Credit the Crocodile: A Tale of Political Intrigue and International Adventure Involving Wildlife

by Godfrey Harris
The Americas Group
book review by Mihir Shah

“I want them to know what it’s like to live constantly on guard for enemies, constantly on the lookout for your next meal.”

Paul Martin and Tyler Williams are determined to give purpose to their gap year. At just eighteen years of age, the newly minted high school graduates immediately gravitate to Animal Welfare Enterprises’ mission. What ensues is a trip to the South African countryside town of Happy Hollow with the intent of awakening the community to animal mistreatment on the Stewart farm and “to free the crocodiles” from any barriers that keep them from their natural habitat. It doesn’t take long for this seemingly innocent freedom of expression by the boys to snowball into endless sequences of chaos and repercussions by a community and authorities determined to make an example of the duo.

Harris shifts the point of view routinely from the boys and their encounter with the people of Happy Hollow to Credit the Crocodile’s journey and observations on the entire fiasco. To add further intrigue, Credit is incredibly observant and thinks critically about everything that happens around him, even if it is just musing on how parrots communicate on where to set their nests for mating season. The author effectively uses Credit’s character in the novel to shed light upon the atrocities against other wildlife, primarily the ruthless slaughter of elephants in Kenya for their ivory and rhinos being killed in South Africa for their horns. There are numerous examples, but the more one thinks, the more one is forced to wonder whether humans aren’t truly the “mindless beasts” in this entire cycle of predator and prey.

With the debate raging and teetering on outrage, Mrs. Nabala simply, yet vehemently, insists that wild animals cannot be respected if restrained within enclosures like zoos, as is largely the case in the United States. Ironically, the boys are so engrossed in their own perspective and words that they fail to see the resentment building up with every speech they make. While the mayhem only builds up for Paul and Tyler, the author provides a refreshing backstory of how Credit’s desire to learn the meaning of individual sounds through rhythm and tone from the Stewart’s son, Stephen, helped him evolve into an Obi Wan-esque character, the seemingly omniscient wiseman of the entire reptilian clan. When their paths inevitably intersect, Paul and Tyler are direct recipients of Credit’s generosity and knowledge of the English language. Their lives unquestionably depend on their understanding and trust in him.

When Andy Mitchell, police chief of Happy Hollow, becomes privy to this gathering, he, along with Tom, the owner of Stewart Farm, immediately sets out to make an example of the boys. In unraveling the gravity of Paul and Tyler’s predicament, the author seamlessly integrates several critical ideas that should not be overlooked. Chiefly, his characters are emphatically against the idea of outsiders coming to fix what isn’t broken in the name of humanitarianism that dates back to colonial rule. Whereas Andy and Tom are steadfast in bringing the boys down, Stephen and Credit want to help the boys out of their predicament while simultaneously ingraining in their minds that preconceived notions prevent them from seeing just how beneficial the farm is to the crocodiles’ existence and, on a grander scale, the existence and employment of a large portion of the Happy Hollow community.

The plot reaches a breakneck pace when Paul and Tyler are sentenced to two weeks of living in the bush. With the help of other crocodiles like Cynthia and Cecil, Credit is determined to make a breakthrough with the boys, both in helping them survive the two weeks from all the wild animals as well as showing them the difficulty life would present to the crocodiles if they were forced to live that “on-edge-all-the-time” lifestyle in their version of the wild. In particular, the comparison between the bush of Happy Hollow and the San Diego Wild Animal Park paints a stark contrast between the two and helps Credit make his point with far greater intensity.

As the boys’ interact with Credit, their journey to a greater understanding of freedom and captivity begins. Though the political angle is referenced consistently throughout the novel, Harris uses Credit to send a far greater message to the boys, the animal welfare organization, and society as a whole: understand what a nation’s realities are (in this case, South Africa and Happy Hollow) and communicate with those that they think may be oppressed so they can get a complete, assumption-free snapshot of the entire situation. Despite Paul and Tyler coming across as naive and almost robotic in their regurgitation of AWE manuals, Harris does a commendable job of showing their character arc and propelling them further into their purpose with the help of Credit. With fluid prose and thoughtful content, the novel engages and challenges the glamorization of “doing good,” making for a meaningful read.

Tara’s Treasures

by Betty Elza
Archway Publishing
book review by Michael Radon

“Tara smiled. Everything was all right. Tara went home. At bedtime Tara said to her mother, ‘We are silent friends, we are givers.'”

