CROSSWIND by Karen Brees

In Crosswind, Dr. Katrin Nissen, professor of botany at Yale University (and trained operative) is sent to Berlin in search of an M-16 operative. Dieter Weiss has disappeared, along with important microfilm. Katrin must find her colleague under the cover of a “Plant Sociology” conference (more on this later). The twisting plot includes the deaths of University botanists, a serial killer, and the pervasive presence of the Gestapo.

The narrative shifts between Katrin’s POV and other perspectives, giving the reader an immersive sense of Nazi Germany. Author Karen Brees studied history in college and grad school, and she clearly understands the necessary balance between historical detail and storytelling. You’re going to have to work to remember that Crosswind is fiction.

At its best, historical fiction has current relevance. The notion of a conference on Plant Sociology seems silly, but the scenario is built on actual history. The Nazis were interested in “bioethics” with its attending desire for “native plants” and the effort to weed out undesirable flora—a short step away from ethnic cleansing. Just as frightening is the novel’s depiction of academia’s readiness to adopt an ideologically informed stance and call it science.

Katrin Nissen is a marvelous character. Brees melds history, character, setting, and relevant themes to craft a first-rate suspense thriller. I loved this book. (Five stars out of five)

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BREAK by Ken Bagnis

Trey Barrow is a seventeen-year-old patient in a psychiatric hospital. His parents are overseas, preparing to adopt a baby (something Trey learned about from the housekeeper). Diagnosed as a psychotic, Trey receives medication by injection—despite his pleas of sanity.

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At the hospital, Trey meets Pearl—a young patient who’s been around long enough to know the ropes, including a way to the roof of the facility. Trey has a nightmare nemesis—a shadowy demon named Howler Jack—and Pearl seems to save him from an attack with her own brand of magic. Together, they steal a car and head off without a driver’s license between them, hoping to save the world from impending doom.

But their private quest has an intruder—an eight-year-old stowaway in the back seat of a hot car.

Break is the second novel-length offering from Ken Bagnis, a practicing psychotherapist with serious writing chops. The author has an extraordinary sense of his young, dysfunctional characters. The story’s manic road trip is exhilarating, and ultimately, soul-touching. Themes of community and chosen family make this a must read. (Five stars out of five)

Dark was the Night

“You were born in the light, Willie Johnson.

On a January day. In a small Texas town.”

 

dark-was-the-night-largeSo begins an extraordinary children’s book, tracing the life of Blind Willie Johnson, an underappreciated hero of the blues. In Dark was the Night, written by Gary Golio and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Blind Willie is introduced in spectacular fashion to a new generation of young readers.

Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas. He began his musical journey playing church hymnals. After he lost his sight, Willie met another blind preacher/vocalist (Madkin Butler) who probably had an influence on his style. Willie’s recording career included 30 songs. His unique style caught the attention of blues critic Edward Abbe Niles, who praised his “violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing.”

In 1977, the United States shot Voyager I into space carrying a golden record pressed with 27 songs chosen to represent the human experience. Willie’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was included.

Dark Was the Night is a first-rate children’s picture book. The watercolor panels are nostalgic and emotional. (The picture of a train rolling through Texas belongs on my office wall!) The prose is clear, simple, and powerful. The theme of light vs. dark is startlingly effective for the story of a blind musician.

The afterward, detailing Willie’s life and the story of Voyager’s record, provides a fine and fitting epilogue to the story.

In a world struggling with negativity, the book is both inclusive and optimistic. I have not encountered a book that made me feel as good as Dark was the Night in a long time. I would encourage you to buy the book as a gift for young readers. Or do as I did, and buy a copy for a gnarled old reader who loves the blues, loves good art, and loves a story that deserves to be told. My highest recommendation. (Five stars out of five)

Mind Riot

mind riotSalem Scott is a clever (and sometimes depressed) teen, living in small town America. He’s too hip for home, noting, “anything trendy that happens in a state that borders an ocean usually takes about seven or eight years to get popular here.” But school is out, and summer vacation looms.

