When Things Go Bang by Clive Warner

It’s 1959, and very late at Jim’s house on the North Liverpool coast, England, when a dead man steps out of the wallpaper. It’s Jim’s Uncle Buddy, killed in World War I, and he’s come to take the boy back with him to the ghostly front lines.

This is the hair-raising start to an absolutely first-rate read  by standout author Clive Warner. If you liked Stephen King’s Stand By Me, about four young friends coming of age too soon, you’ll love Warner’s economical yet highly descriptive style.

Jim’s problematic relationship with his parents leads him, like so many kids, to roam far afield in the coastal countryside with just his trusty bike and his preteen buds with him, in search of adventure — or, at least something to break the boredom of his totally average daily routine.

Average, that is, if you don’t count the nocturnal visits from dead Uncle Buddy, or the occasional glimpse of Old Beardy, the Hightown Hermit. Or Jim’s ever-present adolescent angst that leads inevitably to poor choices and catastrophic circumstances.

It is, in fact, just such an unfortunate accident that suddenly throws a pall over Jim’s household. His Mom moves out for a week because of the miscue, and lays the blame squarely at his mud-caked feet. However, the boy continues to pelt from one bad decision to another in the time-honored tradition of youth everywhere. For example, he discovers that fireworks-making can be really fun — though deadly — and his fascination with chemicals leads to creation of a toxic cocktail that his dad inadvertently consumes. And then there’s the insistent specter of deceased Uncle Buddy, who keeps dragging him back every night to the front line foxholes.

These scenes from The Great War really are first-rate, as we can feel the damp earthen parapets and smell the high explosives as they crump over our heads. And Jim, well, he’s going a bit nutters from lack of sleep and outright fatigue from his nightmarish sojourns to war-torn El Alamein, in Egypt.

Of particular note is a passage in which the town hermit, himself a war veteran, recounts a ghastly recollection from the war’s brutal combat. It’s the chill hour before dawn, near Ypres, and the recluse, then a frightened young soldier like so many others, comes upon one of his prewar friends crouched behind some sandbags. The man is firing his rifle in short bursts into the darkness in front of him.

“‘Do you hear them crying?’” the soldier asks. “He meant the sound of the wounded men, lying out there in No Man’s Land. Then he laughed. It was a crazy-sounding laugh, shrill, like a woman’s laugh. He said, ‘I shoot at those until they leave off.’ Then he laughed again. It made me shiver.”

The soldier is shooting the defenseless men where they lie moaning in the night — killing them, both Brit and German alike, just to shut them up. But as macabre as that vignette is, it’s the end of this dreadful remembrance that will make your eyes widen in sudden horror.

As Jim jumps from one crisis to another, his incredible ability to forget his last bad choice in eager expectation of a better one just ahead propels him like a pinball toward personal purgatory and exile from all he holds dear. The whole village is pursuing him, but it’s his own troubled tendencies that keep dragging him down.

This five-star work of fiction is pure literary gold, and will hold you spellbound for hours as you wonder what Jim will be up to in the next chapter. And if you were ever thirteen years old, you’ll relate most uncomfortably to the ever-present uncertainty that seems to pervade that period of one’s youthful existence.

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My Life As A Frog: A Story of Overcoming Society’s Labels by dhtreichler

My Life As a Frog is a rich and fulfilling story that is one part metaphor and two parts heartwarming human interest.

Mr. Greene is a man who, despite being unable to speak, nevertheless exudes determination to excel in his position first as janitor in one building, then supervisor over six more. His new employees don’t want to do things his way, seeking only to keep doing their janitorial duties as they have always done — at a bare minimum.

But Mr. Greene is quietly — and doggedly — persistent, making clear what his standards are, then enforcing compliance. It’s not always easy. He is plagued by the insecurities of a troubled childhood that left him with a tendency to severely downplay his intelligence.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a smart person, like those who work during the day where I clean at night. I don’t know what they do, but they have to be smart to do it. That’s why I can’t do what they do. I’m not smart. I clean.”

Arriving home before dawn each day, Mr. Greene goes through his comfortable routine by following his checklist. Feed the cat. Check. Brush my teeth. Check. Go to sleep, with the blinds firmly down. Check.

