The Great American Cat Novel by dhtreichler &‎ PhantomCat

When Bengal Charlie, the Secretary General of the United Cat Nations, disappears under the most mysterious of circumstances, the suspects start quick-stepping into focus faster than — well, a cat on a hot tin roof.

In this ambitious paen to George Orwell’s classic allegorical tale Animal Farm, author dhtreichler weaves together a fascinating mystery cum cautionary tale in which dogs and cats are struggling to achieve a peaceful coexistence.

The narrator of the story is a Maine Coon cat novelist who invents a strong female protagonist, a hard-bitten Big Cat security agent with the improbable name of Amethyst Leopard. She dives into the investigation with fierce determination and begins backtracking the Secretary General’s last known movements.

The missing feline won a Nobel prize for his feat of negotiating a shaky accord between disparate factions of dogs and cats the world over. But it seems not everyone is ready to bury the centuries-old hatchet. Hit dogs — including a gun-wielding Pit Bull — try to take out Amethyst early in the investigation, but she perseveres,  methodically putting together a long list of probable perps.

This includes an incredibly imaginative lineup of characters ranging from Dragon Li, the Secretary General’s  ADD-afflicted personal assistant to Bull Durham, the snarling mastiff who heads up the uber-right wing hate group, the Society of Pooches and Cat Antagonizers (SPCA) — and a half-dozen other players who move into and out of the storyline.

The plot turns ever more problematic as Amethyst and her boss Luis Lyons try to keep track of this growing roster of POIs (Persons of Interest) who might have a motive for moving Bengal Charlie out of the way. This includes the outrageous possibility that bad dog Durham is trying to move forward with a secret plot to mass exterminate the estimated 75 million cats in the world. (In a nice touch, Bull always wears a flowing black cape with a blue lining — in case you had any doubts about his villainous nature).

Also vying for the reader’s attention are a few choice turns-of-phrase scattered here and there as the book unfolds.

Speaking of the crying need for a modern literary masterwork that will stand the test of time, the cat narrator yawns and says, “Naps are too important to miss over such a trivial thing as immortality.”

And, as Lyons begins to tire of the seemingly endless line of possible links, he says to Amethyst: “This is as fruitless as a giraffe-stripped nut tree.”

The novel’s clear homage to Orwell’s work is evident throughout as the author puts his cat and dog characters in anthropomorphic positions of authority that continually evoke images of Man’s constant need to assert dominance over one another and over entire racial and ethnic groups — often through deadly measures.

The book reaches its climactic conclusion after side trips to many places in search of clues, including several international locales such as Singapore (Amethyst is forced to ride in the hold — in a crate) and Chicago (where a kangaroo court finds her guilty of dognapping Bull Durham).

In between, the story alternates between a dawning realization of just what the wrenching societal consequences of the historic Peace Accords will be, and the many twists and turns that slowly build suspense and an ever-growing anticipation of the book’s big reveal: where is the Secretary General, and is he alive or dead?

Discover the answer to that question — and be morally uplifted into the bargain — when you read The Great American Cat Novel. We recommend it to anyone wanting to curl up by the fire with an innovative twenty-first century take on allegorical fiction this winter.

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Onions by Cy Young

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Charles Wesley Onions is cruising through life as only a twelve-year-old can: aimlessly consuming all the comic books he can afford, and dodging an endless stream of school bullies. Then, he meets octogenarian Sandrine Galano Fuller and his hapless young life changes forever.

In this captivating offbeat novel, called, simply, Onions, author Cy Young draws the reader deep into the unlikely but fascinating story of Onions’ escape from an adolescent hell of foster homes and petty thievery into a wary friendship with Fuller, who begins the slow process of building the boy’s self esteem.

Written skillfully in the tradition of John Irving and his always-outre casts of characters, Onions rises above the stereotypical coming-of-age storyline so popular among many Young Adult novels these days to render a tale both sweet and fulfilling.

Charles Wesley (C.W.) quickly gets recruited into Mrs. Fuller’s zany campaign to derail a plan by local power brokers to build a taxpayer-funded sports arena. The plan has been cooked up in a smoke-filled back room by crooked city hall officials, who would receive handsome kickbacks from bad apple builders like this succinctly summed-up mayoral crony:

“Zinnerman’s short, hefty legs were crossed at the ankles revealing his passion: red, green, and orange argyle socks. His thin-lipped smile was like the bottom line of a ledger.”

This kind of priceless exposition abounds in the book, which also features such disparate (but crucial) plot elements as skinny-dipping senior citizens, big bore trumpet solos from The Wizard of Oz, and treetop aerobatics by a leaflet-dropping ultralight aircraft.

The narrative dips and weaves its way through Onions’ euphoric highs and devastating lows on the way to a surprising conclusion that finds C.W. many years later standing center stage at Madison Square Garden — a living testament to just what a single act of kindness at a crucial time can do to a troubled teen. It is a moral worth remembering in these perilous times of senseless school violence.

Five-plus stars to Onions for unparalleled storytelling and quirky characterizations that inspire deep reader empathy for some players, disdain for others and a fascination for all.

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The Long Body That Connects Us All by Rich Marcello

Fathers and sons have always shared a powerful and sometimes difficult bond. When to speak, when to hold still, when to love, when to let go.

Rich Marcello, In a marvelous new collection of extraordinary verse, drinks deeply from this well as he channels the thoughts and feelings of every father for his son.

