Friday, July 31, 2009

North from Calcutta

North from Calcutta
by Duane Evans

(Pecos Moon LLC / 0-981-94540-6 / 978-0-981-94540-8 / May 2009 / 360 pages / $24.95 hardcover / $18.21 Amazon)

Reviewed by Jack Dixon for PODBRAM

A time bomb is ticking. It has been so for centuries, but the ticking has suddenly grown louder. Tension in Kashmir is about to explode in yet one more, perhaps final, international episode.

Tarek Durrani has always been driven toward what he considers to be the greater good. He has met unsought challenges with determination, and successfully balanced his humanity with the brutality of his life. From his early days as an anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan, to his current position as an officer of Pakistani intelligence, Durrani has sought only to do that which his conscience can reconcile.

Durrani is a loyal man. His intelligence-gathering mission for the Pakistani government seems, at first, inconsequential. But he begins to suspect that it is part of a larger, more sinister plot to upset the fragile balance of two vehemently opposed two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. He suspects that he may have become involved in an attempt to precipitate war over the long-contested control of Kashmir.

Durrani’s mission takes him on a journey of espionage and subterfuge, discovery and enlightenment, violence and love. While the dedication and allegiance of men like Durrani may be exploited by the opposing forces of volatile governments, Durrani’s integrity could turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of those who would exploit him.

While this novel neatly fits a long-established spy thriller formula, its setting is fresh and unique. It weaves a timely tale of extremist politics and terrorist plots with the insight of one who knows the field, and purely from the cultural perspectives of the characters involved. I was impressed by the author’s ability to tell the story from an authentically cultural perspective, rather than from a western point of view. I was occasionally distracted by editorial oversights, but on the whole the story is well-structured, and it flows nicely. I especially appreciated the cover art, as it accurately captures the essence of the story. North from Calcutta is a strong offering from a new author; I had to look twice to confirm that this was in fact his first novel.

See Also: The Author's Website

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ghost Notes

Ghost Notes by Art Edwards
(Defunct Press / 0-979-90661-X / 978-0-979-90661-9 / March 2008 / 212 pages / $14.95 / Kindle $7.99)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

For all the stories told, or perhaps just implied, this book could have been several times longer in the hands of a less disciplined writer. The plot is simple but intricately told through the brief lives of working musicians, hangers-on to the music scene, wanna-be musicians, roadies, agents and a whole constellation of lovers, wives, ex-lovers, ex-wives and absentee fathers. The thread that binds it all together is music and the life of Josh Hotle, also known as Hote, a bass player in a once mega-successful band, but now on a grueling tour schedule, and on the downside of the fame that he was looking for in the author’s first essay into the musician’s life “Stuck in Phoenix.” Now, that Josh has caught the brass ring, everything that he got into music for is turning hollow, routine, and savorless. Or maybe he has just – at long last – grown up enough to look at his life with a coolly analytical eye, and decide what he really wants out of it. He walks out on the band, mid-tour, leaving them short a bass player before their next gig. Josh is so burnt-out, and in shock that his wife has confessed to being unfaithful to him, that he doesn’t really care. He wants to go camping, and get away from it all, but he can never get away from people, or his own past.

There are a lot of characters in Ghost Notes, and a lot of back-story, but the writer has done an incredible job of delineating them, with just enough detail to flesh them out, make them real and sympathetic. The personal and professional world of Josh Hotle is dense, detailed and believable, without overwhelming the reader and bogging the narrative down in unnecessary verbiage. Each chapter or character sketch is a complete short story in itself; it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the author is also a musician and songwriter, expert in using just the precise word and phrase and not a syllable more.

See Also: Celia's BNN Review
The Author's Website

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Murder and the Masquerade

Murder and the Masquerade:
Book 1 of the Dorothy Phaire Romantic Mystery Series

by Dorothy Phaire

(iUniverse / 0-595-44787-2 / 978-0-595-44787-9 / September 2007 / 316 pages / $18.95)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Dr. Renee Hayes is a married, 40+ Black psychologist working in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area who becomes embroiled in a murder case when a frantic phone call from a patient puts her right in the middle of a crime scene. Doctor-patient confidentiality issues are only one of Renee’s worries when the police arrive on the scene— because the homicide detective investigating the case is her lover.