And he dreams. Colorful, vivid dreams, in which he becomes the “alpha tadpole” leading his school ever closer to the shimmering light of the surface. But is danger waiting there? Will Mr. Greene unknowingly nudge his following schoolmates right into the gaping mouth of a big fish? He worries each day, as he dreams, that this drastic outcome is one he cannot avoid.

Time passes and, one by one, Mr. Greene’s new employees either shape up or clear out. He is genuinely surprised by his success. He has never been this far out of his routine and previous comfort zone.

Then, one day, he prevents a robbery on the subway and meets Dr. Regina Warfield. It’s a pivotal moment in his life but he doesn’t know it yet. He simply goes home after the incident, feeds his cat, and dreams yet again.

He’s a bigger tadpole now, still leading his school, nudging them to turn this way or that, or dive to the bottom to avoid the enormous, tadpole-eating fish that is their nemesis. He also dreams of his Momma, and about the men in blue who took him from her as a child and placed him with an abusive father.

Then, this remarkable book goes on to imaginatively draw parallels between Mr. Greene’s emerging management experience and the tadpole world he dreams of each night. There are, indeed, many subtle similarities that readers can take away as lessons in leadership.

There’s also drama, and mystery, and action, and romance in this novella — and even one delicious moment of sexual awakening that will leave you chuckling for days at the memory of it.

Five-plus stars to My Life As a Frog. It’s by far the most unique story you’ll read this year. Thoroughly unpredictable and well-written, the characters are alive and believable, and you’ll feel you’re right there beside Mr. Greene, buffing the entryways and raising the performance bar for his team of cleaners from dusk til dawn each day.

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Margaret by Patricia M. Jackson

Peggy Schoenfelder and Brian Donovan are oh-so-right for each other. They just don’t know it yet.

As this outstanding YA novel gets underway, Peggy is visiting her cousin Etta in Marquette, Michigan — escaping over Thanksgiving from her dreary job in Toledo — when Brian walks in.

“Brian Donovan was tall and slender with short-cut reddish brown hair with a helter-skelter cut. He had the most incredible searing hazel, almost golden, eyes.”

It’s not exactly love at first sight, but it’s close as Brian listens in amazement to Peggy’s prowess on the living room keyboard. She’s been accepted at Julliard in New York City, but needs to find a roommate to share expenses. Brian, as it turns out, has just joined the FBI, and will be living in — you guessed it — NYC as he gets started with the Bureau.

It’s a wonderful concept for a story, and accomplished author Patricia M. Jackson deftly weaves players and plot together to achieve the maximum enjoyable effect.

There are plenty of intertwining side stories as this third in the series of House of Donato books unfolds. A coldly calculated kidnapping sends searchers into the woods surrounding Springbook Nature Center, searching for Etta — but she’s found okay, just battered and bruised. The kidnapper gets away. Etta’s boyfriend, Tom, who helped rescue her, is filled with relief and hardly leaves her hospital bedside, even though the two had earlier been on the outs. And then there’s Izzy Donato and her on-again-off-again relationship with Murphy. Now that he’s going into pro hockey, they really should try to work things out.

It’s very well-written romance, adventure, and drama, driven by careful characterization — all the necessary ingredients for a dynamite read that keeps you guessing.

Fast forward six months. Brian and Peggy are sharing a one-bedroom flat near Central Park, and the big city is having a profound effect on both of them. Brian is deep into his law classes at Fordham University and Peggy is practicing hour upon endless hour to maintain her first-in-class piano position at Julliard.

Through sheer willpower, the pair are successfully ignoring the attraction they feel for each other.

Then, one night about 3 a.m. Peggy stumbles in the apartment door bathed in sweat. Brian, who’s been waiting up anxiously for her, grabs her and feels her forehead. He gets a thermometer and reads it –103+ degrees. A phone call to his mother for advice brings him to the realization that he must act fast to save her life.

Quickly undressing her, he plunges her into the tepid bathwater, then climbs in to keep her from sliding too far down. The moment is more tender than torrid and the author brings the scene off to perfection as Brian realizes with an electric shock that he really loves this incredible young woman. She remains unaware of his ministrations and hovers near unconsciousness as he pats her dry and puts her to bed, maintaining anxious vigilance until the crisis is past.

