Book Reviews

Roger’s Thought-Particles – Joram Piatigorsky

“Humility wasn’t one of Roger’s traits,” writes author Joram Piatigorsky in his captivating new novel, Roger’s Thought Particles. And we hold on to our hats as Dr. Roger Resin, a respected and award-winning scientist, arrogantly barges his way through the halls of the Vision Science Center on a quest to find a way to associate belief and optimism within the rigorous discipline of the scientific method. A lively cast of characters, including his spectral great-great-grandfather, Ricardo, join Roger, sometimes helping, but often throwing practical advice in the way of his fanciful dream. Can Roger resist his well-meaning friends’ concerns and fulfill his unconventional pursuit? You’ll be surprised when Piatigorsky’s imaginative ending sends Roger off on a whole new tangent in which belief comes to terms with rational thought.

Coffee Killed My Mother – Donna Stramella

Coffee Killed My Mother opens with a dream. Author Donna Stramella uses first person to introduce us to the story’s main character, Anna Lee, leading us through a young girl’s nightmare of abandonment and despair. Or was it a dream?

Building from a dramatic opening, Stramella takes us on a coming-of-age story wrapped around a road trip along the Atlantic seaboard with stops at resorts, motels, restaurants and coffee shops. A lot of coffee shops. Along the way, Stramella uses an intriguing mix of dialogue and backstory to introduce Anna Lee’s troubled past; divorced parents, a stolen friendship, and fears about her mother’s mental health. But when they stop at Virginia Beach, the trip takes a sudden turn off the narrative’s main highway. After a mysterious accident, the story heads onto side roads that expose the roots of a conflicted past that convinces Anna Lee it’s time to leave her mother. Then, a few coffee shops later, while visiting her mother’s hometown, another turn in the road follows a new route that leads toward reconciliation.

Anna Lee’s mother, Jacqueline Pierce, is the enigmatic element in the story, a perfect foil to her teen-aged daughter’s fears and self-doubt. Stramella does a wonderful job of doling out Jacqueline’s persona from behind a curtain of secrets and half-truths that drives the story’s pacing to its unexpected conclusion.

You’ll be turning the pages reading Coffee Killed My Mother wondering what the next roadside stop will uncover about the lives of Anna Lee and Jacqueline while asking yourself; Just how many coffees can that woman drink?

Telling Sonny – Elizabeth Gauffreau

Author Elizabeth Gauffreau resurrects the forgotten childhood fantasy of running away to join the circus with a twist in her novel, Telling Sonny.

Set in America’s idyllic early 20th century, a time of outwardly polite courtesies and thoughtfulness, Telling Sonny follows a young girl’s tragic fall from respectability to a life of white-knuckled survival among society’s counter-culture of traveling vaudeville entertainers.

Young Faby Gauthier, fresh out of high school wonders what’s to become of her life when the annual vaudeville show comes to her home town of Enosburg, Vermont.

Despite the drab setting in the Enosburg’s Opera House, Faby, accompanied by her sister and best friend, Josephine, is captivated by that year’s cavalcade of acts especially a song and dance number done by ‘America’s Favorite Hoofer,’ a tall, lanky fella known by his stage name, Slim White.

Gauffreau’s attention to setting details and language throughout the novel is exemplary. Faby and Slim are a study of contrasts and Gauffreau does a great job of setting them apart not only by their personalities but also by showing their differences in social customs, colloquial expressions and behaviors. Along the way, Gauffreau entertains us with enlightening anecdotal observations about early 20th century American life in small towns as well as urban centers. All through the story I felt informed and captivated with Faby’s efforts to keep up with her thoughtless, but dashing beau during a perilous time in her life.

Telling Sonny will keep you engaged from the start and you’ll finish the story satisfied, not only with the novel’s surprising conclusion, but also for having learned about a unique chapter in American social history.

Sacred MoundsJim Metzner

Salvador Samuels, aka Lewis, has memory problems. It’s not just ordinary amnesia, more like a surreal condition the likes of which send him into dimensions of time and supernatural phenomenon that will keep you turning pages until you reach the surprising conclusion of author Jim Metzner’s novel, Sacred Mounds.

Metzner weaves a combination of careful research mixed with imaginative imagery to create a story about two lost souls, three-hundred years apart, who’s fate it is to have their identities switched. They then stumble through unfamiliar places and foreign cultures trying to find answers to their predicaments while, on another level, the future of today’s world hinges on the balance of their success.