Murder and the Masquerade, the first in a planned series by Dorothy Phaire, stems from a novel written by Ms. Phaire almost a decade ago that was later pulled from the market and revised to create this new romance/mystery novel. Phaire’s years of work on this novel have produced vibrant, believable characters facing the various personal and professional crises of Black professionals in the modern world. I found Renee Hayes, a successful doctor with an unsatisfying marriage and a desire for motherhood to be highly believable, as was Detective Degas Hamilton, a man a dozen years her junior who was drawn to her maturity and gentleness. Another major player in this cast is Veda Simms, a woman who has thrown away a husband and a daughter in pursuit of a love affair with a high-powered attorney, only to reach a breaking point five years later. Murder and the Masquerade is filled also with a cast of fascinating supporting characters that provides a rich backdrop for drama and romance, as well as contributing to the overall depth of the main characters.

Unfortunately, after a stunning prologue and a promising beginning in which the weeks previous to the murder are fleshed out, the central mystery fails to deliver. There are several plot holes, including important clues that are never explained and inconsistencies in the chronology of events. Toward the end of the novel, I felt the characters did not continue to act and respond as they did earlier in the book, and overall the solution to the crime did not satisfy. Nevertheless, this is a promising piece of work that should appeal to a savvy publisher. With a primarily Black cast, a complex and conflicted central female character, and an interesting premise for future sequels, I believe there is a target audience just waiting for a book like this. A good editor could clear up the inconsistencies, as well as the minor editing errors that appear throughout.
Murder and the Masquerade shows a great deal of promise, and I hope that we will see more from this author in the future.

See Also: The High Spirits Review
Dorothy Phaire's Authors Den Page
The Author's Website
Almost Out of Love by Dorothy Phaire
Reviews of Blind Delusion by Dorothy Phaire

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Calling Out Your Name

Calling Out Your Name
by Ned White

(CreateSpace / 1-442-13242-6 / 978-1-442-13242-9 / April 2009 / 206 pages / $14.95)

Reviewed by Donna Nordmark Aviles for PODBRAM

Woody Elmont of Ogamesh, Georgia, has more on his plate, and on his mind, than most sixteen-year-olds. His father abandoned the family when his mother was pregnant with Woody’s younger brother. His mom later died leaving her two sons in the care of their Aunt Zee. By the time the story opens, the tables have turned and the aging Aunt Zee is the one who needs to be cared for as her mind and body begin to fail. To complicate things, Woody’s younger brother, Tick, is mildly developmentally disabled with little understanding of right and wrong. Woody tries to be the man of the house and handle all these circumstances, but when Tick is sent to a juvenile home for shoplifting, Woody has a guilty sense of relief that at least one burden is in someone else’s hands. When Tick disappears from St. Anselm’s after a questionable fire at the facility, Woody feels it’s his responsibility to bring his “zoo headed brother” back home before he finds himself in even more trouble.

Calling Out Your Name by Ned White is an exciting and adventuresome tale of one boy’s journey toward adulthood as he makes his way across the country seeking to find and save his brother. The story is chocked full of well developed, believable characters who each, in his own way, teaches Woody meaningful life lessons. A unique and surprising twist at the end of Woody’s journey helps him to fully understand earlier events in his life and leaves the reader with a satisfying ending. Mr. White writes with an authentic southern voice, placing the reader in the center of the action, thus making for an engaging, enjoyable read. Technically, this book is professionally presented with only a few errors – nothing that causes the reader to become distracted.

Although billed as a “novel for young adults”, Calling Out Your Name is a story that will be enjoyed by both young and old alike. Mr. White is a talented writer – this is the second of his books that I have reviewed – and I look forward to reading more.

See Also: Donna's Review of Place
Ned White's Authors Den Page

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Red Fog

The Red Fog
by Nicole Tanner

(CreateSpace / 1-442-14111-5 / 978-1-442-14111-7 / June 2009 / 168 pages / $9.99 / Kindle $5.99)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

It’s 2am and nearly zero degrees outside. The streets are deserted, and a young woman is behind the wheel of a car. While she waits at a stoplight, a man crosses the street in front of her, and she realizes with horror that it is the same man who raped her at knifepoint some months previously. He spots her and leers at her, tauntingly displaying his switchblade. What does she do?