When young Tara moves to a new neighborhood with her mother, she quickly wants to make friends and settle in. Spotting a woman working in a garden full of flowers, she goes into her yard to introduce herself and make friends, only to be ignored. Trying again the next day, Tara greets her neighbor only to be snubbed again. Undeterred, she returns to the garden, and this time taps her neighbor on the arm, startling her. The woman introduces herself as Zura, and soon the pair are working together on Zura’s garden, swapping stories and becoming fast friends. Zura begins to give small trinkets from various places to Tara to thank her for her friendship, but this puts Tara in a bind: how can she reciprocate Zura’s friendship when she has no treasures of her own?

Paired with vibrant, full-page illustrations in soothing pastels, the mellow, friendly tone of this book is perfect for pre-nap reading or just a relaxing afternoon. Children either reading this book or having it read to them will be treated with a story about how friendships are made and kept as well as understanding what life is like with someone who is hearing impaired. A story like this is perfect for young children of all manner of sensibilities, as it is non-confrontational and generally upbeat. Even as she wonders why Zura won’t pay attention to her, and before she understands that she cannot hear her, Tara’s frustrations are palpable but manifest in a positive direction. With a wholesome, direct message and plenty of learning opportunities, this is a wonderful book to share with any young reader.

Murder in the Atchafalaya

by Jim Riley

book review by Joe Kilgore
“Trixie’s unblinking gaze fixed onto whatever follows death as her last breath left her body.”

A lot of things can kill you in the Louisiana swamps, not the least of which are water moccasins, alligators, and maybe even something unworldly called a Rougarou. But as the body count rises in this jambalaya mystery, it becomes apparent that the increasing death toll is mostly due to some very bad villains and some very tough law enforcers.

Kristi is a young college graduate from West Texas recently hired and trained by the Treasury Department. While on the hunt for two of her colleagues, she manages to get herself assaulted and lost in the Atchafalaya Basin. Hawk is an ex-military combat vet now working for the United States Ranger Services. He’s asked by his old friend, the Parish Sheriff, to try to find Kristi. What he finds is not only the woman he’s looking for but also a hell of a lot of trouble. Together, Hawke and Kristi wind up in the middle of ruffians, counterfeiters, financial scalawags, and murderers. As they try to figure out what’s happening and why, while continually staying one step ahead of assassins, they begin to form a bond of respect, friendship, and perhaps even more.

Author Riley does a first-rate job of steeping the reader in the milieu of South Louisiana and Cajun mores. From murders at mudbug fests to menacing mosquito swarms to monumentally malevolent snake pits, he puts the heat and humidly on every page. He’s also adept at weaving a spider-webbed plot that is both intricate and credible. There’s action, suspense, humor, and even a dash of romance in this gumbo of a novel that promises to start a series of adventures for Kristi and Hawke.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Perfection of Fish

by J.S. Morrison
Black Rose Writing
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“Maybe there’s something in the water.”

In the small town of Assurance, North Carolina, agoraphobe Nadia Holman is the last remaining resident. Nadia relies on Berky Benson, a former student and resident, to take care of her while she attempts to document and preserve Assurance’s history. What Nadia doesn’t realize is that her genes are being used and manipulated by Berky, who believes that society is trying to eradicate masculinity, and who funds a genetic manipulation research project in the hopes of creating subservient women. Diana, Nadia’s twin sister, stops by Assurance for a visit and realizes both her sister and her sister’s love for their hometown are being exploited. Diana joins a ragtag team of rebels who work together to uncover and undo the dangerous experiments helmed by Berky’s laboratory team, Xanadu. What ensues is a clash of cultures, beliefs, science, and manpower with the future of humanity at stake.

The author imagines the United States about 20 years or so into the future. Men of this time can take a drug known as Testrial to make them less aggressive. Technology is also integrated into society in the form of almost constant surveillance. The town of Assurance plays a huge role in this novel, in part because it is “off the map,” but also because the town’s own mythology and roots drive much of the story. Assurance is believed to be a blessed place, founded at the center of intersecting ley lines and their power. It is home to a new species of fish in the nearby river, which is believed to possess some form of immortality power. These two beliefs have been passed down to residents of the town, mainly Nadia and Berky. Their conviction in the mysticism of Assurance and in Ichthy’s fish bones drive their motivations. Nadia’s beliefs about Assurance, Ichthy, and saving the town make her susceptible to exploitation. Meanwhile, Berky’s beliefs about Ichthy’s bones make him power-hungry.