Moments like these, combined with a near-cinematic, scene-setting ability that puts the reader right into the hustle and bustle that is New York City, makes this novel more akin to watching a well-made Hallmark movie than reading a book. It’s that good.

In the second half of the story, Brian must put himself in harm’s way as he pursues a case at the behest of the FBI in Minnesota. And Peggy tours the world as a renowned pianist. Can their love withstand separation and incipient danger?

Find out for yourself by downloading this five-star work of romantic fiction. And be sure to read carefully so you can figure out for yourself why the book is titled Margaret.

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My Father’s Kingdom by James W. George

It’s the year 1671, and the hordes of English settlers arriving every day in the New World must strike an uneasy balance between their need for land and resources and their need to live harmoniously with the proud Native Americans who now fear the loss of their heritage and customs to these often demanding newcomers.

This is the stirring story of how one young Native American, thrust reluctantly into the role of leadership, must come to terms with his tribal duties and his troubled past to find a clear — and peaceful — way forward.

Young Linto and his devoted lover Wawetseka are trying to ease the mind of their friend Metacomet (or Philip, as the English call him). Metacomet is Sachem of the Wampanoag people and he is still incensed by the unfortunate demise of his predecessor Wamsutta while visiting a disreputable descendant of the earliest English settlers. Poison is suspected, but no proof is forthcoming. Still, Metacomet seethes and makes dark plans.

Meanwhile, the widowed young Rev. Israel Brewster, minder of a faithful flock in Middleborough, spends his days either adroitly dodging matchmaking mothers or counseling distraught newlyweds on their inability to produce offspring. He feels a bit restless for bigger deeds to do and more recognition than his humble posting can afford. So, when he is summoned for consultation with the famed clergyman Increase Mather in faraway Boston, he bolts at the chance to prove himself worthy of a grander stage.

This is high historical drama handled wonderfully by first-time author James W. George. His imaginative interplay between actual historical figures and fictional characters is so seamless you’ll soon care little for the literal accuracy of the passages and focus much more on the engaging storyline.

The writing is delightfully old style, making liberal use of every descriptive nuance in the English language, yet never labored or overdone. Here’s a sample, painting a vivid picture of the upright Puritan official Jeremiah Barron:

“He bore a passing resemblance to Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, but with an even more formidable nose and blemished, pock-marked skin.  His hair was also unfortunate, a veritable mess of thin dark blonde strands manipulated to and fro in an inexplicable pattern.  Finally, his unique voice was renowned throughout the colony for its high-pitched cacophony, leading the most gossipy of the Plimoth wives, in moments of lapsed Christian decorum, to refer to him as the ‘screech owl.'”

Events take an unexpected turn when Brewster returns from Boston and meets with Linto and Wawetseka. To say the results are momentous would be an understatement.

Tormented visions, Puritanical plots, and lost love all figure into the spirited narrative that brings the book’s players alive — fully-fleshed human beings instead of mere footnotes in a dry, dusty history tome.

This is a tale that will fully engage you on every level, as well as educate you on many of the details that undoubtedly made life in colonial times trying. But the story is solid and the characters deeply drawn, remaining true to their sometimes tormented motivations as events unfold.

Five stars to My Father’s Kingdom. It’s a rare read full of stunning turns of fate and unforeseen consequences that carry this satisfying saga through to its historically accurate conclusion — the long, bloody conflict between settlers and Indians that was “King Philip’s War.”

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Remember to Recycle by Tantra Bensko

Mystery and conspiracy lovers rejoice! Standout author Tantra Bensko is back with another incredible mystery/adventure featuring Nancy and the nefarious forces of the Nevermind.

In this delightfully offbeat novel, Nancy is the friend of a troubled tenant who wonders if she is being visited by a creepy stalker. Best case scenario, it’s her kinky boyfriend, Stan, because he loves her so much he can’t get enough of her. But asking him directly about that, and about a sound she hears during a phone call with him, might jeopardize the forthcoming marriage proposal. She asks Nancy to investigate, plunging Nancy into dastardly complexities of intrigue.

