January Book Reviews

My first book reviews for the new year! I hope everyone is up for a great year of reading.

January’s reviews include my 4 and 5-star reads of a memoir, literary fiction, a paranormal adventure, a poetry collection, a collection of short stories, a collection of poetry and flash fiction, and three short reads on Irish Mythology

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

River Ghosts by Merril D. Smith

I can’t remember when I picked up this book of freeform poetry, but I finally got around to reading it, and I’m so glad I did. I highly recommend it.

The book contains about 70 poems. I read it over a few evenings, savoring the quiet mood and tone and depth of the feelings this collection conveys. There are poems about joyous moments of gratefulness and love, and poems straight from the imagination. But my favorites were those that struck me as reflective, exploring loss, tender memories, and some of the harder moments of finding one’s way. These are the author’s “ghosts,” and I found them relatable as well as beautifully penned. Here’s one such poem:

Dark Matter

How do we see the unseen?
A ghostly presence felt,
this dark path between stars

The Milky Way, a pearly spiral,
and we with limited vision,
star-created, star-drawn,
unable to see the tenebrous beauty
of bent light.

*****

Menagerie by Joan Hall

This collection of thirteen short stories is not only entertaining with its compelling characters and variety of plots, but highly accessible with its straightforward language. Clean romance, spooky paranormal events, and limited violence make it an enjoyable collection for readers from pre-teens to their grandparents.

Characters are consistent, well-rounded, and believable, and the variety in the stories not only applies to plots but to settings and time periods. Many of the stories incorporate a paranormal or romantic element, and quite a few include both. It’s a generous collection but a quick read, and I buzzed through it in a couple of afternoons. The variety makes it hard to pick favorites, but I was especially fond of:

“Mystery Woman” and the way it ventured into the subject of past lives
“Friends,” a feel-good romance set against a murder investigation
“Lone Wolf,” a beautiful tale of a connection between a man and a wild wolf
“Hot August Night,” for its family relationships and the unfolding mystery
And “Storm Rider,” a gentle paranormal story with some good advice.

Highly recommended to readers of all ages who enjoy feel-good short stories. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

The Last Drive by John Howell

This book follows the adventures of Sam and James of The Eternal Road, but it stands alone perfectly well with the same level of imagination and detail. Spirits James and Sam return to the Eternal Road to search for Ryan, a recently deceased pilot, and his guide Eddie. The two men have gone off track while looking for Ryan’s eternal home. Lucifer has his fingerprints all over this book as he’s determined to have Ryan “join his team.”

Similar to the first book, the search takes Sam and James, and eventually Ryan and Eddie, to quite a few major events in time including the first Super Bowl, the California gold rush, 9/11, the sinking of the Titanic, and the horrors of Auschwitz. Some places they travel to on their own, but in most cases, Lucifer sends them there, wanting them to trade Ryan’s soul for a reprieve.

In some ways, Sam and James are on a quest, tasked with challenges they need to puzzle out as they operate in the past without changing the future. The directive not to fiddle with the future generates some heartbreaking scenes and tough moral decisions. Howell’s research into the tragedies of the past is notable, and there are some brutal scenes including sexual abuse.

Any heaviness in the book is initially countered by Lucifer. He’s sarcastic, snarky, and completely without verbal restraint, at the very least. His banter, particularly with Sam, was entertaining, though it became easier and easier to completely dislike him toward the end. The plot doesn’t follow a straight line, nor is it always logical, but it’s highly imaginative and recommended for fans of fantastical stories about the afterlife. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

The Girl Who Taught Herself to Fly by Kwan Kew Lai

I enjoy reading memoirs of all sorts, but if there’s a book that transports me to another part of the world and a culture vastly different from my own, I’m usually entranced, as I was with this book.

Most of the book tracks Kwan Kew Lai’s childhood on Penang Island, a diverse community where racial and ethnic status determines where a family lives and who they associate with. Kwan Kew’s family is Chinese, ranked far below the Eurasian elite, but above their Tamil neighbors on the other side of a drainage ditch. There is plenty of play and mischief, as well as accounts of community, family, and school life from this observant little girl.

Her family is a large one (ten girls and two boys), and at a young age, she sees the toll their circumstances, often plagued by inadequate food and housing, takes on her mother. It’s a life where women’s choices are few and the work is endless. She decides early on that this life isn’t for her. As she ages, the book veers away from childhood into adult concerns of war, political unrest, and ultimately finding her way to college in the US.