When his plans go up in flames (literally), Salem must make amends by volunteering at a private mental institution. Worse, his band decides to “evolve” without him (“more metal, less stress”), so things couldn’t get any worse, right?

But they could get better, especially if some of the patients in the institution can play music…

Mind Riot is a superior young adult novel. At turns funny and dark, sensitive and raw, Salem’s battle with a grief he can’t express gives weight to the clean, fast-paced prose. Author Ken Bagnis is a practicing psychotherapist, lending authenticity to the proceedings. Every page rings true.

The heart of any YA novel rests in characterization. The author excels at exploring the small details that flesh out his cast of misfits. Salem’s flamboyant best friend Jace is especially well-drawn. The novel is told from the protagonist’s POV, and Bagnis has the young man’s voice down to the word.

Hopeful and real, Mind Riot is a terrific summer read. I devoured the book in a day. You will, too. (Five stars out of five)

In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow

ash and sorrowMagic Realism, the literary genre, combines realistic narrative techniques with the surreal elements of fantasy. The practical and the magical coexist, lending a certain amount of credibility to more fantastical aspects.

Ken Harmon’s In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow is a multi-layered novel that combines magic realism, traditional historic fiction and cultural exploration, resulting in that rare novel that is both a fine read and a work of art.

From the back cover text of In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow:

When bombardier Micah Lund dies on a mission over Hiroshima, his spirit remains trapped in the land of his enemies. Dazed, he follows Kiyomi Oshiro, a war widow struggling to care for her young daughter, Ai. Food is scarce, work at the factory is brutal, and her in-laws treat her like a servant. Watching Kiyomi and Ai together, Micah reconsiders his intolerance for the people he’d called the enemy. As his concern for the mother and daughter grows, so does his guilt for his part in their suffering.Micah finds a new reality when Kiyomi and Ai dream—one which allows him to interact with them. While his feelings for Kiyomi deepen, imminent destruction looms. Hiroshima is about to be bombed, and Micah must warn Kiyomi and her daughter. In a place where dreams are real, Micah races against time to save the ones he loves the most.In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow is a tale about love in its most extraordinary forms—forgiveness, sacrifice, and perseverance against impossible odds.

This novel is a marvel. How do you take the story of Hiroshima and craft from it a delicate story of love, sacrifice and perseverance? Start with clean, beautiful prose, an unusual plot, and characters that you can’t help but love. Add in the author’s immersive exploration of Japanese lore, and you have a completely original novel.

Do yourself a great favor and buy this book. Fragile and understated, beautifully written, you will remember this story long after you’ve finished. My highest recommendation (five out of five stars).

 

GIRL AT SEA: A COMING OF AGE TALE

BurtonBeth Portman is a 14-year-old girl with a troubled past. Silas Tufts is an ex-Navy Seal. Together, they roam the ocean, followed by a mysterious black albatross.

Portman’s parents have died in a mysterious fire. Her youthful innocence is honed into young adulthood in a series of encounters, from the Philippines to Hong Kong. Warning: author David Burton does not pull punches.

Burton’s fine novel uses this mythic framework to tell a story of adventure and revenge. (The revenge aspect is, in the end, highly satisfying.) Born into a horrible situation, Beth gets a second chance with Silas.

Similarly, Girl at Sea gets a second chance with tight formatting and new cover art. (The story was previously published.) You will find Beth’s story to be powerful, and oddly touching.

There’s Beauty in My Flaws

Beauty FlawsTally Forester is ready for a reboot. College was a dead end, and her job at the bar is no better. Perhaps  a fresh start waits for her in Colorado. Her uncle runs a funeral home there, and Tally can help out while planning her next step. While working, she meets a suspicious widow. Tally follows some questionable evidence, but there are deeper secrets in play.

B. B. Grace’s There’s Beauty in My Flaws is a mystery, but it’s also a strong character study with unique female characters.