What Deana Simmons does and the consequences of her action are the focal point of The Red Fog, a psychological thriller by professional journalist Nicole Tanner. The protagonist of this short, suspenseful novel is a wounded, haunted art student at a small town college in Ohio. Her inability to emotionally connect with others stems from her past as an emotionally and physically abused child, as well as from a traumatic sexual assault in her first year of college. Suppressed memories trickle to the surface through her art, and an act of rage and vengeance triggers a nightmarish descent into vigilante justice, self-destructive violence, and madness.

The Red Fog opens with a violent act and a memorable first chapter, then retreats into a slow, suspenseful, unfolding of events as Deana’s sanity begins to collapse under the weight of her guilt and her triumph. Although I did not find every event in this novel believable and the secrets of Deana’s past were sometimes predictable, I can also say that I couldn’t stop reading the book. I had to know what Deana would and would not do next! Readers should be aware that the book contains scenes of graphic sex and violence, sometimes mixed together, but considering the theme and plot of the book, they were skillfully done. There are only a handful of editing errors, primarily missing words, which shouldn’t interfere with the reader’s enjoyment of the book. The Red Fog is recommended for fans of horror and psychological thrillers.

See Also: Nicole Tanner's Website

Monday, July 13, 2009

Winter Ghost

Winter Ghost by Don Meyer
(Booklocker / 1-601-45820-7 / 978-1-601-45820-9 / May 2009 / 332 pages / $16.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

Start with a frozen naked woman "looking" in the window of a vacation home, hands on the glass. Call it an accidental death. Add in reports of an unknown woman visiting the home on subsequent weekends. Season with two more couples dying after visiting the home, a sheriff (Tom Monason), new to the small nearby town, several deputies, and a bar owner, and you have, in addition to a ghost story, the makings of a murder mystery.

Winter Ghost attempts such a recipe, and a promising one it is. I have some experience with the mystery genre, yet I cannot think of another example to compare it to. As the story is carried out, however, it never seized my interest. Beyond a few personal quirks, the characters were thinly developed, the setting was generic (beyond snow, a small town, and a bar), and the ultimately simple story line was strewn with stylistic infelicities.

That's a shame, because Mr. Meyer's other book reviewed on this site, The Protected Will Never Know, the memoir of a soldier during the Vietnam conflict, was excellent. Narrated through the eyes of an unprepared, naive young soldier, the style fit perfectly: the reader is able to see between the lines to share the frustrations and terrors of a pointless war. As a memoir it was not entirely fiction, and that was its strong point. Pure fiction must create the reality the reader needs to be fully at home in a story, and Winter Ghost did not adequately do this for me. For the general reader, The Protected Will Never Know gets my vote as the more definitely recommended of the two.

See Also: Don Meyer's Website

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Second Date

The Second Date:
Love Italian-American Style

by Mary Lydon Simonsen

(CreateSpace / 1-442-15721-6 / 978-1-442-15721-7 / June 2009 / 170 pages / $11.95)

Reviewed by Dianne Salerni for PODBRAM

Talk to any person in my generation with an Italian-American heritage, and you will find certain common characteristics. When they were growing up, they almost certainly had a room in their house where no one dared enter – the formal living room where the carpets bore no trace of footprints and the only visitor important enough to use it was the priest. Their mothers probably used wooden spoons as weapons. Dating a non-Italian was bad, a non-Catholic worse, and bringing home a Jewish date who didn’t even believe in Christ was a crisis of soap-opera proportions. Funerals were like Greek tragedies, and let’s not get started on Thanksgiving dinner.

The Second Date is, in part, a comedy romance revolving around the dating adventures of Sonia Amundsen (very Italian, in spite of her half-Norwegian heritage), but it is also an endearing web of family stories that traces several generations of an Italian-American family. As Sonia nears her thirtieth birthday, helpful friends and relatives set her up on a series of blind dates, which Sonia views as excellent fodder for the novels she writes, but not a likely source of romance for herself. In fact, Sonia has never gone on a second date with any of her blind dates and now views The Second Date almost superstitiously as the hallmark of Mr. Right.