Descriptions are captivating with just the right amount of detail to create a rich sense of place. The characters, including her parents and several key siblings, are deftly described from Kwan Kew’s point of view, and the sibling relationships had a familiar feel, full of nuance. Characters are sympathetic, as this is a human and, in many ways, a universal story about hardship, resilience, choices and the lack of them.

There is some repetition of information, and on occasion, I lost track of Kwan Kew’s age as the story seemed to move forward and backward in time, but on the whole, this was a fascinating and uplifting account of a determined child and young woman. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy memoirs, especially ones that explore different cultures in other parts of the world.

*****

The Waiting House by Lisette Brodey

The Waiting House is an unusual book of literary fiction with one of the best uses of an omnipresent POV I’ve read in years. Conrad Daniel Beauregard Shintz is the story’s host, the grandmaster, someone who has lived in the Waiting House for decades. He has a distinct voice and personality, and unlike most characters in genre fiction, he possesses the omnipresent ability to view the private lives, thoughts, and feelings of the building’s other residents.

The novel is a series of glimpses into the histories and daily lives of the house’s inhabitants narrated by Conrad. The chapters are almost like character studies that little by little begin to intersect as the overall story unfolds. Conrad’s tone is formal and appropriate for the era and setting, but he’s also emotionally engaged and has a witty sense of humor. The residents of the Waiting House are all brilliantly unique.

The pace is quite leisurely, and like a lot of literary fiction, action is secondary to the character development and a slow reveal of the plot. In keeping with the genre, the prose is beautiful with rich language, vivid and detailed descriptions, and wonderful imagery.

This is an excellent read for fans of literary fiction who love beautiful language and fabulously distinct characters, and are comfortable with a moderate pace. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Asunder, Baby by Steven Baird

Steven Baird is one of my favorite authors of fiction and poetry, and this generous collection of fifty flash fiction stories and poems was crafted with the same beautiful language, fresh imagery, and gut-wrenching emotion as his full-length novels. His characters are distinctive with rich voices and complex lives informed by poverty, loss, disillusionment, and love. Each one gripped me and didn’t let go.

There are too many excellent pieces to list the ones that moved me, but four of my favorites were: The Gopherwood Box, Rhapsody, Your Father’s Delta 88, and a short poem titled Brewer’s Mills 1971. A highly recommended collection for readers who enjoy beautifully crafted and deeply felt writing.

Brewer’s Mills 1971

There we were
burying a goddamn horse
all the clouds smashing
against a depthless sky
we waited in strained attentiveness
for the sound of a moon
to howl back at us
we knew this was
the distance we were
from kings

(Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Irish Myths in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday

This is the first book in a set of three pocket reads about Irish myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales. I polished this one off in an afternoon as a research project, wanting to learn more about the stories and characters I encounter in books and movies. I wasn’t disappointed.

Irish Myths starts with some background. It describes the differences between myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales as well as some of the major gods and heroes, and how they changed over time under the influence of English Christianity, which was determined to wipe them out. Thank goodness the effort mostly failed.

After that introduction, the book goes on to tell stories about 20 of the most powerful weapons of Irish mythology. It also shares tales about the god of love, and how music was a skill that all the gods possessed. The second half of the book is a competition, moderated and decided by the author, to decide who is the greatest hero of Irish mythology, Cú Chulainn or Fionn mac Cumhaill. The competition takes twelve rounds (chapters) and pits one ancient tale against another.

The style of the book is conversational, and Kneverday has a wonderful sense of humor that he injects into his discussions. The most challenging part of the book is the names, which have myriad spellings and to Americans (like me) are almost unpronounceable. The author does a good job of sorting it all out, but still…

Highly recommended to readers who love Irish myths and legends. I’m off to read the next book in the series, Samhain, a short book about the origins of Halloween. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Samhain in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday

After finishing Kneverday’s book Irish Myths, I went straight into this one, book two of his pocket series. I’m well versed on the fun to be had by modern kids (and some adults) on Halloween, but didn’t know the origins of jack o’ lanterns, dressing up in costumes, or trick-or-treating. I think kids would love learning the roots of this holiday as much as I did.

