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California Bookwatch

Volume 16, Number 5 May 2021 Home | CALBW Index

Table of Contents

Reviewer's Choice Health/Medicine Shelf General Fiction Shelf
Historical Fiction Shelf Mystery/Suspense Shelf Fantasy/SciFi Shelf
Poetry Shelf    

Reviewer's Choice

Strong Women of the West (Anthology)
Charlie Steel
Condor Publishing
9781931079297, $12.95

Think 'Western' and the typical (male) cowboy comes to mind, operating in the milieu of frontier towns/justice and challenges involving Indians and lawlessness. If women are thought of at all, it's in their role in the pioneer kitchen, keeping the family together and doing chores. Charlie Steel's Strong Women of the West (Anthology) offers short stories that operate from a different premise: that Western women can be authoritative, feisty, take-charge businesswomen who are both independent and purposeful in their own right.

These short stories are anything but predictable. As the stories evolve to embrace young and older women alike, from toddlers growing up in the West to full-grown spinsters who decide to aim for a relationship later in life than most - they embrace the extent of male and female cooperation on the frontier. From a pregnant woman's partnership with her husband to confrontations with Indians, to accepting love and running a business for survival, these stories show courage and purpose. This is a diverse, lively collection that will help readers reexamine the usual image of a frontier Western woman and her life. Western readers who look for strong female representations will find many of these stories excel in presenting women who come into their strengths in different ways, and will relish this fictional focus on frontier women's lives.

The Health/Medicine Shelf

Heart Disease & Hypertension
Bryant Lusk
Penned Source Productions
9781733642521, $2.99 Kindle

Heart Disease & Hypertension: Vitamin Therapy for a Healthy Heart links the topics of vitamin therapy, hypertension, and heart disease. While many consumers may well know that the latter conditions hold entwined connections, adding the option of vitamin therapy to affect both is different. Bryant Lusk considers the promise of both preventative and remedial therapies using this approach.

This is not Bryant Lusk's first book on vitamin therapy's benefits. He's written a prior book on osteoporosis and vitamin therapy. Heart Disease & Hypertension continues the theme with a different focus on heart health. The strategies outlined here are designed for long-term use and long-term benefits; not immediate results. Readers should be prepared to absorb the material with an eye to embarking on a lifetime regimen of vitamin-based therapy to improve not just heart conditions, but overall bodily system health.

Each vitamin is given a chapter of discussion that relates its importance to heart conditions. Readers receive eye-opening facts about the importance of each, as in the chapter on zinc. The real meat of these discussions lies in specific technical details, from different and best formulations of vitamins to suggested nutritional supplements and 'listen to your body' advice on how to realize the detrimental effects of too much or too little, as in the section on protein. Footnoted references provide the technical research and statistics backing Lusk's contentions, making Heart Disease & Hypertension another important tool in the arsenal of fighting the war against heart disease.

The General Fiction Shelf

Ghost Dancer
Alan S. Kessler
Leviathan Books
9781938394591, $18.95

Ghost Dancer is a historical coming-of-age story that opens in 1950s Providence, where nine-year-old Eleanor Wilson is growing up in a mansion under the strict and watchful eye of bigoted parents. They can't prevent her from occasional secret forays into the world around the house, where she plays in a local Indian cemetery, only to find herself "seeing as clearly as she saw the dead, her mother's shadow rising stern and hard from behind a grave." Keeping her secret journeys hidden from her drunk mother and controlling father has been successful up to that point. Now she faces her mother's rage for being a privileged white girl playing in an Indian graveyard with an Indian doll, despite her upbringing and riches at home. It's a rage which reflects the community's deeper roots in prejudice and repression because it was logged and built on the ruins of an Indian reservation commandeered by the white man for their expanding populace.

And so Eleanor represents the microcosm of an intrinsic local conflict between Native Americans and whites, which only intensifies as she grows older. What at first appears to be a coming of age story about abuse and repression turns into poignant social commentary as Eleanor's growth and evolution brings with it newfound realizations about prejudice and survival. Eleanor's entry into the world of ghosts, spirits, and legacies of the past teaches her about a future that she can't escape even with a journey to far-away California, with its magic and very different culture. There, she makes further revelations about new environments, possibilities, and references to race in America.

