Hauling Checks: A Satirical Aviation Comedy by Alex Stone

In the opening scenes of Hauling Checks, the pilot is gazing languidly out his cockpit window at an engine that’s fully engulfed in fire. The air traffic controller, who can clearly see the conflagration, asks if the airplane needs to make an emergency landing.

“Nope, we’re good,” the pilot says nonchalantly. “Just gotta go back to the ramp.”

He says this because requesting an emergency landing will require paperwork. Lots of it.

And Freight Dogs hate paperwork. Even worse than crash landings.

Thus begins one episode of the droll and dark comedy that takes place every night in the airspace above our heads.

“Freight Dogs” is what the down-and-dirty-and-proud-of-it pilots of these airplanes call themselves. For decades, they have carried the paper checks from thousands of banks to other banks across the country, every night without fail, long before the notion of electronic banking ever thought of taking hold.

But take hold it has, and it is spelling the end of this dubious industry that apparently was always a bit on the skeezy side anyway. This book is, in a way, one man’s tribute to those halcyon days of flying in flip flops and spending your time off drinking or womanizing — or both — when you should be storing up the energy to coax yet another poorly patched plane into the air.

First-time author Alex Stone has done an excellent job of taking a troubled footnote from aviation’s storied history and giving it creditable life as a tribute — sort of — to the motly cast of characters who populate this hilarious novel. They’re all just weird enough to be real.

In doing so, he has created a worthy read that will delight anyone who has ever actually personally flown an aircraft of any kind — and probably horrify anyone who has ever flown inside an aircraft. Because it reminds us that, for better or worse, airplanes are flown — and maintained by — people just like you and me. Flawed, imperfect and occasionally incompetent.

Oh, sure, real airline pilots don’t live the kind of debauched life played out in these pages. But we’ve all heard enough about airlines who double up their flights to save a buck, forcing flight crews to manage on far less sleep than is optimal for flight safety. Probably explains the many two-hop landings we’ve experienced personally over the years.

Still, it’s all in fun. and you’ll giggle over the dementia-induced prattlings of Barbara, the aged dispatcher for Checkflight. And you’ll roll your eyes at Karen, the other dispatcher, whose tall tales about a husband who may or may not exist exceed the boundaries of believeability. And then there’s Tony, the mechanic whose boss forces him to continue wearing orange jumpsuits to work, lest anyone forget he’s fresh out of prison.

But some of the best scenes are reserved for the perpetually apoplectic and equally unreasonable Chief (owner of this dismal company) and The Co (copilot) who is well beyond worthless as both a copilot and as a human being.

As has been mentioned in other reviews, the entire book could easily fuel the script needs for a fusion remake of Seinfeld, Taxi and Wings all rolled into one and stamped with an “R” rating.

Five uproarious stars to Hauling Checks — one of the best Christmas gifts arriving on runway two-niner in your Amazon shopping cart for any private pilot friends you might have.

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Five Fathoms Beneath by J.R. Alcyone

Alexandros Serafeim is a celebrated pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon in Perth, Australia, the land down under. He is entrenched firmly at the pinnacle of his hospital’s staff and quite literally saves lives on a regular basis.

To his only son, Ambrose, he is a god. Someone to be admired and emulated, right down to the boy’s choice of professions as he grows up.

Indeed, becoming a renowned surgeon, just like his dad — and his grandfather before him — seems to be a given for ‘Brose as he excels in medical school, following the prescribed clinical track right on schedule. But an unfortunate accident leaves him with a mangled hand and robs him of a career of his own in the rarified world of pediatric surgery. So he settles for just becoming a cardiologist.

In a way, it’s a relief for Ambrose. It means that he will finally be spared the crushing responsibility of living up to his family’s stratospheric and unrelenting expectations.

Then, the unthinkable happens and ‘Brose is thrust headlong into a future he never saw coming. And it’s one he fears he won’t survive.

Five Fathoms Beneath is a superb piece of storytelling on a level with the best of John Irving. A richly layered novel that delves deeply into what it means to be the only child of a devoted mother and an impossibly gifted father, the writing is lyrical — achingly so in places — and the characterization is spot on, allowing each player to make the very most of his or her role in the drama as it unfolds.

And unfold it does, suddenly and viscerally, bending the reader over emotionally with a story-altering development midway through. Other reviewers may choose to disclose this sea change in the book’s progression. We will, rather, leave it for discovery by readers of this desperately important work of fiction and say only this:

There is a vital understory here that reemphasizes the ongoing need even today, almost a quarter way through the otherwise enlightened 21st century, to recognize mental disorders for what they are: chemical imbalances that can change one’s very soul and impel life-altering decisions in a nanosecond.