The history of these traditions (and many more) reach way back to the ancient Celts. They’re delightfully shared in this two-hour read that also elaborates on the Irish gods of death and tells tales of Stingy Jack (Jack of the Lantern) and numerous headless horsemen. The rich meaning behind Samhain (and how to properly pronounce this most important of celebrations) is detailed in the book with a lot of humor and respect. A highly enjoyable read. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket by I. E. Kneverday

This is the third book in Kneverday’s Irish pocket books, and one that I was most looking forward to reading. I suspected that there would be a great many Irish monsters, but the author chose to go deep on about eight varieties rather than broad on many more. As he did with the two previous books in the series, he approached his storytelling with a great deal of conversational humor that made this book another enjoyable read.

The book dives into Irish dragons, werewolves, vampires, banshees, headless horsemen, giants, the púca (a mischievous creature), and Balor of the Evil Eye. For each type of monster, there’s some history, a dose of speculation, and descriptive tales from Irish lore. Another highly enjoyable, pocket read for fans of Irish and Celtic legends. (Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Happy Reading!

December Book Reviews (Part Two)

According to my new blogging schedule developed by my muse, today I’m supposed to share a blog post from our community that made me marvel, laugh, cry, cheer, or gasp at its beauty. But… I HAVE to share the rest of my December reviews of blogger books before any more time flies by.

December’s second bunch of reviews includes my 5-star reads of a memoir, a poetry collection, a paranormal fantasy, a military thriller, and an anthology of short crime stories.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Fifteen First Times: Beginnings: A Collection of Indelible Firsts by D.G. Kaye

Kaye’s memoir Fifteen First Times reads like a conversation over a glass of wine with a bunch of besties. As I was reading, I could imagine the groans, laughter, and tender moments many women share in common as they navigate their teens and young adulthood—first kiss, first love, first car, a broken heart, the angst of menstruation, the first hair coloring disaster, and the first death that woke us up to the impermanence of life. Fifteen firsts.

I couldn’t relate to all of Kaye’s experiences. I never had a thing about shoes, for example, and didn’t have the privilege of travel, but I could relate very well to the journey of self-discovery, to struggles with self-esteem, and to finding a home within ourselves.

What struck me the most about Kaye’s recollections is how humor and a bold, flamboyant approach to life helped her overcome challenges and become the confident woman she is today. She ends the memoir by highlighting the importance of laughter in her life and in her relationship with her late husband. It’s a touching thread that connects her memories and heartfelt conclusion to her book of firsts. An entertaining two-hour read, highly recommended to fans of memoirs. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

The Sheltering by Khaya Ronkainen

At the end of Ronkainen’s book of poetry, she shares a poetic piece of prose entitled “All I hope to say.” It’s a beautiful reflection on her reason for writing poetry – to record her life and grief, to let future generations know that this too shall pass, and to preserve beauty and create. It’s a lovely summation of her collection.

The book reads like a chronological story, beginning with the Covid years, moving through the death of loved ones and friends, and then into the current war. It’s poignant and full of the pain of grief and loss and the stress of living in a troubled world. The title “The Sheltering” felt appropriate, suggesting both the act of isolating and retreating, but also as a means of self-care and contemplation.

The poetry finally, quietly, and gracefully emerges back into nature’s sunlight, tentatively testing life’s waters. I felt the poet’s renewal and healing, and breathed the fresh air captured in one of her final poems:

Static Apnoea

Astonished I froze, facing a whale.
Eyes adjusted and focused, I became
nervous, for I came without a song.
Eyes adjusted and focused, she gave
me a gentle prod, lifted her head above
water to suck air through a blowhole.
She was showing me how to breathe.

This is a heartfelt and beautiful collection of about sixty free-form poems that I read over several days. Highly recommended.

*****

Shadow Walker (Shadow Walker #1) by Jina S. Bazzar

Melaina has a secret—her affinity (magic ability) is forbidden. She’s a shadow walker, capable of drawing the shadows around her and turning into a winged beast. Fearful of discovery, she tries to live a normal life by avoiding the nine magic houses that wield immense power and wealth. To support her aunt and brother, she worked as a thief, but now she has a chance at a real job. Only it turns out that the job is her worst nightmare. One of the houses wants her to steal from the others. If she fails, her aunt and brother will pay the price.