Mary Simonsen’s narrative wends its way through Sonia’s family history, diverting occasionally into the stories of neighbors and friends. You’ll meet Aunt Gina and Aunt Angie, rival sisters always striving to outdo each other in histrionics. You’ll meet Sonia’s father, Lars Amundsen, an “adopted” Italian with eyes like boiled marbles whose calm and thoughtful nature has made him the neighborhood sage. The cast is rounded out with brothers, sisters-in-law, old boyfriends, blind dates, and a charming man who’d like to break Sonia’s no-second date curse.

My copy of the book was an unedited proof copy, but even so it was remarkably clean and a smooth read. I have no doubt the final version will be up to professional standards. The Second Date is a slim book, just over 160 pages. Like a good antipasto, it’s colorful, flavorful, and full of tantalizing little nuggets that aren’t too filling – an excellent summer read, in fact, for fans of light romance, or anyone who grew up Italian-American in the 80’s.

See Also: The High Spirits Review
Mary Simonsen's Authors Den Page
Mary Simonsen's Website
Mary Simonsen's Blog
Searching for Pemberley

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Kindle Formatting

Kindle Formatting:
The Complete Guide
by Joshua Tallent

(CreateSpace / 1-440-48888-6 / 978-1-440-48888-7 / January 2009 / 158 pages / $19.95 / Kindle $9.99)

Let’s just jump right into the deep end of the pool and mention that Joshua Tallent’s Kindle Formatting: The Complete Guide has a couple of very small negatives. There are about ten common proofreading errors in the relatively small amount of text. I did not actually verify this number with a running count, and that should tell you how insignificant this issue is in this particular book. All of these are contained in the simple text portions of the book. None affect the technically significant portions, which brings us to the second weakness of Kindle Formatting. This is not a very helpful book for those novice authors who freak out at the sight of HTML, however, I did not expect it to be. That is precisely why I reviewed Michael Hicks’ how-to-Kindle book first in The Kindle Report. For the prospective Kindle author who is somewhat more advanced in the field of computers in general and HTML coding in particular, this is an excellent guide for you.

Joshua Tallent is obviously far more the mathematician and programming nerd than is the average POD author who just wants to cash in from Kindle sales. If you just want to convert the Word document version of your Mr. Average Novel into DTP, then you have several options that may be more efficient for you than following the instructions contained in this book. These options include, in no particular order of significance: uploading your book directly from Word into the Amazon DTP system; running your document through the Smashwords Meatgrinder; downloading and utilizing Mobipocket Creator; or paying Joshua Tallent directly to format your book perfectly for you, a service he offers from his website. If you have a very complex book containing varied text layout or a lot of photos or other graphics, and you want it all to look as perfect as possible in the Kindle version, then hiring Mr. Tallent’s services is probably your best bet. If you and/or your book fall between the cracks of some of these scenarios, then Kindle Formatting: The Complete Guide may be the best solution.

Kindle formatting is an exact science with a lot of human loopholes. Most of us write our books in Microsoft Word, but there are many other options that may be applicable. The Kindle DTP system chokes up like Powder Puff with a furball when it is fed a PDF document. The translation of a PDF to DTP should only be handled by a pro like Joshua or an experienced HTML wrangler with Joshua’s book next to his keyboard. There are so many delicate little decisions that go into the design of Dead Tree Books, as the Kindle fans like to call them, that we all take for granted. Most of these commonly printed elements of a book must be dealt with in a manner specific to themselves when converting the paper to DTP. There are countless things that might never enter your mind until you actually saw your book on a Kindle, and these are the same things that all PDF documents of printed books contain. If you are only a pseudo-nerd like me, you read blissfully through book after book without ever giving all those hidden little HTML codes a second thought. If you are a genuine nerd like Joshua, you may be fully aware of their existence, but you could certainly use a book like Kindle Formatting to speed up the complex process of making the Kindle version of your book look as perfectly professional as the paperback, or in Kindlese, DTB = DTP.