As Eleanor moves further from her "enslavement in a house made of marble," she comes to acknowledge many of the foundations of repression inherent in her upbringing, community, and her own attitudes, which are changing. What at first seems like a coming of age or ghost story morphs into a satisfying exploration of Native American and white relationships that assume a timeless tale of betrayal and loyalty alike as Eleanor stands at the crossroads of many possibilities. These follow her into her adult years and eventually bring her full circle to confront the ghosts of her childhood.

Its special brand of Native American and California history, magical realism, and coming of age saga represents an outstanding interplay of emotions, history, and social inspection. Readers who choose Ghost Dancer anticipating a mystical experience receive so much more in an evocative, psychologically and socially spooky examination. It will keep them engaged and thinking long after Eleanor grows up to become a different force of reckoning within the white world.

The Historical Fiction Shelf

Sherry V. Ostroff
Independently Published
9798595907828, $14.99 Paper; $9.99 Kindle

Mannahatta: A Sequel provides historical novel readers with a follow-up to Caledonia and focuses on a journey to colonial Manhattan from Scotland. This is uncovered in 2008 by Hanna Duncan, the many-times great granddaughter of immigrant Anna Rachel Isaacs MacArthur. Hanna's discoveries do more than revise her family's past, but begin to threaten her life as she finds herself in dangerous situations around the world. This story moves back and forth between Anna and Hanna's times. Ideally, readers will have a prior familiarity with the history that was introduced in Caledonia. This audience will find the ongoing adventure vastly expands as further details about both women's' lives and journeys evolve. From visits to Scottish castles and issues of slavery in early Manhattan to events that lead up to a revolt in 1712, the search for an ancestor and that ancestor's changing world juxtapose nicely in chapters that are clearly identified by era to avoid reader confusion. Both characters are nicely drawn and their worlds explored, the intersections between the two dovetail in unexpected ways, and readers will find the story of a family's evolution on different sides of foreign and domestic soils to be thought-provoking and packed with action and intrigue. The result expands the foundations firmly set in Caledonia. Mannahatta: A Sequel will please historical novel readers and prior fans with a solidly compelling story that proves hard to put down as love evolves and 'home' is redefined.

Victoria II
Daniel A. Willis
D. X. Varos, Ltd.
9781941072912, $18.95 PB, $4.99 Kindle, 212pp

Alternate history comes to life in Victoria II, which posits a world in which Queen Victoria's husband dies 20 years earlier, leaving her with one progeny -- Princess Vicky. The ramifications of this alternate universe are solidified by a historical recap of real-world events. This provides a foundation of understanding for those either lacking in or sketchy about the events surrounding Queen Victoria's life and times. This, in turn, neatly sets the stage for a story in which the real-world Vicky has no siblings, is not allowed to marry the ruler of a foreign country, and thus does not give birth to one who would become a pivot point for World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Too many alternate history stories assume a degree of reader familiarity with the timeline under revision, which precludes proper appreciation of the deviations central to the alternate history's progression. Victoria II's foundation of knowledge allows access to and recognition of the important events which unfold as Princess Vicky grows into an unusual inheritance that will change the world in a different manner. As Vicky considers the allowable options for her future, readers are drawn into a strictly regulated life and political purpose that drives Vicky's options and goals. When she is captured by forces that would end the monarchy and create a republic in its wake, Vicky and the world face threats and newfound possibilities that will shake and shape not just Europe, but the world, for decades to come.

Often, the proof of a believable fantasy lies in the details. These pieces of authenticity are embedded into the story to bring Vicky's world and conundrums to life. As Lt. Billy Saint Albans confronts a plot to violently end the royal family and its grip, he becomes immersed in a cat-and-mouse game over the control of a new era. Vicky becomes the powerful pawn in a plot that comes full circle to a bombshell matrimonial choice carefully constructed to both preserve and destroy the status quo. Victoria II provides everything needed to make for a superior alternate history of the times.

Its recreation of Princess Vicky's character and conundrums, the era's politics and processes, and the efforts of commoners to change the world makes for engrossing reading that will attract not just alternate history sci-fi readers, but fans of historical fiction looking for something different.