Meanwhile, the tenant — Nancy’s friend, Becky – bewildered by the seemingly clandestine visits inside her flat, is a little disturbed that her cat can apparently climb to the top shelf on her own and eat a portion of dry food, then close the bag again. And what’s up with the strange lipstick smear on her coffee cup? Not even her color. But never mind.

The main thing is to make sure the Rescuers — the brave men and women who risk their lives on TV each day to pull dying children from the rubble of ruined buildings right on cue in a faraway bombed-out land — the main thing is to make sure she donates regularly to help make it happen. God is smiling on her, she’s sure.

But wait. Isn’t that the same child who was rescued last week? And the week before that? And why do his clothes look so fresh and clean? Could it be a colossal hoax? Another devious deception devised by government handlers keen to keep certain dictators in power?

The Recycler — that guy, wearing disposable gloves and hairnet, who noisily cruises your neighborhood before dawn, sifting through your recyclables, collecting salable stuff – no one pays any attention to what he’s doing. He might as well be invisible. But he knows you. He’s read your receipts. Your love letters. Your dreams. Your future.

In this latest installment of the brilliant Nevermind series, Nancy once again delivers an impeccable performance as a person who is persecuted persistently by people more problematic than she is. But it’s all right. She’s got Phobia Night with Becky to exorcise her conspiracy demons.

In an engaging, free-flowing fictional style, the author takes us deep into Nancy’s mind, where she is trying to pull together the scattered skein that links people close to her, corrupt politicians and illegal schemes. It’s not easy, and every step she takes toward solving the mystery puts her life more at risk.

The book glitters with theatrical disguises. Nancy takes off her usual mask and adopts an outrageous femme fatale disguise to out a crooked official, leading to a surprise of surprises about a wicked secret plot to steal far more than money.

Now Nancy must figure out a way to foil the sadistic scheme — and stave off an imminent third world war into the bargain.

This is a twist-a-minute narrative that switches adeptly between three points-of-view: Nancy, Becky, and, most creepily, the Recycler, Dave, who dresses in wildly varying costumes. He even adopts the persona of a gypsy fortuneteller, relying on information he’s gleaned from the trash to deliver deep insights about the past, present and future – to reveal exactly who is going to die very soon.

How can he prove this startling statement? It’s a complex, intricately woven plotline that culminates in an ending that’s as dark and outre as anything Stephen King ever wrote. Seriously, this book ties itself up with a dénouement so sinister, you’ll be stunned.

Along the way, U.S. foreign policy in faraway Baltic regions is called repeatedly into question and, in fact, figures heavily into how the action unfolds. But we can’t reveal more about that, or we’ll have to kill you, as they say.

To sum up, this five-star sequel to the author’s acclaimed debut novel, Glossolalia, will leave you breathless and wanting more. What’s next for the Agents of the Nevermind? We can’t wait.

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Reverence by Joshua Landeros

It’s April 4, 2065. Much of what formerly was the United States is in smoking ruins, the victim not of intercontinental war, but of extreme, bloody civil unrest.

In the Oval Office, now just a museum piece, Chancellor Carl Venloran is remembering a speech he delivered before thousands of frenzied supporters twenty years before at the Lincoln Memorial. He spoke of restoring America’s dignity and the perils of corporate outsourcing and the terrible price paid by wounded war veterans.

If all this sounds disturbingly familiar, it’s through the brilliant efforts of first-time author Joshua Aaron Landeros, who has penned a grisly but compelling portrait of a nation — and a world — transformed by a lust for absolute power and control.

Venloran’s United Nation Republic, now the ruling entity that has absorbed many formerly free nations, keeps an uneasy peace in place with brute force, delivered by superhuman cyborg enforcers who carry swashbuckling 1860s-style sabres. They think nothing of dismembering anyone who is an active — and threatening — member of the self-styled rebellion movement.

This dynamite foray into post-apocalyptic fiction is spun with a deft authorial hand that reads at times like a movie script or a vivid, ultra-violent video game. And through much of the mayhem, two amiable but very dangerous androids — Will and Luis — wisecrack their way through insurrections and assassination attempts.

