Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Little Shop of Found Things by Paula Brackston—pub date October 2

Starting over, Xanthe and her mother Flora purchase an antique store in a small town, where Xanthe’s extra-sensory connections to antiques impel her into a time travel mystery to rescue a young woman in the 17th century to save her mother’s life. Details of time travel are cleverly meted out through Xanthe’s discoveries and conclusions, increasing tension by placing credible limitations on Xanthe’s experiences. Urged on (and threatened) by the ghost of the young woman’s mother, Xanthe makes difficult decisions with every move, resolving impossible conflicts with verve and panache, even sacrificing romance for her mother, which is as it should be. Repeated references to the injustice in her own history could have been more subtle. The ghost mother could have been developed a bit more. The damsel in distress was a lovely vision of mystery even after the reader meets her in person. That she was rescued by a woman is a brilliant move on the author’s part. Readers who love time travel and / or female antagonists who save the day will appreciate this story. I received this wonderful story from the publisher through #NetGalley.

Dreaming in Chocolate by Susan Bishop Crispell

Penelope Dalton inherited a magical table that offers her special chocolate recipes for her chocolate cafe, including the Kismet hot chocolate for the Festival of Fate, a drink that offers townspeople a chance to redirect their fate. It doesn’t work for her little girl Ella, whose illness is fatal. The secret of her father’s identity is harder to contain when he returns to town to assist his injured brother run their bar Rehab. The secret of Ella’s imminent demise spills out of Penelope at a town meeting after she cancels the hot chocolate for the festival. At the same time, Sabine, her mother and business partner, seeks her deceased husband through a chocolaty, magically-induced memory loss. Penelope slowly learns to release her fears and open her heart.

The characters in this story are credible in their complex flaws, with good hearts and the best intentions that go awry. Crispell presents a town a bit magical in itself, the residents leaving notes outside Penelope’s home and cafe to get their point across and to show their support and love. Dialogue between the brothers is laugh-out-loud classic sibling repartee—insulting zingers and tough love. There’s a bit much back and forth between Penelope and Ella’s father on the impossibility of a relationship, and she and best friend Megha on his hotness level. The open ending lends itself less to speculation than a call for a realistic resolution. After all, magic has its limitations.

Readers who love the every day magic of life in a Sarah Addison Allen or Alice Hoffman story will appreciate Crispell’s work. Meet Susan on her website http://www.susanbishopcrispell.com/, where you will also find links to purchase her wonderful books.

Cyber Asylum: Nihon Cyberpunk #4 by Brian Barr

Famous artist Masuto grows weary of digital painting in the mental institution where he lives only in his mind with his AI guide TOKI. Salvation appears in the form of Endo Ichiro hacking into his system and offering to free him and create a cyborg body for him to paint again in real life. Ichiro shares astonishing revelations to encourage cooperation, but salvation does not live up to expectations, and Masuto must seek release from his savior.

Barr creates a swirling, complex world of technology-enhanced living, developing memorable characters in a credible digital environment. Emotions bleed from this tale of harsh reality, deception, and eventual “homecoming.” Brian Barr is an exceptional storyteller; this is the fourth novella in the Nihon Cyberpunk series. Look for all of them on his website http://www.brianbarrbooks.com/, Goodreads, and Amazon.

Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang

Abandoned by her mother at 7, Jialing comes of age as a bond servant to a wealthy family. The education provided her through extraordinary circumstances is for naught, for she is zazhong—Eurasian, an outsider. A fox spirit guides Jialing through a hostile culture as the young woman discovers that she can take no one’s identity at face value. In the tumultuous times of early 20th century China, a politically-motivated murder endangers her life and the man she loves.

Jialing automatically accepts the centuries-old fox spirit, a shape-shifter who also appears as a woman, and a conduit for the girl to travel through time and space along with the spirit. Chang brilliantly portrays the fox spirit’s abilities and limitations, fully developing her complex character with her own conflicts and goals, including friendships and romantic love. Loyalty to her human friends drives her actions, as a companion and a source of wisdom.

Tension is maintained throughout the story as bigotry slams door after door in Jialing’s face, opportunities as fleeting as the wind, and she learns her precarious place in her world, yet always yearns for more. In early 1900s China, even a child is suspect if of mixed race, so that her continued existence relies on the good will of others. Chang weaves this prejudice throughout a storyline of journalistic intrigue, political criminality, rape and murder, showing how Jialing’s zazhong life is worth nothing to anyone.

As a fan of historical fiction with speculative elements, I loved learning about another culture with mystical aspects, and I highly recommend this novel and author Janie Chang. Check her out: https://janiechang.com/

A.I. High: Nihon Cyberpunk #3 by Brian Barr

In the not too distant future, at a Japanese high school, teenage android Shinobu purchases the trending drug Spacix. It’s news to the principal that androids can take drugs, downloading a program that simulates the drugs’s effects, including the side effects, which can be devastating for Shinobu and other adolescent androids, as the real life drug has been for human teens.

Barr creates a credible world of humans and androids co-existing, with all the messiness of human emotions and scientists with god complexes. Third in the Nihon cyberpunk series, this tale continues with the concept of programming robots with emotions, going a step further in the creation of realistic humanoids with upgrades to mimic growth to fulfill the dream of parenthood for infertile couples. Characters are complex and situations challenging as a teen does the stupid things that teens do, only in a—brilliantly created—world with constantly shifting lines determining what is digital and what is human.

Keep an eye out on laelbraday.com for a review of the next story in the Nihon cyberpunk series.