Genetic manipulation and bioengineering are common tropes in science fiction, and the author ties them into gender and control, much like in the novel Viral War by Josephine DeBois. In this book, however, it seems the author borrows an idea from the Jurassic Park franchise—splicing different DNA together to create a more perfect specimen. Whereas the scientists in Jurassic Park used multiple animal DNA to build the ultimate dinosaur, Berky and his lab have used fish genetics from the beloved Ichthy to test out genetic manipulation. Transhumanism is a big theme in this novel, and it is something that Berky and his team use to inspire people to join his cause. But while transhumanism is something to aspire to in the eyes of Berky’s cohorts, it is also a lie used to sell their purpose and bypass the law for genetic experimentation. The author plays around with this idea, questioning what it means to be human on a moral scale when actions seem to be inspired and twisted into acts of malevolence. A sci-fi novel that satirizes social norms and conspiracy theories, this story is a wild tale from start to finish. This book was a Maxy Award Sci-Fi/Fantasy finalist.

Doc’s Dog Days: A Hickory Doc’s Activity Book

by Linda Harkey

book review by Kate Robinson

“‘Doc, you can learn a lot about a book by eating its binding.'”

Linda Harkey, a former educator and museum docent as well as a hunting dog enthusiast, writes children’s books about the beloved and oft-visited topic of canine capers, making the old new again by featuring a specific breed close to her heart—German short-haired pointers. In this third book of her series, the adorable black-and-white illustrations by Mike Minick are begging to be colored and doodled upon with markers, pencils, or crayons, making this both an educational and a fun diversion likely to be appreciated by kids and their caregivers, parents, and teachers.

The activity book serves as a transition from picture book to chapter book, with a flash story and a full-page illustration in each spread. A single spread can be consumed as a separate lesson, story, or creative experience. The reading level and subject matter pertaining to the German shorthair breed and their tracking and hunting abilities is somewhat advanced in some stories in comparison to the coloring book illustrations, so younger children will need reading and information assistance as they enjoy their coloring. Some stories are simpler, less informative, tighter, and more playful than others, so this volume ultimately has broad appeal to a wide spectrum of kids: young non-readers, early readers, and more advanced readers who can tackle the more difficult text and the concepts themselves. Some stories are left purposely unfinished for development by students, with extra space on the page and prompted via a final question. There’s also space in the coloring book illustrations for kids to add their own creative flourishes.

The anthropomorphic, dog-centric stories are heartfelt, light, and humorous, though occasionally a bit self-conscious and over explanatory, in the sense that illustrations typically play a role in “showing” some plot point in children’s stories. Therefore, there are few visual surprises since the text tends to reiterate and upstage the pictorial action. The tales are set in specific locales, mostly Oklahoma and New Mexico. So, in addition to visiting the daily lives and adventures of hunting dogs, readers will also experience regional and environmental information, such as the wildlife they encounter and descriptions of landscapes.

The dogs’ viewpoints are unique as they refer to their human couple at the Lazy Dog Hacienda as “Great One” and “Food Giver.” Readers will also enjoy the various quirks of each character, such as Sadie’s mealtime behavior and insistence that her food be served in a sectional bowl, or Zeke’s desire to carry around a blanket during hunting season. The storybook dogs delight in their surroundings just as real dogs do, investigating anything attractive or new to them, such as Food Giver’s ice cream bar, the reason Porcupine Pete has quills, or why the Lazy Dog Hacienda’s owl is mysteriously hanging upside down one day. Readers are invited to explore these phenomena creatively, and no doubt they will also enjoy recounting their own dog stories in response to the book’s tales. The universal appeal of companionship with dogs and curiosity about wild animal encounters, plus the invitation to process these creatively, is a big plus for this book as well as the series.

A 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Category Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Shock Wave

by Florian Louisoder
Starry Night Publishing
book review by Kat Kennedy

“It wasn’t the future that took root in our present that day, it was the past…”

Forty-year-old deep-sea diver Scott DeSantis is en route to repair a problem with a wellhead deep in the Gulf of Mexico when he hears on the radio that Cuba is planning an underwater detonation of an atomic bomb. Scott’s ex-wife, Linda, a nuclear physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is taxed with accessing the fallout from the incident. Suddenly, Linda is thrown into an encounter with an old nemesis, and Scott discovers that the woman to whom he was once married, the mother of his two children, is not the person he thought her to be. Linda finds that the incident has opened a vortex which she thought had long been closed, and she and Scott must travel far into a past with which Linda is very familiar in order to save their children from being caught in a time warp from which they may never return. Their lives are now on a trajectory that will change the world forever.