The Mystery/Suspense Shelf

Condition Black
Stu Jones & Gareth Worthington
Dropship Publishing
9781954386020, $19.99 Hardcover; $4.99 Kindle; $14.95 Paper

Medical thriller readers who enjoy stories of scientific focus, a puzzling illness, and an autistic scientist who may be the only one who can think outside the box enough to solve this mystery will find a satisfying plot in Condition Black. War correspondent Marie Weyland returns from Syria carrying more than photos documenting the horrors of man's inhumanity to man. She also carries a deadly disease that, coincidentally, her husband's cancer research could solve...if his superiors allow him to work his magic. A subplot involves a combat veteran, Billy Vick, who heads the Army's Criminal Investigation group. Billy also comes into contact with the puzzling illness, and comes to realize that a failed project and scientist Evan Weyland may be introducing the horror into the greater world at large. Evan's mission is to cure his wife. Billy's mission is to stop an unprecedented outbreak at all costs. And these costs include civilian lives lost for the sake of a greater good - a situation that already gives him nightmares, from military choices he made in the past. As the two purposes collide, readers receive not just a medical mystery, but a probe of underlying moral and ethical compasses and a dangerous game that threatens all involved. Bill faces a felony charge for conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, even though he is one of the Army's best investigators himself. Evan confronts even greater losses and choices. As the nation falls under martial law and democracy flies out the door, each character is endangered not just by their own government, but by their choices and extraordinary abilities. Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington create a vivid story that revolves around two disparate individuals and how the loves of their lives are ultimately posed to kill them. The tension is finely honed, the characters are realistic and absorbing, and the questions of how (and if) the two can come together to work towards the same purpose is juxtaposed by technological wonders and accompanying moral conflict. These elements create a multifaceted, involving story on many different levels. The best medical thrillers are not just about threats, but the psyches of flawed heroes and ordinary men who are forced into positions of making extraordinary choices and leaps of faith and judgment. Condition Black provides such an exceptional read. It's highly recommended for fans of techno-thrillers who want a firm marriage between psychological depth and unpredictable action, all grounded by ethical concerns that challenge each character to reach beyond his skill set and comfort zone.

Blood Kills
Nanci Rathbun
Dark Chocolate Press, LLC
9780998755779, $2.99 (ebook), 9780998755786, $14.99 (print)

Blood Kills is the fourth book in the PI series about Angelina Bonaparte, but requires no prior familiarity with the series in order to prove accessible to newcomers. As prior readers already know, PI Angelina is anything but a staid, crime-solving detective. She's feisty, flamboyant, and rife with controversy; her actions driven by a special brand of not only investigative prowess, but a personal penchant for trouble.

Driven to divorce by her husband's infidelity, she forms a new life with newfound relationships and purposes, and why, on the cusp of achievement, she once again finds herself in trouble. This time, a vindictive killer has targeted Angelina; a beloved local artist is murdered (which has been predicted by the victim himself, documented in his will); and a Russian mob's involvement keeps Angelina on her toes and in trouble. Is there any room for a romantic reunion with her boyfriend-on-hold as all this unfolds? Readers who like their detective stories offset by a concurrent journey into personal values, lives, and family ties will find many surprises in Blood Kills. The heroine and PI investigator usually isn't a grandmother, for example. She usually doesn't navigate relationship quandaries in quite the way that Angelina finds herself caught up in, and she usually doesn't find that a crime DNA analysis could change everything about the case and her world. Many threads and facets unwind through Angie's journey, and readers will find this protagonist an astute analyst whose sense of unease grows even as she is on the cusp of victory. As the close calls mount, Angie is forced to confront newfound truths about her latest case, its connections to nefarious influences, and its ultimate impact on her life, family, and well-being. Blood Kills is a riveting thriller that proves hard to put down, testing the boundaries of family ties, love, and proposals for a new future.

The Forger's Forgery
Clay G. Small
River Grove Books/Greenleaf Book Group, LLC
9781632993670, $15.95