Good Luck with That by Kristan Higgins

Emerson, Georgia, and Marley meet at fat camp, quickly establishing lifelong friendships. Their weight reflects backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and unrealistic expectations, leading to self-sabotage. One friend’s tragedy spurs the others toward their authentic selves.

Higgins digs deep into the transference of emotions into weight, using journal entries for immediate empathy. Along the journey to keep their promise, the two friends follow a rocky path to become true to themselves. This story reaches beyond friendship, beyond body acceptance, exposing the body shaming culture of western society, the misogyny of determining a woman’s worth by her appearance, the invisibility of women who don’t fit the mainstream idea of what a woman should look like, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of buying into that idea. Feminism needs a huge boost in this society where a thin woman is treated better than one who is overweight—even a little bit of extra weight (according to whomever) places someone in the undesirable category; when woman starve themselves or gorge themselves, or accept society’s norms to feel inferior.

I was fortunate to receive a copy of this wonderful book from the publisher for an honest review. The pretty cover and oft sarcastically used phrase as the title belie the substance and depth of this novel. I recommend this to everyone for the insight into the damage done by social cues demanding that all women look one way. Life is hard enough without finding derision in place of compassion. Kudos to Higgins for telling what women are too ashamed to share and the hypocrisy of the fitness industry.

A Clockwork Orientation: Nihon Cyberpunk #2 by Brian Barr

The second short story in his Nihon cyberpunk series, this tale tells of cyborgs gone rogue, culminating in a massacre of human co-workers by the cyborg Mannix. Dr. Nagai and the other Ashita Institute scientists create a program to instill empathy in cyborgs through fabricated experiences of pain and fear. Mannix is too cunning, however, and he is only interested in the officer who deactivated him at the crime scene, turning this digital tall tale into a warped love story.

Brian Barr is a natural storyteller, whose characters stay with the reader. His stories don’t so much twist and turn as they flow like a river around bends and past tall trees, sometimes shady, sometimes sunny. Mannix totally owns the ending in this cyberpunk short fiction. Look for my upcoming reviews for other short stories in the Nihon cyberpunk series.

Connect with Brian on Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, and his website.

The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain—pub date October 2, 2018

In 1965, Carly Sears becomes the physical therapist for an intriguing man who seems to know her. Five years later, as her brother-in-law, Hunter helps her find specialty medical care for her unborn baby—in the future. The events on 9/11 alter her course, causing her to make an agonizing decision regarding her daughter.

Chamberlain carefully lays out the rules for time travel and sticks to them, allowing for the anomalies not yet worked out by Hunter and his scientist mother. In her first foray into speculative fiction, this story remains pure Diane Chamberlain, with complex characters, dynamic relationships, and impossible choices. Within tension building to a near breakdown as revelations explode, Chamberlain’s characters make the right decisions for them, and the reader swoons.

After dozens of novels in the literary genre, Chamberlain ventured a bit further into historical fiction, which worked out really well for her. Now tossing in a bit of fantasy / sci-fi proves her versatility. I was fortunate to receive an early copy of the newest book by one of my favorite authors directly from the publisher #St.Martin’sPress.

Paranormal Parasites by Nick Redfern—pub date September 8, 2018

Basically, this book attempts to warn humans that they are being farmed like cattle across planet Earth as food for energy entities, inter-dimensional and extraterrestrial, who wish to eat souls. Redfern, author of 30+ books on UFOs, Bigfoot, and cryptozoology, takes readers through the minutia of anecdotal evidence for cryptids, some timeworn, a bit somewhat newer, all of it always fun and interesting. The book begins with an explanation of supernatural energy, or orgone, as defined by Wilhelm Reich, and immediately launches into soul stealing creatures from around the world. It’s hard to tell if Redfern is writing tongue-in-cheek, or in full belief; Llewellyn is the publisher—the latter is more likely. As with inexplicably grainy (in this day and age of technology?) videos of cryptids, so the personal stories, including those of alleged personnel of mysterious / forbidden locations, such as Area 51 (according to Redfern, there’s a secret facility miles underground in New Mexico), border on requiring suspension of belief.  Silently dismissing mental illness or other more pragmatic sources, the author relays seemingly supernatural events as fact. Even with prior knowledge of the medical condition behind experiences of succubi and incubi, the chapters on these sexually demanding night creatures are disturbingly realistic. However, mythological lore is explored through the story of Lilith, who links Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity, as a relevant dark, feminine archetype. The highlight of the book is the concept of a tulpa, an entity created by focused energy of a group of people, with Slenderman being the most well known. Readers who accept spiritual entities for granted will be scared out of their wits by this book. Others who take it with a grain of salt will appreciate it for further forays into global legends, myths, and folklore. I was fortunate to receive an early copy of this fascinating book from the publisher #Lewellyn through #NetGalley.

Feared by Lisa Scottoline—pub date August 14, 2018

In this continuation of the Rosato and DiNunzio series with alphabetized titles, Mary’s pregnancy weighs heavily in the story. Tables are turned on the firm when they are sued, and murder comes too close to home, with one of their own a person of interest. Unrelated to the discrimination case, religious bias seems to crack the fourth wall, as the lawyer for the firm comes across as ineffectual in his lackadaisical, eastern spirituality approach. The clue that exposes the murderer is generic and far-reaching as conclusive evidence. The writing is solid and flows, but the storyline and accoutrements fall short of Scottoline’s brilliance despite her winning formula. With Mary the lead in this book, her family makes broad appearances, which is always welcome to DiNuinzio fans. As a novel in a series, it’s worth reading for the continuity in anticipation of “G***”. I was fortunate to receive an early copy from the publisher #St.Martin’sPress through #NetGalley.