The black dog of depression is no respecter of age, race, gender or profession. It deals out its debilitating consequences with little regard to whether you are a stay-at-home mom or a brilliant medical professional.

This is the story of one man’s determined quest to outdistance these dark demons that are sometimes laid down in our DNA, genetically impossible to ignore and often influencing our every waking thought.

It’s the story of Dr. Ambrose Serafeim’s all-too-human reactions to the hand he is dealt — and a spirit-crushing hand it is. But it’s also a story about never giving up, even when it seems the very stars of fate and circumstance are aligned to defeat us.

We especially want to acknowledge the exquisite writing that carries this novel forward so seamlessly by a remarkable first-time author. Here is a pivotal passage that provides a small sample of her sure-handed literary voice:

“We shared a quiet moment surrounded by the infinite splendor of the
mighty Indian Ocean as the omnipresent coastal wind scoured the air
clean and tickled the beach grass, and the relentless waves splashed
against the rocks. Then, with the future but a nebulous concept and
nothing more than a tiny spark on a faraway and yet unseen horizon, I
nodded with emphasis and began my life’s journey with not a step, but a
solemn promise. ‘Someday, I will do good,’ I said. ‘Someday, I will toss starfish like my father.’”

We award our very highest rating of five-plus stars to this singular story of how despair sometimes, against all odds, weathers the very worst that life can throw our way. And how perseverance, hope and steadfast love can bring us safely home at last.

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Smart Marketing for Indie Authors by Mike Kowis, Esq.

Award-winning author Mike Kowis, Esq., has done it again, practicing what he so eloquently preaches.

He has rolled back the mysterious veil that has long kept many an independent writer from commercial success with his impressive new guide to help Indie authors market their books.

Called, appropriately enough, Smart Marketing for Indie Authors, this erudite little book packs a value-laden punch with almost every word.

It alternately encourages, cajoles, and instructs authors in the fine art of promoting and selling their work. And it peels back the layers of complexity that often makes writers think they cannot succeed in the crowded print-on-demand and instant-download world in which we live today.

Warming nicely to his theme in a clear, conversational voice, Kowis challenges Indie authors to stop muttering discouraging words about how woeful the task of self-promotion is, and do something about it.

For example, he suggests making good use of social media in promoting your book. In recent years, of course, the word “tweet” has entered the public lexicon as a savvy way of succinctly sending a pithy promotional message to a select — yet massive — audience instantaneously.

In another section, he examines the relative merits of a book’s informal “soft launch” versus a “hard launch,” offering a concise explanation of the difference between the two and why a soft launch might work more in favor of the Indie author.

Then, in short order, he delivers a verdict on the relative impact of such historically revered tools as the press release, and reviews by book bloggers — both of which may be falling out of favor with Indies as being too expensive, too unpredictable, and (in the case of bloggers) way too long to wait for feedback that might (or might not) do the author much good.

Finally, in amongst the many other tips, Kowis points out the importance of frequently checking sales data to maximize book sales — and tells exactly how to do that. Then, he offers advice about using online ads and public speeches to boost sales after you’ve launched your book. (He favors both marketing strategies and offers compelling data showing why.)

Seriously, this how-to guide is good — particularly for those seeking success in the nonfiction genres. However, fiction writers can benefit too by learning how to bond more effectively and directly with potential fans, and how to plan promotional events — such as book readings — to the most advantage.

It succeeds where other guides have failed because of Kowis’ strongest suit — the analysis of cold hard data in determining a viable marketing and promotional plan for your book.

We award it our highest five-star-plus rating and recommend that an eCopy find its way into every author’s Kindle, tablet or other digital download device this Christmas. (If you’re still terminally tactile, you can get a paperback copy also, but you’ll wait longer and it’s hard to click the hyperlinks when they’re in black and white…)

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Formula Q by Alexander Charalambides

Hard-charging jetcar driver Vittoria Tarno and her intrepid racing team Goofé Troupé take their legendary racing prowess to Mars in this heart-stopping, totally cinematic look at next-gen interplanetary auto racing.

But this spectacular spectator sport turns into a dangerous death duel somewhere along the way and you, the lucky reader, will be riveted to your chair for the ride of your life.

Master storyteller Alexander Charalambides has once again crafted an instant YA/NA classic that will entertain anyone who enjoys racing, gaming and stories about lovable, irreverent underdogs — all served up with a healthy dose of standout science fiction.

In Formula Q, the author expertly sets up a dangerous no-win situation for the perennially trash-talking troupe when mega bad guy Admiral Suresh invites them to tour the red planet’s racing venues and vie for the coveted, ruby-encrusted Spearhead of Ares.

Only problem is, racing rules are radically different on Mars and each race more closely resembles a death-defying demolition derby than the elite Grand Prix events that Goofé Troupé dominates back on Earth.