This isn’t the first series that I’ve read from this author and like her others, it’s got a deeply imagined world, a complex and fast-paced plot, and some kick-ass characters, particularly the main character. Bazzar’s female leads are all tough, skilled, and smart, and Melaina is no exception. While she has a conscience and big heart, she doesn’t back down from a confrontation.

There are a fair number of characters in the novel, but they aren’t hard to keep straight, especially the secondary characters who are fully developed with distinct personalities. Their relationships with Melaina are interesting, and I’m curious about where they’ll go. The book is not a standalone, and it ends without a great deal of resolution, but the series is complete, so readers don’t have to wait. Highly recommended to urban fantasy readers who enjoy complex plots and strong female leads. (Kindle Unlimited.)

*****

The Culmination: a new beginning by Gwen M. Plano

Just like the 2nd book in this series, this one (the 3rd) starts where the last left off. Admiral Joseph Parker and his soulmate, Julie underwood, have been shot and are recuperating in the hospital. Their lives are still at risk as their team’s efforts start zeroing in on a secret cabal working to destabilize the world with an assassination and nuclear missile launch.

At the 20% mark, the book makes a dramatic shift to the world theater. New main characters, primarily the US Vice President Margaret Adler and the Russian Prime Minister Ivan Smirnov take center stage. A meeting of world leaders to address nuclear arsenal reductions ends with a tenuous alliance, an unexpected romance, plans to address Syria, and a worldwide threat to peace.

World politics, including military strategies and governmental negotiations, continue through the end of the book. Cajoling and strong-arming are balanced by logic, honor, and an altruistic desire to do the right thing. This read made me long for this fictional world where most political choices aren’t tied to greed and power.

The strong romantic subplot breaks up the fast-paced narrative and political/military action. The characters are engaging, smart, and resourceful, and perhaps a little too good to be true. It was interesting to see what might happen if the US, Russia, and the Middle East could cooperate with each other with the best interests of the world in mind. Highly recommended to fans of political thrillers.

*****

Undercover: Crime Shorts by Jane Risdon

I read this collection of six short stories (and an extract from the author’s book) in a little over 2 hours and found it highly engaging. Each story centers on a crime—theft, murder, revenge—most premeditated, some accidental or imaginary. And few criminals get caught, at least not by the police.

The stories are all unique with well-developed characters, great suspense, and satisfying conclusions. A few of my favorites were “Murder by Christmas” with its twisted plot, “The Honey Trap” for riling me up, and “The Look” which satisfied my desire for revenge after “The Honey Trap.” Lol. A highly recommended anthology for fans of crime and suspense stories.

And a 2022 Reading Round-up!

My 2022 Goodreads Challenge results. I love browsing the covers and remembering a year filled with great reads.

I think that’s all of them! Happy Reading in 2023!

December Book Reviews (Part One)

I know I just shared a bunch of book reviews, but with the holidays coming up, I’ll be taking some time off, and I didn’t want to end up with a huge pile of reviews in January. Only three books today and all of them are excellent!

December’s reviews include my 5-star reads of a poetry collection, a sci-fi thriller, and a coming-of-age novel.

Click on the covers for Amazon global links.

*****

Sorrowful Soul (Book 3 in the Soul Poetry Series) by Harmony Kent

Grief is on my mind these days. It’s a solo journey, but this heartfelt book of poetry reminds me that there are common experiences along the road, and in that way, we don’t travel it quite so alone. In her forward (which I recommend reading), Kent offers some wisdom about the grieving process, and she highlights the stages of grief developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross so many years ago and still relevant today.

The poems are divided into sections based on Ross’s seven stages: Shock & Disbelief, Denial, Guilt, Anger, Depression, Working Through, and Acceptance. I read this book in one afternoon, and the poetry indeed felt like a journey from disbelief through acceptance. It’s an emotional collection, full of pain and longing, and at the end, a bit of sunshine glimmers through the trees. I highly recommend it.