And, it’s poetry. Grace has a literary voice. Her narrative bypasses many genre conventions on the way to a more complex set of truths. In some ways, her heroine is “lost,” and the story wanders with her. You won’t mind the journey. The language and insight will carry you from plot point to plot point. There’s Beauty in My Flaws is for the careful, patient reader who digs a little deeper. There’s gold in there. (Five stars out of five)

 

RISE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CHANGE

riseRise: An Anthology of Change is a collection of prose and poetry exploring positive change. First, let me admit my prejudices. I love poetry, and a mix of personal essays and poetry strikes me as a perfect format. Prose explores the book’s themes in-depth, while poetry provides an abstract representation of related emotions, which gives the work an emotional symmetry you might not find with prose alone.

Let me mention a few pieces that impacted me personally. Follow the Hula Girl (Becky Jensen) is a remarkable essay that resonated with me for several reasons. (My father passed recently. A family member committed suicide.) Despite potentially dark themes, the essay was upbeat and uplifting.

Flickering Images (Belle Schmidt) is a sweet, concise poem about love’s ability to transcend changing circumstances.

Transformation (Suzanne Lee) is a whimsical look at holiday dinnerware (appropriate to the season) with a lot to say about our relationship to things in general.

Climbing Down the Mountain (Katherine Valdez) is noteworthy, both for the raw honesty of the prose and for the straightforward explanation of the formerly inexplicable (Why would someone stay in an abusive relationship?)

Finally, Pinecone (David Sharp) is a funny, clever piece about the pros and cons of changing the past.

Some readers might find the anthology uneven. My emotional response to the work certainly varied, but that’s to be expected in such an inclusive work. Well-written, well-edited, I give this literary buffet five out of five stars.

Slasher Crasher

f41f0d4a-72aa-44f4-951c-64603b59da36Gallows humor has always been a facet of horror fiction, but most horror comedies miss the mark. The delicate balance between horror and comedy is fragile. Too much comedy and there are no scares. Too much horror and the comedy becomes an afterthought. Along comes author David Nora, who shatters the delicate balance with a sledgehammer. His novel, Slasher Crasher, is a Scream (pun intended).

Five years earlier, Nick Roesch murdered his babysitter’s boyfriend. Now, Nick is a patient in a New York mental hospital. He escapes (easily done – it’s Halloween, after all.) When he crosses paths with two feuding high school girls (Kathleen and Betsy), his plans are coopted. Too bad he’s not quite smart enough to get out of the line of fire…

What follows is a clever mashup of slasher genre tropes, social commentary, and horror humor—the kind that would normally offend everyone. But in Nora’s twisted hands, the layered insanity will make you laugh out loud (and then curse yourself for doing so).

Welcome to the horror party from Hell. No sacred cow left standing. (Five stars out of five)

Rose City: A Teller County Novel

roseCole Quick has been away from home for a long time. Thirteen years earlier, he’d skipped town with his soon-to-be wife and a substantial debt to a drug dealer. Over the ensuing years, Quick tried to live a better life. After all, his wife gave up her inheritance to be with him. Then, cancer took her, leaving him without an anchor.

When Quick’s alcoholic father dies, Quick returns for the funeral. There, he’ll face the dealer (and his law enforcement friends), his dead wife’s family, and a town riddled with racism, class strife, and corruption. They’re not going to leave him alone—thanks to his father, Quick has something everyone wants. As he slides back into old temptations and the Teller County underworld, the dark forces that plague Rose City may not be Cole’s worst enemy…

Michael Pool’s Rose City: A Teller County Novel is a fast-moving piece of classic noir. The first beat-down starts on page five. And like the action, Pool’s dialog has punch:

“Tell the truth, I hate cocaine,” Fat Jerry says.

“Is that right?” Cole asked.

Yeah,” Fat Jerry said, grinning, “but I love the way it smells.”

Rose City is filled with authentic characters and vivid small-town descriptions. Cole Quick is a painfully flawed protagonist who sees what money has done to the place he grew up. Ironic, then, that his redemption may lie in his dead father’s windfall…

Don’t expect a formulaic arc or familiar plot points. Pool is too smart for that. If you like your noir complex (and more than a little messy), Rose City is your book. My favorite novel so far this year. (Five stars out of five)