Louisoder has written an intriguing piece of science fiction based on time travel. He incorporates the legend of Atlantis by having one of his main characters be an inhabitant of the city who must return to close the vortex opened by the novel’s antagonist. The descriptions of Atlantis are fascinating, as told through the character of Linda, and much of the book takes place in the fabled city. Along with the struggle between good and evil is the philosophical question of how one would change the past, if allowed, in order to produce a better future. This is a very entertaining read with some surprising elements woven into the narrative. It is a must for anyone interested in stories of time travel or the legend of Atlantis.

The Intrigues of Jennie Lee: A Novel

by Alex Rosenberg
Top Hat Books
book review by Joe Kilgore

“She needed to lament, to weep, to howl. It felt to her that, somehow, she had killed her lover, her partner, the person she cared for most in the world.”

Exceptional storytelling is ever-present in this continuously involving tale of historical fiction. Filled with famous characters such as Lady Astor, Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Walter Reuther, and more, the novel sweeps readers into a world of hidden agendas, secret betrayals, public posturing, and private assignations that made up British politics in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

This is first and foremost the story of Jennie Lee, a young woman in Parliament dedicated to helping poverty-stricken and long-suffering constituents. To do so, she has to match wits with powerful politicians and master manipulators more concerned with staying in charge than changing things for the better. Lee is a heroine who feels like today’s woman in yesterday’s times. She defies convention in both her public and private life, refusing to let society or suitors dictate how she conducts herself. When revelations and loyalties challenge her strength and resolve, she repudiates the idea of doing what’s convenient for doing what’s right. But she is mightily tested when she’s pulled into schemes that threaten to overwhelm her.

Rosenberg is an excellent writer who captures the tenor of the times. He fills his tale with particularly interesting political duels that equal the internal battles going on within his protagonist. His prose is potent, and his dialogue never feels too contemporary for the period. Some may take exception to the actual changing of certain events. But just as film director Quentin Tarantino sometimes sacrifices historical accuracy for dramatic impact, Rosenberg employs vividly exciting action when opting for fiction over fact. That’s one of the things that makes novels such as this one a treat to read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

White Seed: The Untold Story of The Lost Colony of Roanoke

by Paul Clayton
Amazon.com Services
book review by Gabriella Tutino

“He was playing his part in all of this, pretending that they could make a go of it in this God-forsaken place.”

Maggie Hagger is just one of many passengers leaving England and making her way to Chesapeake, Virginia, in 1587 as one of the future citizens of Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonies. Raleigh’s Virginia promises the start of a new life to Maggie and others—like the newly appointed Governor John White, as well as Captain Stafford and his soldiers—but first, they must survive the journey to the Americas. Yet Maggie and the other colonists soon learn that settling down in Chesapeake will be much harder, as tensions between the Native American tribes there and prior English settlers still exist. Labeled as one of America’s oldest mysteries, the failed colony of Roanoke is at the heart of this novel, which explores the possibilities of what went wrong and what happened to the inhabitants.

Readers do not need to be history buffs to enjoy Clayton’s tale; it is well-researched and presents many of the political and economic issues at hand without being overbearing on context. On a surface level, the journey to the Americas is a chance for colonists to establish a new life overseas. Beyond that, a successful establishment of the colonies would grant more power to Sir Walter Raleigh and England, who were in direct competition with Spanish explorers, as well. The Spanish believed that gold from the New World would be the key to riches and success, while England’s goal was to establish outposts for trading goods. The author emphasizes this point, particularly when Fernandes—the sailor and navigator hired to help bring the English to Chesapeake—dumps the colonists in Roanoke to continue his search for “prizes.”

Clayton captures early colonial and early Native American life well. The novel is full of rich detail about many of the tasks of building or maintaining a society, and there is a sense of excitement as the colonists get settled and get their bearings, even though the future is uncertain. The author sets up the novel in a clever way that has the reader rooting for both the members of the Roanoke colony as well as the Croatoans. The relationships between the colonists and the Native American tribes on the land is a delicate one, and the author does a great job at showcasing the many different attitudes that exist between the three groups of inhabitants there: the Croatoans, the Secotan, and the colonists. Tension exists between all three due to acts of violence, fear, and power. But there is also love, as well as alliances, as exhibited by the blossoming relationship between Maggie and Manteo, the Croatoan interpreter.

This is a story about ambition, power, and survival, and the slow and steady decline of morale and trust in each other is fascinating and horrifying as it plays out page by page. Hope and survival are at odds with each other as the colonists make attempts to carry on civilly, but many of their efforts are futile once the soldiers’ mutiny is complete. The end of the novel is especially haunting, as the author hints at what may have transpired to cause Roanoke to disappear.

