard to ignore the evidence of its success in its personal war on poverty throughout its nation, presented here in much detail and supported by personal observation and researched facts alike. While collections strong in Chinese history and culture obviously will be the recipients of this study, business collections and those interested in world-wide social issues and poverty would also do well to consider Chasing The Chinese Dream an essential addition. Its unique blend of scholarly analysis and personal experience, backed by an authoritative researcher who injects his own observations into the study, makes Chasing The Chinese Dream a standout in many genres.

The Theatre/Cinema Shelf

Monologues for Adults
Mike Kimmel
Ben Rose Creative Arts
9781953057068, $14.97

There's a special challenge in the dramatic monologue world, in presenting exercises for adults that are diverse, educational, and appealing. Many monologue titles are directed to teens, and hold themes particularly interesting to this age group. That's why Monologues for Adults: 60 Original Monologues to Stand Out, Inspire, and Shine is especially recommended and relevant to aspiring adult drama students. It focuses on original works designed to instruct adults on various facets of the monologue's dramatic format, providing works that can be used not just as self-teaching exercises, but sources for auditions and family-friendly stage performances at the college level and beyond.

Mike Kimmel crafts a diverse selection of subjects and monologue approaches. Examples of this diversity include a treatise on kindness, "When People Don't Care," which begins with others and evolves to an admonition to consider self-care equally important; "Bird Watching," which opens with a criticism of the practice and evolves to consider its underlying benefits; and "Pie in the Sky," about dreaming big and doing work that "does more than pay the bills." Each monologue offers not just the opportunity to practice dramatic skills, but the chance to learn new ways of living, finding the positive even in events or approaches that may initially seem negative or unappealing. This elevates Monologues for Adults into a series of meaningful explorations and dialogues that hold value beyond their acting exercises. While Monologues for Adults will, of course, appear in drama and acting collections, it ideally will also be considered as a succinct collection of life lessons and observations appropriate for self-help audiences, as well.

The Criminology Shelf

The Science of Serial Killers
Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence
Skyhorse Publishing
307 W 36th St Fl 11 New York, NY 10018
9781510764149, $14.99 Paper, $10.99 Kindle

The Science of Serial Killers: The Truth Behind Ted Bundy, Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, and Other Notorious Murderers of Cinematic Legend will attract two audiences: those interested in true crime in general and serial killers in particular, and media studies students considering the cinematic representation of these crimes. Art and science blends in a survey that analyzes both the events surrounding the true crime and the choices made in film representations of these events. Each chapter reflects a movie title and the killer's name, gathering these movies under specific themes ("Crimes of the Past," "Double Lives," "Traveling Killers," and "Never Caught"). Each uses that theme to analyze both the crime and choices in cinematic representation: "This chapter delves into the "wannabes." These are the killers who took their victims' lives because they wanted to feel intellectually superior. They wanted to bask in the glow of their kill, while frustrating the detectives on the case. The irony, of course, is that these men failed at living up to their own inflated egos. While they wanted to emulate BTK, or a murderer never caught like the Zodiac, they instead overestimated their murderous skills."

The literary foundations of the film, as well as its sources of inspiration and how it chose to represent reality or fictionalize some of its contents, receive close inspection in a survey that will satisfy psychology and film studies readers alike. Even more compelling is that the science portion of this analysis draws upon many different types of studies and theories across disciplines. This approach, especially when supported by interviews the writers conduct with book authors and screenwriters, creates a multifaceted analysis that explores how a killer's mentality is analyzed and represented to the public in different ways, and what the options are during this process. Some productions maintain a specific focus on only corroborated facts, while others inject or fill in various degrees of extrapolation to round out the cinematic effort. All these choices and their influences are explored in a science-based study that delves into the motivations of killers and creators alike. While The Science of Serial Killers will join other true crime analysis, its close attention to how these events are translated, represented, or interpreted makes this an outstanding addition to science and cinema studies collections, as well. Its detailed yet lively inspection should not be missed.

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

Copyright ©2001

Site design by Williams Writing, Editing & Design