Lewis’ mystical partner is a blind American Indian warrior of the Natchez tribe, named Skyfisher, the Blind One Who Sees. Each of the two displaced souls face challenges of assimilation among strangers who regard them oftentimes with skepticism and at other times open hostility. Either way, Lewis and Skyfisher are unwittingly swept into each other’s worlds that leave little room for forbearance.

It takes a fertile imagination to breathe life into characters that exist in alternate planes of time and space and Metzner shows his skill bringing the two protagonists from the past and present together in a seamless narrative. Much of Sacred Mounds is built on the history of the Natchez, a proud culture that held an important position in America’s indigenous population prior to the European invasion.

Metzner carefully constructs the Natchez’s original way of life using scientific resources and input from members of today’s Natchez community to take the reader on a roller-coaster ride through an unfamiliar landscape that is almost forgotten.

I recommend Sacred Mounds both as a fast-paced adventure story and an intelligent commentary on both native and contemporary American values, traditions and history.

Salt Of The Nation – Matt Bloom

Matt Bloom’s novel, Salt Of The Nation, blends a road trip, politics and talk show radio into a fast paced story that keeps you wondering what and who’s next.

Harry McBride throws a straight right punch at all the demons in his life and knocks down a public figure instead. And not just any public figure, but a popular senator running for president of the United States. Harry evades the secret service and a dragnet of law enforcement and media while his victim, Senator Landon, ponders his next move after weathering the physical and political pain of being sucker-punched on national television.

“…You can run, McBride, but you can’t hide,” A conservative talk show host tells his nation-wide audience, bating and cajoling Harry to turn himself in and admit he’s a pawn of liberal political forces. Meanwhile, a disgraced PI, hired by Landon, does the footwork, tracking Harry from one small town to the next.

Author Matt Bloom puts us in the driver’s seat while Harry meanders the back roads of New Jersey, Virginia, Tennessee and points south and west among the strip malls and taverns of lost American dreams. Harry hopes to put his life back together hiding in a small Mexican town, but his life keeps interfering with his plans.

While Harry struggles from behind the wheel to come to terms with his past, his celebrity as a media personality changes from fugitive to hero. Public sentiment turns a deaf ear on the media offensive and regards the forsaken gravel plant laborer as a symbol of American pluck, a celebrated underdog who stuck it to the man and got away.

Can Harry’s new fame intercede in time to save him from his relentless pursuer? On a lonely desert highway, five miles from the Mexican border, Harry’s fate leads him in another unexpected direction.

Bay of Blood – Andy Potter

Potter’s murder mystery, ‘Bay of Blood’ takes the reader to a magnificent setting of Canadian woodlands and water where a baffling murder has left no clues behind. The battered corpse of a world famous artist, Thom Tyler, is lifted from the bottom of Colpoys Bay, his skiff beached nearby, its bilge filled with blood. “The good news,” says Sergeant Chew at the murder investigation meeting, “We’re farther ahead than we were two days ago. The bad news? We’re not very far ahead.”

Detective Eva Naslund knows the land, she knows the community and she knew the victim, but the high-profile case quickly spins out of her hands when hard-driving Detective Inspector Lewis Moore is assigned to lead the investigation. Naslund follows Moore’s lead as the professional she is, but her local connections take her in directions of her own as she tries to connect the dots.

Hold on to your hats because author Andy Potter wastes no time diving in to a fast-paced plot that holds the reader’s attention with chilling police work detail and a perplexing lineup of persons of interest, all of whom seem to be prime suspects.

Then the twists begin when the case goes cold, then an important witness is murdered, and all Naslund has to go on is a hunch. Potter keeps us wondering as the investigation finds more characters and vague motives that point both murders toward an uncertain link to Thom Tyler’s background.

Balancing captivating descriptions of a close-knit, water-borne community full of eccentric characters with blow-by-blow scenes of violence, grief and careful police work, Potter keeps us in the story from page one to the end with his excellent writing and research skills. If you love feeling the danger of murder lurking behind every page, ‘Bay of Blood’ will keep you reading well into the night.

Devolution – John Casey

Cloak and Dagger stories are usually not my favorite, but it pays to take a chance now and then and Devolution paid off.