In addition to highly detailed racing tactics narrative and a sophisticated video game feel throughout, there’s also a surprising depth to each of the major players that begs an almost involuntary bond between reader and character. Daytona Dave, Normal Dog, Father Gravity, The German — they all bring a creative something extra to the story, often adding a startling depth that makes the reader root for them both on the track and off.

But back to the races. After setting a new speed record, Vittoria is squarely in the crosshairs of Martian competitors and fans alike, whose planetary pride has been wounded by her success. Even a gesture of peace at a local mall’s retro arcade backfires, and some brilliant back seat driving to help one of the rival team members best a game’s high score goes unrewarded. But it does allow the Earthians to better understand that winning isn’t everything on Mars — it’s the only thing. And it often means the literal difference between living and dying for these people.

Excellent writing, expertly crafted dialogue and a few memorable turns-of-phrase also make this book a must-read:

For example, on viewing Mars’ domed and sparkling capitol city for the first time from planetary orbit, Vittoria sums up her impression succinctly: “From here the whole thing looks like Christmas in an anthill.”

And, speaking of Mars’ strongman dictator Admiral Suresh’s quirky proclivity for big words and archaic pronouns, Dave observes drily: “He hollers like a drunk in a thesaurus factory.”

Where does it all end? Do Daytona Dave and the rest of Goofé Troupé return home victorious — or with their collective tails between their tail pipes? It’s a winner-take-all exciting finish you won’t want to miss.

Five-plus stars to Formula Q. It’s three cuts above the usually cliched YA fare, and a rare good read.

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Encore: A Contemporary Love Story of Hypnotic Abduction by Tantra Bensko

Miriam waits in the wings of the theater night after night, anxiously inhaling the aura of the woman for whom she is an understudy.

She is, in theater parlance, a “standby” awaiting the instant in which she must assume the lead role in a sweeping, allegorical dance production that pays tribute to a curious retelling of the Atlantean legend, intertwined with elements of Camelot and Tibetan Buddhism.

For if Susan, the production’s lead dancer, should fall victim to one of her cancer-induced coughing fits and be unable to proceed, Miriam will have her big chance to be a star — adored by many in the audience, but reviled by a few hecklers who shout hate-based epithets about the production’s racial and ethnic bias.

It’s Andrew Lloyd Webber on steroids as performers in the troupe draw and send powerful aura-based energies throughout the venue, aided by the production’s resident hypnotist — a mysterious yet powerful man they call Dune. He is married to Susan; yet he seems more than a little attracted to Miriam. Or is that just all in Miriam’s very active imagination?

Indeed, Miriam’s inner dialogues drive much of the opening action in this remarkable sequel to the author’s award-winning book Glossolalia. In that groundbreaking novel, set in a not-so-distant future, insidious agents of the Nevermind control thought worldwide and work within shadowy conspiracies and large corporations to influence international affairs.

In this book, a cult has grown up around elements of the Atlantis story, and society has become divided — often violently — depending upon one’s beliefs. You’re either for one faction or another, with very little middle ground.

And this conflict serves as a complex backdrop in the development of multifaceted characters like Miriam, Susan, Dune and others to weave a dark — yet highly entertaining — tale.

As in the first book, there is lyrical writing and memorable turns-of-phrase everywhere. Such as:
“His red lips showed exquisite pain and pleasure with the tiniest movements of pointed corners. In the dream, he dressed like Lord Byron. We lived wild in the gorse, swam in stars together, became wind whipping up wildfire turning heather to passion. We were a lighting storm. We were eternal.”

And this deliciously foreshadowing phrase:

“The future licked my skin and made it shiver.”

And, this pensive passage:

“We’re inside a story, I thought. The edges of our story are like moss, the little viney spots in the yard by the terraces and the spaces between the fence posts and the rocky hill, inhabited by glowing imagination since I was a child giddy with breathing into other worlds.”

As this storyline unfolds, Susan suddenly falters during the last performance of the season, and Miriam, aura glowing, glides in to flawlessly finish the show to accolades and bravos. Susan, meanwhile, is whisked off to a remote castle owned by a friend of Dune’s — ostensibly to convalesce.

But there is more to Dune’s motives than helping his wife get better. She soon finds that she is a virtual prisoner in the feudal keep, dodging rats and listening furtively to Dune and his fellow Nevermind agents plan the eventual overthrow of the world. And it gets even better after that, with aborted escapes through hidden passageways, unforeseen plot twists, and surprise character reveals that will keep you turning pages right through to the end.