Is Joshua’s thin book worth $20 to you, or $10 if you have a Kindle? If you barely understood how to send your simple Word document to iUniverse, letting them design your cover while you contributed very little to your book’s design, then Kindle Formatting probably offers a lot more than you care to know. If you are somewhat more experienced, particularly with HTML programming, and you do not want to pay Joshua directly to do the job for you, but you want to produce a DTP version of your work that is somewhat more perfect than the result offered by the simpler methods, this will be money extremely well spent. Joshua will show you all the little so that’s how you do it! HTML coding tricks to make your Kindle book look like an escapee from your local Barnes & Noble. If you own a Kindle, you can get even more benefit from Joshua’s book because you can see the details of your efforts in perfect translation. One of my favorite issues covered in Kindle Formatting is that Joshua explains in text and screenshots actual differences between the Kindle and the Kindle 2. The book was released prior to the DX: maybe Joshua will update the material at some time in the future? Representing the most advanced installment of The Kindle Report, Joshua Tallent’s Kindle Formatting will take the experienced author exactly where he wants to go.

See Also: The BNN Review
Joshua Tallent's Website

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Wai-nani: High Chiefess of Hawai’i
- Her Epic Journey

by Linda Ballou

(Star Publish / 1-932-99388-6 / 978-1-932-99388-2 / May 2008 / 280 pages / $17.95 / Amazon $15.80)

Reviewed by Lloyd Lofthouse for PODBRAM

I met Linda Ballou at the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Later, in an e-mail, she told me it took her twenty years to do the research for this historical fiction and to get it out of the drawer and into the streets. The time Ballou spent on this work shows in the rich details that flow like lava from two of the earth’s largest volcanoes found on the island of Hawaii.

Wai-nani is rich with ancient Hawaiian culture and lore. The main character may be fictional but she is a reflection of Ka’ahumanu, King Kamehameha’s favorite wife, at one time the most powerful person in the Hawaiian Islands.

Today, the Hawaiian Islands may be an incredible tourist destination, but in the 18th century, they weren’t. When the islands were more or less isolated from the rest of the world, the Hawaiian people were often at war with each other and women were second-class citizens who could be executed for daring to eat a meal on the same mat or in the same room as a man. Men could take more than one wife and the rules were strict with death often being the punishment for breaking them. Ka’ahumanu, as represented by Wai-nani in Ballou’s novel, was an early feminist and helped bring about changes that elevated women to be equal with men.

Do not be surprised when you find Wai-nani making friends with a family of dolphins. Some readers may have trouble believing this part of the novel, but I didn’t. Before Christ, the Greeks recorded incidents of dolphins helping and befriending sailors lost at sea when their ships sunk. There are recorded incidents of dolphins still doing this in modern times. There have been stories of dolphins driving fish onto beaches to help feed starving African natives. Therefore, it was easy reading about Wai-nani swimming with her dolphin friends in the ocean.

Wai-nani also chronicles the clash between cultures when Captain Cook arrives in 1779, along with the same European diseases that devastated and killed so many North and South American Indians. When Europeans started to spread across the globe, their viruses and germs went with them and did most of the killing, making it easier for the land grabs that happened later. That tragedy is part of this story, too.

The Hawaiian culture, the characters and the setting are richly detailed. I have never visited Hawaii. It would be nice one day if I had that chance, but if that doesn’t happen, at least I have had the pleasure of being taken to this Polynesian paradise by reading this heavily detailed story.

See Also: Linda Ballou's Website
Linda Ballou's Authors Den Page

Friday, July 03, 2009

Moussaka to My Ears

Moussaka to My Ears
by John Manuel

(Otherwise Known as “Feta Compli 2!”)
Further Rambling from Rhodes and Other Diverse Parts of Greece

( / 1-409-26732-6 / 978-1-409-26732-4 / February 2009 / 312 pages / $21.31)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