Author John Casey makes us anxious from the onset when SCALPEL’s Deputy Director of Operations, Phil Dittrich, the CIA’s top spy, pulls the plug at the last minute on a clandestine operation that goes awry. SCALPEL is tied to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, in charge of beyond-black operations, and after barely pulling off its last near-disaster of an operation, it finds itself in hot water again.

Dittrich’s second in command, Lauren Rhodes, follows orders and aborts the mission, but with apprehension, wondering what is in store for SCALPEL as well as her own prospects.

Meanwhile, the bad guys have no doubt about their mission and they’re full speed ahead on a deadly plan, built around revenge and religious fanaticism, to kill as many Americans in Europe as they can.

Using the all-seeing omniscient POV, Casey gives us a 360-degree view of counterintelligence operations, introducing us to the SCALPEL team. Along with Dittrich and Rhodes there’s the tech-wizardry skills of Thomas Freeman, the spy-savvy operative Tony Stone and the wild-card, Michael Dolan.

Dolan is a late arrival, and he seems to be a surprise solution to SCALPEL’s latest problem, but as the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true it probably isn’t. Casey masterfully paints a complex character who is seemingly rock solid, but has defects that even Dolan himself is not completely aware of. These defects come out of his orderly emotional closet when SCALPEL’s mission hits the fan.

Casey’s frank and realistic interplay among the principals draws you into a complicated plot about believable challenges, both in the field and inside the walls of counterintelligence operations. His craftsmanship is evident as the plot progresses until the tension becomes too fervent to put aside. The pages didn’t turn fast enough.

Someday Everything Will All Make Sense – Carol LaHines

An eccentric professor of medieval musicology, Luther van der Loon is forced out of his comfort zone when his mother dies unexpectedly choking on a wonton soup dumpling.

Author Carol LaHines’ excellent novel turns the tables on conventional storytelling by having the reader participate in a slice of Luther’s life through the lens of his own inimitable persona. Luther is boring and unsociable. He’s so tormented by his mother’s untimely death that he becomes obsessed with death itself, in all its manifestations. He resists his girlfriend’s efforts to rescue him from paralyzing phobias associated with his mother and Chinese takeout. He’s a brilliant performer, but he plays the obscure and unpopular harpsichord (named Aveline after a medieval morality play). He teaches a class in fourteenth century pre-mensural notation that is poorly attended and threatened with department budget cuts and worse.

But don’t let Luther’s banal lifestyle scare you! Written in first person, LaHines turns Luther’s words and thoughts into an entertaining and thought-provoking character study. Luther may suffer from multiple insecurities, but he expresses his fate in ways that will both make you laugh at times and at other times, appreciate life’s foibles as faced by an introverted scholarly bohemian.

LaHines’ excellent writing and research skills are evident on every page, creating a fascinating story with an imaginative plot filled with extraordinary characters.

Sons and Daughters of Toussaint – Keith Madsen

Historical fiction is an intricate combination of fact and make-believe, and if done well the result can put life into an otherwise dreary account of the past events. Author Keith Madsen does a superb job of orchestrating a complex chapter of colonial history around a fictional story of Isaac and Marie-Noëlle, two young lovers who set out to change their world in his novel Sons and Daughters of Toussaint.

Opening during the last years of Toussaint Louverture’s reign as Governor General of Saint-Dominque, now known as Haiti, Madsen sets the stage for introducing us to the origins of Haiti’s current turbulent state of affairs.

Then Isaac and Marie-Noëlle’s on-again, off-again relationship plays out in a gripping narrative filled with idealism tempered with the shocking reality of rampant, unchecked crime and political corruption. Sons and Daughters will have you rooting for the protagonists despite the long odds for their success.

The fast-paced nature of Madsen’s storytelling will keep you guessing about the conclusion as Isaac and Marie-Noëlle get caught up in a constricting net of intrigue that tests their devotion to each other and their country. But when the end comes you will turn the last page delightfully surprised at both the story’s conclusion and to have learned so much about this fascinating and mysterious Caribbean nation.

Zahara And The Lost Books Of Light – Joyce Yarrow

‘The plot thickens’ is an apt way of describing Joyce Yarrow’s richly written saga of courage, intrigue, and mystery in her book Zahara And The Lost Books Of Light.

The story opens when Alienor Crespo, a Seattle journalist, feels like a screenwriter who’s been asked to play a role in her latest script while she researches a story about the first Sephardic woman from Seattle to apply for Spanish citizenship.