This is not meant to be a lighthearted romp through arcane information about ancient legends and curious customs that, in the book, have arisen to divide nations. It’s more than that — much more.
It is a masterwork of storytelling with a very sharp edge and a keen wit to boot. It peels back the intricate subderma overlaying each major character’s persona, revealing our all-too-human vulnerabilities to mass suggestion. And it once again points up the critical need to be ever vigilant in guarding our very thoughts in an increasingly invasive society.

Five and a half stars to Encore and to its visionary author, Tantra Bensko. The first novel in the Nevermind series won a gold medal for excellence in writing. The sequel should win platinum. And it’s a book that should be on everyone’s reading shortlist this summer.

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Maximize Your Book Sales With Data Analysis by Mike Kowis & Sharon C. Jenkins

It often comes as a shock to writers — particularly the authors of novels and other works of fiction — that once the supposedly “hard work” of crafting a well-written book is over, there then looms a more daunting and perplexing task. How do I market and promote my work?

How, indeed?

There are many resources available — more than ever before — to help guide the way through the often perplexing gauntlet of marketing tactics available to authors.

The secret is (a) to find the good ones and (b) to learn to leverage their considerable power and global reach to accomplish your biggest goal.

Which is to sell as many books as you can.

Oh, sure, some of the more esoteric writers will sniff self-righteously at the goal of commercial success. But those of us with mortgages to pay and mouths to feed must up their marketing and promotional game to its highest level.

This compact, yet powerful book can help you do that.

Don’t be put off by its overly clinical title and chapter headings. Because beneath the decidedly un-writer-like prospects of having to “analyze critical data” and “create a business plan,” there is a virtual gold mine of practical tips and techniques to be had here for achieving bestseller status.

Mystified by the prospect of using pay-per-click ads to create awareness of your book’s existence? Don’t be. The authors of this book break down not only the “why” of the reasoning behind this effective technique, but more importantly, the “how” on creating a successful campaign.

Social media marketing guides leave you still bewildered at the sheer numbers they force you to analyze?

This book pulls back the veil on how to do that easily by using a couple of tried and true Internet platforms — Google Analytics chief among them — to finally discover what potential buyers are doing once they reach your point of sale — typically your Amazon page or your author’s website.

What? Don’t have a website yet? You’d better, if you really want to catapult your sales into the stratosphere.

Public speaking leave you feeling discouraged? Don’t be. Learn to embrace and leverage public appearances to best advantage.

In short, this handy guide with the off-putting name should be required reading in both MFA degree programs for “serious” writers and in nonfiction seminars alike. We award five and half stars to its authors for producing such a helpful guide.

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Cerberus Confidential (Primordial Realms Book 1) by Stacy Benedict

Detective Niels Troelsen and his partner Detective Elan Cohen are once again primed for canine intrigue in Cerberus Confidential, author Stacy Benedict’s offbeat and incredibly creative new science fiction/mystery mashup.

In this slim volume, the two detectives must figure out just what happened to a libidinous lady who has stepped away from her husband and boring job to seek adventure with her problematic paramour, who is himself torn between what he ought to do and what he knows in his yellow-bellied heart he will do.

And so a first-rate conundrum begins to consume the two Canine caste Primordials — who in actuality hail from a faraway world called Arimoi. They’re on Earth to protect humans — from other humans.

They visit the victim’s place of employment, trendy VigorNourish, to try and unearth some kind of clue that will shed much-needed light on the case. Surveillance cameras in the company’s parking garage give a hint as to the noontime activities of the missing woman and point the pair of detectives in a promising new direction.

A visit to a nearby shooting club puts them in touch with a nervous archery instructor — Ernest Truman — who flees after the brief interview to an emotional meeting for shopaholics and hoarders.

Niels — who takes the form of a dachshund and hides under a table to eavesdrop during the meeting hears the unfortunate archery teacher break down, confessing the purchase of thousands of dollars worth of leather goods — the very items that came tumbling out of a locker rented at the club by the missing woman earlier.

On and on the plot deepens, as every page turn reveals a new suspicious character for the reader’s consideration as a potential perpetrator.

Indeed, this delightfully well-constructed novella overflows with outre characters who jump off the page fully formed and so artfully described you’ll feel you’ve met them somewhere. For example, consider this delicious description of shooting club owner Whitney “Call Me Bullwhip” Foxgloves:

“(In came) a red-faced fellow whose stomach entered the room before him. He wore cowboy boots and a white button-down T-shirt with the words ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ embroidered in gold thread above his heart.”

And, this priceless piece of prose that arises farther along in the investigation:

“Beatrice’s possible murder lurked in every corner of the investigation like a large, fuchsia-colored, and unspoken-about whale.”

So much great writing, so little room in this review to recount all of it.

Five-plus stars to Cerberus Confidential. Come for the curious concept of shapeshifting detectives. But stay for a roundhouse solution to the mystery that would have impressed Charlie Chan.

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