The Forger's Forgery is a mystery which opens in Amsterdam, where visiting professor Henry Lindon enters a very different world from that of his prior employment at Southerland University in Dallas. Here, he navigates Dutch culture, history, and a new university environment that embraces blossoming romantic possibilities, a missing painting, and a Southern University coed's murder - along with a changing relationship with his wife, Marylou. As this homicide detective's murder investigation becomes increasingly tied to events beyond Dallas, readers become engrossed in a blend of murder mystery and dangerous men who understand that success is not risk free. Detective Ortiz's relentless pursuit of a passenger list oddity could bring down long-held, lucrative plans. Henry's plan to foist a forgery charge on Guy Wheeless, the deceased's uncle and the main suspect who appears to have an irrefutable alibi, sets the stage for a dangerous game. The action moves from Henry and his wife and Amsterdam experiences to perilous moves certain to set the art world on fire. Perhaps one reason why The Forger's Forgery is a complex mystery and yet realistic, is that it's based on the true story of master forger Han van Meegeren, who forged the works of some Dutch masters in the 1930s and '40s in a notorious crime that was clever, unprecedented, and difficult to solve. Clay G. Small is masterful at his depiction of Dutch culture and peoples, the art world, and the forgers who influence its development, making their illicit money on creations that are masterfully created in their own right. The characterization is well-developed and three-dimensional. Many of the characters move between good and questionable or bad acts, making choices that demonstrate they are not good and bad guys, but human beings who act and react in surprising ways. As the mystery evolves, the art worlds of both Amsterdam and Texas come to life as environments influenced by forgery events that connect disparate lives and peoples, changing and challenging the art world. Mystery readers who enjoy art history will relish the exceptional presence of both in The Forger's Forgery.

The Fantasy/SciFi Shelf

Trader's Leap
Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Baen Books
9781982125011, $25.00 HC, $8.99 PB, $9.99 Kindle, 416pp

Trader's Leap is a new novel in the Liaden Universe that's especially recommended for prior fans of the series, and tells of a challenge to Shan yos'Galan to establish new trade roots from exile...all while struggling to dock at any port. Shan already has his hands full with family matters and his revised life: how can he tackle this latest task? Friends, enemies, and new routes to a strange, revised possibility keep the action fast-paced. While newcomers will find the story accessible, it's prior fans who will find Trader's Leap's milieu instantly familiar and its latest adventure hard to put down.

The Poetry Shelf

A Little Excitement
Nancy Scott
Kelsay Books
9781952326738, $16.00 Paper

A Little Excitement is an engrossing collection of poems that combines philosophical and psychological inspections about modern times with literary acuity. Its compelling observations grab reader attention from the start, as in the title poem 'A Little Excitement' which observes: "Those cloverleafs are not green nor can they/be examined like I did as a child, grass stains/on my knees, my nose close to the ground/searching for a four-leaf one to bring me/good luck. I've learned that luck is an illusion/that keeps us from going mad." As the collection progresses, the poems embrace themes of magical realism to examine reality, truth, and the illusions that coexist side by side in personal, social, and political circles. These interpersonal relationships are tenuous and shifting, especially in Covid times, as reflected in 'Keeping in Touch', which muses on a life without human connections and support in a newly-changed world devoid of the usual social and cultural ties between people: "It rained the entire afternoon./I spent an hour detangling the philodendron./I thought about Mother./After she died, her voice circled endlessly/on my answering machine./What are you cooking for dinner tonight?" Sometimes the poems are as much about present and what the narrator has become, as about the past patterns that led to this point in time. 'Animal Planters' takes a long-held collection obsession and concludes "Thousands wait to be saved from the dumpster./It's only a matter of shelf space and stamina./I can't stop./I've become the SPCA for animal planters." The links between animals and humans are well-done throughout, and are one of the strong themes of this collection. These poems reflect the surreal nature of connections between people, nature, and political and social systems. Like a good sci-fi story about an alternate universe, their milieus are both familiar and unfamiliar, simultaneously, giving readers much food for thought. Their ability to narrow the focus on slices of life and moments in time that connect and disconnect people during times of alienation and angst are nicely done, as reflected in 'The Old Woman at the End of the Block', where the narrator "...was running out of time,/so decided to pay a visit/to the 103-year-old woman/who lived at the end of the block./With measuring cup in hand,/I rang the doorbell, and asked,/Could you spare a year or two?" Under Scott's hand, the ordinary world receives a slight twist due to extraordinary situations, encounters, and perception. In the intersection between dreams, imagination, and reality, these poems reside with marked impact on their readers. We are witnessing extraordinary circumstances that juxtapose hope and doubt and change the nature of perceptions about the world and each other, and these works, as a whole, reflect this process of transformation. Poetry fans who want an evocative, insightful, and colorful collection of free verse will find Nancy Scott's special literary approach puts a fine touch to poetry that's accessible not just to literature readers, but everyone navigating revised, surreal daily living in the new age of Covid. "Luck is an illusion that keeps us from going mad." So are these poems, which capture the ethereal nature and experience of the current reality in which we exist.

James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
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phone: 1-608-835-7937

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12424 Mill Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
phone: 1-707-795-4629

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