Indeed, most of the novel is liberally laced with combat terms and military lingo that should readily appeal to anyone who loves to read — or watch — a Ramboesque series of terribly realistic action sequences. Seriously, they’re very, very good.

But at the heart of the story lies the futuristic conflict of man versus man — or, perhaps, cyborg versus man — in scenarios where you’ll wonder who the bad guys are. Will and Luis, for all their superior strength and android implants, still come across as sympathetic, vulnerable — yet very deadly — characters. And no less sympathetic are the members of the resistance — Gabby, Neal, Jacob, and others.

The skillful development of these players in the overarching plotline gives this novel incredible depth and breadth that carries it far above others in its genre. And the central story that drives the book provides a worthy backdrop for unlimited action and suspense.

The final action sequence is epic. Here’s a little passage to whet your appetite:

“Our battle is at last at hand. You will be the greatest opponent I have ever faced. After you, life once again becomes dull.”

Five stars to Reverence. Readers will come away exhausted by the nonstop explosive action and satisfied by the climactic conclusion.

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The Grandfather Paradox: a time-travel story by Steven Burgauer

In this brilliant science fiction adventure, veteran storyteller Steven Burgauer weaves an intricate narrative bristling with technological insights and historical detail.

And, along the way, he spins a good old-fashioned space opera about a stranded trio of female clones, a man with a mission rooted in the past, and a sweeping journey across time and space to put an end to a genetic curse.

In the opening pages of this tale, Captain Andu Nehrengel, the victim of a mutiny in deep space, finds his way to a nearby planet to discover giant, carnivorous parrot-beasts and — astonishingly — human footprints close by. He follows these footprints and winds up as the prisoner of three gorgeous female clones — the sole surviving members of an expeditionary band of Mormons dispatched from Earth more than two centuries earlier to establish a new colony.

Things progress in a satisfactory manner — at least for Nehrengel. The trio has never seen a man before and — well, let’s just say they are delighted to meet one. However, on a trip back to recover batteries from his downed ship, the bird-beasts attack and kill two of the triplets before Capt. Nehrengel can lay waste to the avian attackers.

Heartbroken and now alone, the surviving clone — named Prime Alpha — cozies up to Nehrengel and agrees to go with him on a trip back in time to try and change history.

But before you say: “Been there, done that on a million time-travel stories before,” hang on. This one delves deep into uncharted fictional waters for one of the most imaginative plot twists we’ve seen in years.

After acquiring a spaceworthy ship, Nehrengel and his lovely new friend set their sights on a place Prime Alpha has never seen — the storied homeworld she’s only read about: Terra. Soon the lovely blue-white ball is growing in their forward viewscreen — Planet Earth, circa 1861.

In Part 2 of this exciting adventure, Nehrengel and Prime Alpha — now going by the name of Margaret — find they’ve miscalculated a key component of their journey and must adjust their plans to contact the object of their trip — Nehrengel’s great-great-granduncle Byron Matthewson — and correct a calamitous wrinkle in the fabric of time.

Along the way, they sail on a riverboat, discover that Alpha/Margaret can put her telepathic powers to profitable use in a friendly game of poker, meet an American writer of some fame — Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain — and become embroiled in the terrible conflict that was the American Civil War.

“It has been said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This was unquestionably the case with the American War Between the States. Not for another five hundred years — not until the Great War — would more American blood be spilled for less reason.”

Some passages of this novel are purely poetic in their power to convey a sense of scene to the reader. Nowhere is this power more clearly on display than in the section in which Andu — playing the part of a Union soldier in search of his kinsman — gets caught up in the fray:

“Shiloh was a battle fought on a rough, wooded plateau. It was a battle fought up and down and along the ridges of deep gullies and sloping hills. One fought amid thick underbrush and heavy timber. A battle saved only at the eleventh hour by reinforcements. A battle so potent in its results it very likely changed the entire course of the war.

Can they do it? Can they alter time to suit their purposes and survive all the adventures they encounter? Pack your things and tag along as Andu, Alpha/Margaret and the venerable Sam Clemens get themselves into one seemingly inextricable situation after another on the way to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Five stars to The Grandfather Paradox. It’s a saga worth savoring, from beginning to end.

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