This is a lively and enchanting account of living in Greece, on the island of Rhodes, written by a long-time expatriate. In his first book, Feta Accompli, John Manuel told a rambling story of how he came to fall in love with his wife, Yvonne-Marie – and the country of her birth, of how they drove all across Europe with their worldly goods to settle into half of a half-finished duplex on a raw building site of new properties. The sequel is a much more polished account, and even better, ornamented with pictures of some of the places and situations and characters which John and Yvonne-Marie encountered over the years. These included the German photographer with his roll of carpet, the man who sold botanical concoctions and his tiny second-floor workshop, poor Lady, the stray dog who charmed them all during her sadly brief life, and their indestructible neighbor Manolis, the 6-Million Drachma man … all of that and more. Greece is a place that visitors fall in love with at once and as irrationally as love always is. Some fall abruptly out of love upon encountering some of Greece’s more wayward and exasperating qualities: truly horrible drivers, the sort of winter weather that doesn’t feature in the tourist literature, a very utilitarian and un-sentimental view of animals as useful tools rather than pets, a certain carelessness about fire safety in times of drought, truly awful customer service when it comes to government offices and retail establishments. All of that tends to breed disillusion. But others fall even farther into love with Greece’s considerable charm: the look of the sky on a clear summer day, the smell of ripe figs, the feeling of having put in a good round of work at bringing in the olive harvest, and dancing at a taverna until the wee hours, and the kindliness and courtesy of the people. That minority will develop such a deep and knowledgeable love of Greece and the Greek people that it will carry them over those rough spots – cheerfully acknowledging such imperfections and moving on to the good stuff. This book explores all of that in loving detail, and what it is like to live there, slightly on the outside and viewing its foibles with a keenly observing eye. All in all, Moussaka to My Ears is a lovely evocation of a place and a people.

See Also: John Manuel's Website
Celia's BNN Review

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Sappho Sings

Sappho Sings
by Peggy Ullman Bell

(CreateSpace / 1-438-21431-6 / 978-1-438-21431-3 / May 2008 / 350 pages / $15.95 / Kindle $3.99)

Reviewed by Celia Hayes for PODBRAM

Out of a mere handful of facts known about the life of a lyric poet so famous in her lifetime (or shortly after it) that she was known as the 10th Muse, and from the bare thousand or so lines left to us out of nine volumes of collected works, Peggy Ullman Bell has distilled an appropriately lyrical novel of the life of the woman known as The Poetess (as Homer was known simply as The Poet).

Like certain modern celebrities, Sappho has barely the single title and name: her writing was vivid, deeply personal – and beloved universally, seemingly acknowledged in her lifetime as a woman possessed of an incredible gift for language and music … or at least, when the universe seemed to encompass those Greek city states of the 6th century BC. She was of a wealthy and prominent family on her home island of Lesbos, she had three brothers, was sent into exile by a political enemy, married a rich merchant of Syracuse, had a daughter and was either a priestess of a cult ministering to women, or ran a finishing-school for upper-crust girls – possibly both – and may have indeed been small, dark and unbeautiful. She seems to have thought of herself as that, although that may be the poet’s elevated sense of self-drama and cultivated insecurity speaking out. Perhaps she preferred women as lovers; later Christian ecclesiastics certainly thought so, which may be why no great effort was undertaken to preserve her works. And she may have died, after a long, and eventful life, from falling off a cliff. Out of those sparse threads, the author has woven a brightly colored, and intensely-felt silken web of a tale, bejeweled with description and trimmed with poetical lace.

With a great deal of care, the author has reconstructed that world of Classical Greece: cultured, intellectual and wealthy, a world where skill in rhetoric and music was as valued as skill in war and in mercantile pursuits, where the gods were always just out of sight in the waves of a stormy sea or speaking through the mouths of oracles, and their deeds having left a print on the world around, a world familiar to us in some sense, and yet not. The language is archaic, yet not enough to seem unwieldy or inaccessible, in writing conversation. It is very clear in some respects that the author has not fallen into the sin of “presentism” – that is, presenting a modern world, with characters and concepts just a little dressed up in period garb and accessories. Sappho and her friends, her protectors and fellow poets, her family and her lovers are all vividly from a different world, and the details and the visual sense (as well as auditory and olfactory sense) are detailed, vivid and ultimately convincing. Sappho Sings is well worth the read, a little rich for reading all at once, as a box of very expensive chocolate would be, but a lovely treat for now and again, just for the beauty of description.

See Also: Peggy Ullman Bell's Website
Dianne Salerni's Review of Fixin' Things
Peggy Ullman Bell's Authors Den Page
Celia's BNN review