Alienor’s research uncovers news about displaced Jews being allowed an unprecedented right of return to Spain. The story keeps her wondering about her own family heritage and her Sephardic identity, and she convinces herself to use the story as an opportunity. After making amends with her father and her mysterious elderly grandmother, Alienor decides to participate in Spain’s offer. She travels to Spain ostensibly to finish the research assignment while at the same time exploring her family’s roots and applying for a Spanish passport.

But instead of an uneventful flight to Madrid via Paris, Alienor’s journey makes some unexpected stops by way of a mystical gift called Vijitas that takes her back in time to key moments in the lives of her female forebears.

Using Vijitas as a narrative construct, Yarrow expertly guides the reader through an extended backstory that simultaneously builds on a fast-paced present-day plot of heroism and suspense. Alienor barely escapes with her life more than once when she stumbles into family connections guarding a priceless trove of medieval manuscripts being kept in a secret underground library called Zahara.

The future of the library is threatened by fascist extremists who want to finish the job started in 1499 by the Spanish Inquisition to burn all heretical books.

Yarrow brings it all home in a race against time as a sophisticated fascist organization picks up Zahara’s scent and descends upon the library with plans to destroy everything with only Alienor and her few collaborators standing in their way.

Lies, deceit and double-cross complicate Alienor’s efforts, but the story’s conclusion is a fitting end to our heroine’s exciting adventure.

 Richard Baker, A Grave In Kolkata

Imagine stalking a tiger amid the steamy mangroves of the Sunderbans forest or sitting in a yellow taxi inching your way through a dense urban setting crowded with vendor stalls, beggars, and sacred cows, under plush palm trees and the smell of curry permeating the air.

Scenes like these enrich a fast-paced plot of adventure and family intrigue in Richard Baker’s vibrant new novel, A Grave In Kolkata, set in India’s former capital of the British Raj, Kolkata, formally called Calcutta.

Peter Cuthbert and his wife Janet decide, for different reasons, to visit India in the company of a colorful group of compatriots under the watchful eye of Global Tours’ guide Sumit Bannerjee.

Janet is interested in touring and experiencing Indian culture, while Peter is more interested in investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding his grandfather’s death while serving in the British Army in early 20th century India. With only sketchy family stories and old newspaper articles to go on, Peter occasionally jumps off the tour bus in search for clues in dusty libraries, impersonal government buildings, graveyards and abandoned palaces.

Along the way, Global Tours takes the Cuthberts’ and their tour group on its own adventure that covers the gamut of destinations in India’s West Bengal state; spanning elegant architectural landmarks to trackless, remote wilderness.

Baker’s keen sense of observation and thorough research enhances his story with an abundance of information about the sub-continent with all its beauty, grandeur, and chaos. If you enjoy armchair traveling at its best, A Grave In Kolkata will have you turning pages trying to keep up with Peter and Janet’s adventures.

Rita Baker, Of Breeding and Birth

Of Breeding and Birth is a story built around a tragedy.

The story opens with Frankie Leeman, a promising young lawyer and member of the Bocacci family who carries with him a murky history involving adoption and what he thinks is an adopted family’s acceptance. Turns out there’s more to it than he thought. Frankie is tasked with defending a family member who has been accused of drug possession. The family smells a rat, but the accusation has the potential to ruin the family’s reputation and result in financial ruin. In his pursuit to discover the truth, Frankie’s investigation exposes damaging evidence about the person who is responsible for the accusation. Frankie’s efforts also opens the door to the love of his life, Cynthia, who is almost everything Frankie could ever want in a partner, but then, almost isn’t everything.

The novel’s tragic side involves Archie Bingham, another up-and-coming lawyer who begins his life possessing everything money and family influence could provide. Smart, handsome and having a powerful will to succeed, Archie seems to be an indomitable presence except for one thing. He holds secret a private family matter that torments him. At first, he keeps the secret in check, but later the secret unleashes a destructive side of his personality that leads to disgrace, both to himself and his family.

Author Rita Baker develops Frankie and Archie’s two very different lives using skillful storytelling, strong, layered plot development and highlighted with beautifully written scenic passages. The reader is transported from bustling New York City to elegant and romantic locations in London, Italy and places in between through the eye of an expert who knows her locations intimately.

You’ll follow every step of the way as Frankie and Archie evolve from strangers to adversaries until Baker’s surprising twist at the end leaves you breathless and wanting more.

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