Nila’s Babies

by Jac Simensen
Cosmic Egg Books

book review by Joe Kilgore

“Why, in the name of God, didn’t you get us away from your mother’s vile superstitions? How could you let her disfigure your child?”

Contemporary Florida is the setting for this novel that slyly morphs from a budding romance into a mysterious occult chronicle. Gordon is a widowed father of twins who becomes increasingly fascinated with Nila, the woman he’s hired to serve as his girls’ nanny. As the adults’ relationship grows, so too does a vile malignancy committed to claiming the very souls of the precious toddlers. While this is indeed a modern story of suspense, it is simultaneously a trek through an alternate theory of religion and creation that challenges more traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs with those of African Ashanti legend. As these dual storylines unwind, mere humans are forced to come face to face with immortals bent on shanghaiing innocents as vessels for their never-ending journey. Can love endure when surrounded by such malevolent sources? Can children maintain their innocence when set upon by such evil powers?

Author Simensen does an admirable job of layering his yarn with credibility even as he pushes beyond the bounds of reality. This is accomplished both with character development and plot interaction. One believes the actions, behavior, and motivations of his principal characters, be they bound by their shared humanity or, in the case of the supernatural entities, by their pre-imposed limitations. With this novel, Simensen brings a fresh and inventive approach to macabre storytelling. By mixing a relatively straightforward prose style and plausible plot with profoundly transmundane characters and events, he delivers a narrative that is both engaging and entertaining. Readers who agree will be pleased to learn that, apparently, this is only the first in a series of such tales to be dubbed The Book Of Lilith.

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.

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

Babylon Laid Waste: A Journey in the Twilight of the Idols

by Brigitte Goldstein
Pierredor Books

book review by Nicole Yurcaba

“My thoughts wandered back to the time, so long ago, it seemed, at Frau Maibach’s pension and my discovery of the writer Franz Kafka.”

In 1946, Misia Safran, a highly talented, recognized writer and Jewish émigré, receives an alarming letter that claims her grandmother is still alive in a care facility in Berlin. Misia at first questions the reality of returning to a war-ravaged and ideologically divided Germany to save her grandmother, but despite her parents’ objections, she connects with a people-smuggling ring and acquires forged identity papers that launch her on a journey into the heart of the defeated Third Reich. However, Misia’s travels to Berlin are quickly interrupted. Just as her adventures using the false identity of Beate Hauser begin, Misia finds herself captured by the U.S. military and at the mercy of Major Emil Zweig in a camp for female Nazi war criminals.

Unwilling to reveal her true identity and true mission, Misia forms a relationship with Franticek Kafka—the dark, mysterious, self-confident former Jewish prisoner who intuits that Misia is a Jew posing as a German. As Misia struggles to make sense of her circumstances and to reconcile with herself for taking on the treacherous task of following the mysterious letter’s claim, she also embarks on a whirlwind romance with Franticek and dances into a dangerous realm where personal vendetta crosses with justice for the Jewish people.

At this book’s core is Franticek, a camp survivor and Hebrew speaker. He is also a Viennese Jew who once lived with the Wagnerian opera star Lenka Ostrova, a Bohemian-Jewish woman who scrubbed with a toothbrush the Viennese streets as Nazi-sympathizing hecklers laughed. This book’s invocation of the great German-speaking Jewish novelist and short story writer Franz Kafka as a parallel for Franticek adds even more complexity to his role and identity. In his May 29, 1914, diary entry, the novelist Kafka wrote, “I stare rigidly ahead lest my eyes lose the imaginary peepholes of the imaginary kaleidoscope into which I am looking, I mix noble and selfish intentions in confusion… I invite heaven and earth to take part in my schemes, at the same time I am careful not to forget the insignificant little people one can draw out of every side-street and who for the time being are more useful to my schemes.”

Like the beads in the real Kafka’s metaphorical kaleidoscope, Franticek’s character is fantastical, self-sufficient, and individualistic. He is heroic, mysterious, educated, and the lone wolf whose life circumstances have made it difficult for him to connect with others, an undecipherable myriad of traits and skills. Misia observes that Franticek “embedded his story within the overall fate of his people” because “his experience, as he presented it, was emblematic of that of all tormented Jews.” Furthermore, his torments mirror those of not only war-destroyed Europe and the Jewish people but also that of Misia, who states, “And to that end, I had no choice but to hitch my fate to the goodwill of this strange man who called himself Kafka.”