This is free-form poetry, and about half of the offerings are rhyming verse. My favorites were among the less formal poems, and there were a lot of favorites. Below is an excerpt that captures the solemn tone of the section entitled Depression:

Winter of Discontent (an excerpt)

All the pretty birds have flown
Abandoned nests in skeletal trees
Frost rimmed dirt and weeds below
Cold, colourless uncaring sky above
It’s impossible life could ever return
To this barren, forsaken land
Where the grim reaper roams free
And winter berries litter the ground
Trampled beneath youthful feet
Too enamoured of life to notice
The carnage as red bleeds into white
As death mars the pristine snow
And invites the bereft with his gleaming scythe…

(Kindle Unlimited)

*****

Are we Monsters? by Rollin Miller

Fans of sci-fi are in for a treat with this book. If you like a story that includes artificial intelligence, cloning, mad scientists, wily old sheriffs, genetically enhanced villains, and lots of action that reads like a movie, well look no further. This is one of those books that you might sneak into the supply closet at work to polish off another scene.

NeosGen is a secret underground facility in the Nevada desert whose founder is dedicated to discovering the keys to immortality through cloning and the transference of consciousness. When one of their modified assets goes missing, the organization’s fixer goes on the hunt. That asset, a girl with modified abilities, turns up in a diner and the local sheriff, a smart old coot, starts investigating while trying to protect her. In the meantime, NeosGen has a number of challenges within its walls as two employees go rogue, and the founder’s financial partner is starting to have second thoughts.

The pace of this book doesn’t stop for a second as the story pivots from one desperate situation to the next. I felt like I was watching an action movie. Not only are the descriptions well crafted, but the characters are vivid. There are a number of them, but I had no trouble differentiating between them (despite Tom and Tommy) because they’re so unique, and as real as characters can get, right down to the bit actors.

The POV is omniscient with a few noticeable shifts, but otherwise, the quality of the prose is excellent with some great lines. The story has several twists, including one at the end I didn’t see coming and found highly satisfying. Everything wraps up nicely. I highly recommend this book to sci-fi fans who love great characters and a lot of action.

*****

Below Torrential Hill by Jonathan Koven

In this coming-of-age story, Tristan is fifteen, his life characterized by instability and abandonment, both physical and emotional. Years ago, his dad died in the woods on a drinking binge, and now his mother rides an emotional rollercoaster, professing love one moment, raving about voices the next, and then passing out on her own alcoholic benders. Unable to deal with Tristan’s mother, his stepfather abandoned them.

My heart went out to Tristan for his desperate search for meaning, his longing for love, and his choice to self-medicate with alcohol. Most of the story is told through his POV, and it generally takes place during times of physical isolation and alcohol-influenced dreams as he tries to figure out the point of his life. The narrative is reflective and dreamlike with amazing imagery. You’ll find beautiful writing such as this on every page:

“Ava carved into the shadow of the white streets, and the wind’s terrific belch mounted the sky. He stared absently at her—the girl he’d always known pinned to night’s curtain like a button.”

“Nothing ever ended, nothing new ever began. Everything was always stuck in the middle. He imagined the town fell off the earth. At the sidewalk’s edge, all the cosmos would spin silently, behaving in his presence, stoically turning without end. At the precipice of the relentless canyon of time, he easily wished to fall as a sunbeam against the vacuum.”

To me, this story spoke about every child’s need for stability, the immense vulnerability that arises from chaos, and the importance of having one dependable anchor in a child’s life, in this case, Tristan’s friend Ava. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy exquisite prose, dreamlike narratives, and coming-of-age stories about the search for identity, love, and wholeness in the midst of uncertainty.

*****

Happy Reading!

At the Mirror: Timeless Echoes

pixabay image

I’m a little under the weather this week and happily invited Balroop Singh to the Mirror today. She’s sharing a poem from her new book Timeless Echoes, a collection that invites you to hear the echoes that reverberate around you, reminding you of lost opportunities, repressed desires, cherished moments, and hope that shimmers through clouds.”

Echoes Of Life

Solace sailed away with you
Sinking hit me much later.
Love buried within my entrails
I swam to safety…
Shores don’t ditch!
Tongue is sharper than a thousand knives
Wisdom of the ages warned.
But your sagacity surpassed eons
Your simplicity – a façade…
Only I couldn’t fathom!
What next? I ask myself
Life echoes…no complaints.
I choose life…I love its echoes
Hope mentors my path
Happiness would follow.
The dew on my dreams is still fresh
Sunbeams add a sparkle
Prickly path shines with primroses
A new self is beckoning,
Smiling at my strengths.

***

Balroop’s website Emotional Shadows has a wealth of poetry. If you have a chance stop by and say hello.

Amazon Global Link: Timeless Echoes