In the Aftermath: 9/11 Through a Volunteer’s Eyes

by Beth SK Morris
Poetica Publishing
book review by Nicole Yurcaba

“Subway destroyed, they fled east
on foot, heads covered with ash,
some wearing masks, some still
bleeding from the debris”

This cathartic, eye-opening account of the tragedy that 9/11 bestowed upon the United States transports readers to Ground Zero, where ash and debris fall, where loved ones disappear, and where for years to come, the day’s physical, emotional, and psychological scarrings refuse to disappear, let alone fade. In this haunting collection, the poem “By the Numbers, 6000” reduces humanity to “body parts recovered, sorted / into segments small enough / to fit in a test tube.” Readers find themselves face-to-face with a wife who “buries her face in her workbook, lowers her eyes” as she confesses the potential loss of her husband and the consequences his disappearance bestows upon her and her daughter’s future in the poem “The Lesson.” Meanwhile, toxic xenophobia permeates American society and shocks readers to their cores as they experience it for themselves in the poem “The Physics of Ripples.”

This collection’s power lies in its exploration of the often unmentioned—the lives and experiences of countless volunteers who risked life and limb to transform Ground Zero from a place of debris and rubble to one of pristine streets and reconstruction. As recollections and memories combine, their release onto the page and full disclosure to readers who may or may not remember that infamous day act as a great reckoning. The author’s experimentations with form and spacing create the sensations of reliving and then releasing the experiences depicted in the book, actively engaging the readers in the narrator’s catharsis. In “At the Doctor’s Office” and poems like it, readers learn of the health crises volunteers and emergency workers face. Nostalgic and poignant, honorary and honest, with a voice raw and uniquely its own, this collection captures the immediate and distant aftermath of a tragedy still prominent in American minds.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Devil’s Bookkeepers: Book 3: The Noose Closes

by Mark H Newhouse
NCG Key
book review by Mihir Shah

“‘There is an emptiness inside all of us. Even you, my most logical friend, must someday find something that fills that void inside you.'”

In this final volume of Newhouse’s trilogy on the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, the Jewish community’s harrowing existence continues to be tested at astronomical levels, systematically breaking down their humanity until emptiness remains. That said, the author’s attempt to honor his upbringing and parents that were one of fewer than 5,000 survivors at Lodz by shedding light on the atrocities and persecution there is wildly successful. The phrase, “the truth shall set you free,” is tailor-made for this work of historical fiction that is authentic and fearless in simply writing what is.

As the Nazi noose closes, the Lodz Ghetto residents are reduced to living in three primary states of being: hunger, mourning, and working. Focusing on the main character from the previous books, Benny Ostrowski, Newhouse wastes no time delving into the gaping void left by the deportation of Ostrowski’s infant daughter, Regina, and wife, Miriam. Those that were spared deportation were in equally dire straits. While this third book is just as character-driven as the previous two, the heightened focus on existential themes is captured seamlessly by the empty work chairs of vanished coworkers Dr. Oskar Rosenfeld and Julian Cukier as Ostrowski grabs onto Rosenfeld’s pipe bowl he lifted from Oskar’s apartment.

Now with Jozef as his roommate, Benny’s denial toward the entire situation—the loss of his wife, child, friends—is on full display in this one moment. Almost mechanically, he and everyone remaining thrust themselves into their work because that is all that remains between them and insanity. Making matters worse, the Nazis are hell-bent on stripping away any semblance of the Jewish identity, even canceling Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The irony, of course, is not lost on readers that Yom Kippur commemorates sincere repentance and forgiveness, though there is zero intent to redeem and repent from the Nazi side.

Whether it is the outright burning down of hospitals or the gradual deportation of everyone but the most able-bodied workers, the industrial value of Lodz is a double-edged sword, leaving residents “in an envelope made of barbed wire, trigger happy, Nazi sentries.” Many questions can be posed, but the one central to this text would be how one can find purpose amid such darkness. Ostrowski’s commitment to his wife and child is admirable, and it is his reason for survival. If Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl still graced the earth, there is little doubt that Newhouse’s work would resonate with them as it embodies their same fierce spirit of survival and purpose with an uncompromising eye toward the unfolding of events. In the same vein, the introduction of Pola, the only woman in Benny’s office, leads the author to explore the need for companionship. For the longest time, Benny sees Miriam’s face in every woman. But is it betrayal to crave intimacy when one is in the eye of a seemingly never-ending storm, and uncertainty is all-encompassing?

Sometimes, hope alone is a weapon strong enough to withstand darkness. However, throughout the novel, there are unshakable graphics that will leave audiences understanding the full scope of the evil and despair in Lodz. Specifically, the desensitization to death is downright shocking. For example, twenty gallows from a public execution remain for all to see as a sign from the Nazis. Conversely, the relief that sweeps over Benny upon learning that millions of toys made from paper and trash have been delivered is heartbreaking as he holds onto the faintest hope that his baby girl might still be alive.

Nevertheless, the one moment from the many the author portrays that is especially spine-chilling and will forever be etched into memories is a truck full of residents being deported out of Lodz—likely on their way to their deaths—singing the Hatikvah in jubilation and hope. Whether Mordechai Chaim (M.C.) Rumkowski, Chairman of the Judenrat and anointed Eldest of the Jews, is the devil or the shield prolonging the inevitable fate of the Jewish residents of Lodz is up for debate, but what is undeniable is Newhouse’s ability to take one of the darkest moments of suffering in human history and portray it with a grace and clarity that returns the dignity of these myriad souls sacrificed by the doings of man.

Winner of the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award Historical Fiction Categoryda Vinci Eye Finalist, and Montaigne Medal Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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.

Genealogy Lesson for the Laity

by Cathryn Shea
Unsolicited Press
book review by Michael Radon

“Use your head.
Imagination is a peculiar clay,
infinity captured
in the dark matter we don’t understand.”

One of the most alluring and powerful things about poetry is that it offers the poet the opportunity to say things indirectly, using the simple selection of words to make the ordinary magical. For example, there is the attention to detail in poems like “Drano Didn’t Work,” which chronicles the hiring of a drainage company to service the author’s home. The same care is given to poems about bad hospital food and the dread of an unpleasant diagnosis or a dying friend. This collection of poems broaches these big and small eventualities of life with the same gravity, processing them with the same levity. It illustrates how the same coping tools can tackle any problem, and how a sardonic but compassionate view will find the silver lining in any challenge.

The smallest adjustments in meter or vocabulary allow these poems to work flexibly through the eye of the reader. Each of the selections in this book can land a gut punch as heavy as a brick or flit about tragic events almost playfully. Such a duality is only possible through meticulous and precise writing. The author weaves her way through overseas atrocities, small-town Americana, and references to Scooby Doo with the same deftness. Every word is a receptacle for however much meaning the reader decides to fill it with. There still manages to be a voice and a message and meaning to these poems, giving the poet a platform to speak her mind and share her experiences. That razor’s edge of difference between ambiguity and clarity breathes immense power into these poems and absolutely makes them a worthwhile read.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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.

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