Tokyo Traffic by Michael Pronko

Tokyo Traffic

by Michael Pronko
Raked Gravel Press

book review by Joel Samberg

“Hiroshi’s forensic accounting skill was helpful with most homicides, since money could be found at the root of most cases.”

This third volume in Pronko’s series about Detective Hiroshi is packed with all the atmosphere and disparate personalities readers have come to expect from his Tokyo-based stories. Pronko takes us through not just the Tokyo of movies and textbooks but one teeming with more underbellies and connections to global corruption than we might otherwise expect. This time our intrepid detective—an amiable accountant—is in pursuit of the criminals who may be responsible for a grisly murder at a porn studio. The key is likely held by a girl from Thailand who was working at the studio when the crime was committed. But now she’s missing, and Detective Hiroshi, who has a personal life as intriguing as his professional one, has his work cut out for him. Combining old-fashioned gumshoeing with modern-day social conventions, Pronko’s lengthy tale is as much a Tokyo detective’s diary as it is a gritty underworld whodunit.

Take a classic fictional detective out of a big American city in 1940—say a Philip Marlowe or a Dick Tracy—and transplant him to Tokyo in 2020 to solve a gruesome homicide. Therein lies the appeal of this crime thriller. Instead of taking us to a smoky Chicago nightclub to find a clue-laden cocktail napkin smeared with lipstick, the author might take us instead to a Tokyo internet cafe to read GPS coordinates left on a mobile device. The book, at a whopping 400 pages, requires patience and a good grasp at remembering names and places. However, it is intriguing for a host of reasons: one, the timeless, just-the-facts-ma’am crime-solving methodology of the detective; two, the appealing ways in which the author includes the daily minutiae of Hiroshi’s life; and three, the story’s revealing coverage of a true scourge of international crime—human trafficking.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Knock: A Collection of Childhood Memories

by Carolyn Watkins
Mindstir Media

book review by Kate Robinson

“I quickly learned that military kids must be flexible.”

As an inspirational memoir and a tribute to military families, this picture book for middle-graders stands out with its down-to-earth reflections by the author and tender watercolor illustrations by Lindsey Erickson that evocatively enhance the nature of the text. Watkins’ honesty about her real-life experiences fosters readers’ ability to have fruitful parent-child discussions about these emotional matters of separation and possible loss. The author stresses that her family could have shared their feelings more: “Perhaps Mom and I could have talked more about our feelings. I have now learned that sharing feelings makes it much easier to cope with them.” Likely this is why her book includes notes for parents and educators in the end matter with questions, points to consider to bolster these necessary conversations, whether at home or in the classroom. This guidance could help children feel safe to express their feelings and work through any emotional difficulties caused by missing the absent military parent or by fearing for their life.

Children with working parents everywhere face significant challenges in modern life, but arguably none more so than children in military families, who face impermanence far more often and far more keenly than children in families whose parents and caretakers engage in other professions: “When I grew up in the 1960s, my family’s life was filled with departures and transfers and moves… Our dad was in the U.S. Army and was often away for long periods of time,” the author states. The many poignant images of Watkins’ family life and her strong storytelling voice amply illustrate the courage, persistence, and moral compass needed by homebound parents and relatives to maintain a stable household for kids when a parent is deployed to a faraway destination for extended duty, or when a family makes frequent moves to various military assignments.

The experiences and research of others lend additional weight to the ideas expressed in Watkin’s book. For example, poet and memoirist Dr. Nancy Owen Nelson, whose father was a career military man, describes her early years as “one of constant change and uncertainty,” and has explored in verse and prose how difficult patterns in adult life can be attributed to the constant movement of military families. And in a paper titled “Psychiatric Effects of Military Deployment on Children and Families,” authors James and Countryman (2012) cite “recent findings with deployed service members with children have shown problems with sleeping, higher stress levels and anxiety, declining grades, an increase in maladaptive child behaviors, and increased rates of child maltreatment.”

Watkins’ experience thankfully shows how supportive and strong her mother appears during her father’s deployment to Vietnam and during his long recovery after the family receives the dreaded knock on the door. Fortunately, in the Watkins family’s case, “the knock” was not a death announcement but notification of serious injury. While this was still a worrying and profound time, it was also a relief to family members because this meant their husband and father would eventually come home. Watkins’ narrative also effectively conveys how a supportive family network is forged when her maternal grandmother arrives to help out and how her presence solidifies the children’s security during her son-in-law’s deployment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review