Misia struggles with balancing her real identity and her fake identity as Beate Hauser, and she often finds herself in an internal game of who is really who. However, for Misia, it’s not only a matter of names but also a question of Jewish-American identity, which often forms an incredible chasm between her and Franticek, especially as the latter embarks on his vendetta which involves the slaying of the former Wagnerian opera star Elfriede Kling. These chasms make Misia an impressionable but willing-to-question student for Franticek, especially in the field of clandestine survival in enemy territory, an area that often causes Misia moral anxiety and makes her question the person that she has become, particularly in her acceptance of violence.

Misia—because of her emotional and personal strength, her resilience, her adaptability, and her intellect—becomes an admirable heroine for readers searching for a strong female lead. As the world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, this book becomes a much-needed read for the current times because of its message of survival, its recollection of history, and its focus on the importance of memory. As society transitions into new and often frightening forms due to lockdowns, stricter regulations, technological overreach, and changing, challenged narratives from various political regimes, this book offers insights to historical events that are all too fresh in the minds of those who survived those events and their aftermath.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Latecomers

by Rich Marcello
Moonshine Cove Publishing, LLC

book review by Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW

“When its members are in harmony, there is nothing in the world they can’t do together.”

This is a wondrous story that encompasses the here and now with the time-honored connection of mystery and spirituality. We learn about Maggie and Charlie who embody the boundaries of life with the expansion of the soul. In their journey through trials and tribulations, they share the depth of eternal love. Written in the first person by both protagonists, the story focuses on symbols and sacredness, their beloved friends in the moai, and includes the goddesses and the spirits that accompany them. When Charlie goes on retreat to a beloved center, the story offers a glimpse into the necessity of dealing with his restlessness, a restlessness that Maggie saw through her paintings of him. The journey into the mysticism of life regarding their findings from a secret book of symbols, as well as magical plants, leads the group of five on a path of helping others.

Beautifully written, the narrative is poetry as prose, as the words caress the reader in this journey of life and love, aging and generativity, joy and loss, and with a spirituality that exudes from the very first page. The power of stories within the story is creatively done. The book also nicely connects the symbolism of their own works of art, a retreat center, a door that has embedded symbols, a pendant, a symbol on a rock, cave drawings, and tattoos. All are works of art—art as passion, metaphor, and spirit. The deep detail, from that of a dusty room to the descriptions of the beauty of the outdoors, offers another example of the depth of this book. With Marcello’s lyrical writing of an exceptional story, this book is sure to be on the reader’s top list of books for the year.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

The Book Killers: Weak Point of View

The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

Catch, Release

by Adrianne Harun
Johns Hopkins Press

book review by Christopher Klim & the Eric Hoffer Book Award

“It didn’t occur to us then how we carry the terrors of civilization within us.”

With this wonderful collection, Harun has accomplished two rare feats. First, she’s taken the Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize with a work of adult fiction for the first time in its history. Second, and no less important, she’s delivered a cohesive story collection, when so many today seem hurried and uneven. Instead, Harun appears to be a master of the form. She threads interior monologue, which in longer works can become an endless slog, to reveal superb insight—instead of, well, just too much information.

“It’s all about loss,” the narrator of the title story announces. Flashes of humor balance heartbreak as the author explores tragedy: A wife tries to find her dead husband in the memories of a manipulative crone while her teenage daughter plots to teach her mother that “death can’t be called back.” A mother mourns her embattled relationship with her murdered fourteen-year-old daughter. Young sisters perish of an inherited blood disease, as their brother endures in exacerbation. A middle-aged bachelor struggles with losing his sister and his childhood friend to marriage. Parents wallow in self-absorption, leaving their teenage sons to struggle with maturity on their own. A gifted young African man immigrates to a new reality as a tissue donor to a dying child in London. Each story creates unforgettable impressions and memorable lines in a microcosm illuminated by the beauty and complexity of human emotion.

Overall, this collection is as it should be—deft, deliberate, dashing, delicious, and direct—but again all too rare in the form today. Harun makes sense of both the small and large issues of life through turns of language that at times bring us into confidence and during others refuse entry. It’s a lot like a conversation with someone we badly want to know—plain truths and blind alleys of understanding that require close attention yet an openness to enjoy the moment.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review