“His face, sunlit, reminds me of a time when I was young / when I convinced myself all the world was dark / when the corner into which I was painted seemed drawn by others./ I want to tell him all of this. Tell him it will be okay. / Tell him he will find his way out of the corner one step at a time / even though some will be false. / But I’ve lived long enough to know he can’t hear me now. / So, instead, I pray forgiveness washes over him instead of sunlight.”

And, of time shared with a beloved grandfather:

“Shiny quarters given your workday suits and ties even on the weekends / the fights on the old radio in the basement / the cherry trees in full bloom / the Jersey shore strawberries / our long talks over football / I was the long-awaited grandson, endeared by order and substitution / the son never to come. / A circle in a square / Hair always a little too long / Values a little too left, I often yielded back then, / I thought out of respect but now I know out of descent. / You taught me first that love amidst difference / like hydrogen on the sun fusing into helium / lights generations.”

And, now and then through the years, when in deepest self-doubt, the son parents the father:

“Sometimes, when I’m dark like now, you visit / hands pocketed and smile worn calm / Without a word, you remind me of how you believed in me before I did / of how father is a name that can apply to anyone / of how a brief blush of peace, of forgiveness, can come when least expected.”

This lyrical collection transcends description, doing what all good poetry does, shining a soft light on often-unexpressed feelings. Marcello’s superb writing flows effortlessly (though all poets know that’s not so), and captures as well the long love of a married couple with years of friendship between them.

“Today persistent snow creates a white ceiling / and swirling walls around us as we walk through the morning. / Mostly we walk in silence, aware we’re connected to some larger radiant web / to some ageless dance, ubiquitous on days like today…/ At home, clothes fall off. / Face to face, we tremble as we kiss / in a way that can only happen after years of walking.”

Five-plus stars doesn’t seem like enough for this glimpse into a good man’s soul. But it’s all we have to bestow on The Long Body That Connects Us All. Order a trade paperback version of this thought-provoking work. You’ll want to read and re-read it again and again.

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Atlantis: Aftermath by Lee R. Kerr

What really happened to the fabled island of Atlantis?

Debate on its storied fate has spanned the centuries from the misty time before Plato to the present day. And now Texas attorney and archaeology buff Lee R. Kerr embarks on a  fascinating quest of his own to trace, once and for all, its historical lineage and true resting place.

His journey is chronicled in Atlantis: Aftermath, an ambitious narrative that is part historical primer and part Michelin guidebook. Along the way, he takes the reader along, first on a sun-drenched exploration of the artifact-rich environs of the ancient but still beautiful islands of Crete and  Santorini, and thence, at dawn one day, to the storied Acropolis and Parthenon on bustling Greece.

Figuring unexpectedly in this search for Atlantean origins is a diverting fascination with a mythical creature called a Griffin — a large beast with the head and wings of a bird and the body of a lion. With origins in Minoan frescoes dating to 1600 BCE, Kerr concludes that “they provide tangible evidence of the connection between Minoan and ancient Egyptian civilizations and the connection to the Atlantis story.”

He continues with a long recap of the Atlantis history as recorded by Plato and then takes us on a whirlwind tour of three other possible Atlantean connections in southern Spain, in Ireland, and even Egypt, where a necklace of amber, jet, and faience beads resembling those found in Tara, Ireland were found around the regal neck of no less a famous figure than King Tut. The beads are thought to have origins dating back to the Bronze Age. So how did such a priceless artifact find its way from its Celtic roots to an Egyptian throne room? It’s yet one more diversionary path pursued in fascinating and exhaustive detail by the enthusiastic author, whose sometimes giddy exhilaration at finding these historical bon mots is positively contagious.

Kerr goes on to posit the startling conclusion that the island nation of Ireland was in fact once a major part of the Atlantis legend. He gives an impressive body of evidence to back up this theory, based in no small part on a plethora of ancient ring forts that appear to draw heavily on Minoan and Atlantean-era culture.

The remainder of this highly enjoyable — and eminently readable — volume deals with travels to central Spain and then on to Portugal in search of still more clues, then back to Ireland’s haunting burial grounds for a tangible connection between those mysterious mounds and the violent eruption of the volcano at Santorini eons before.

In the end, does Kerr find his Holy Grail of evidential proof that Atlantis’ fate was tied to a much broader geological footprint than previously imagined? Winding up his saga in picturesque Zurich, Switzerland, he sums up his thoughts with epiphany-tinged candor:

“As I walked down the steps of the museum in Zürich, I was overwhelmed by a profound feeling of accomplishment. I know the final story is not written yet. Archaeology will continue. New discoveries will lead to greater and fuller understanding. But for now, for me, I feel satisfied that I had completed my Griffin Quest.”

He had, indeed. And the reader of this book will be the richer for having journeyed with Kerr in search of the Atlantean truth. Five plus stars to Kerr and his heroic and exhaustive research, packaged as it is in an archaeologically rich recounting of a story that has withstood the test of time.

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Encounter With ISIS (John Mordred Book 3) by J. J. Ward

In one of the most entertaining books we’ve seen this year, a Brit MI7 Intelligence Officer takes on the challenge of forestalling a fourteen-year-old girl’s terroristic ideals, solving the kidnapping of a government official’s son, and unraveling the mystery behind a corporate cyberattack.

And somewhere along the line, a love story breaks out for good measure.

In Encounter With ISIS: Tales of MI7 by J.J. Ward, agent John Mordred, droll, keen-witted and uber-resourceful, receives his latest assignment with aplomb aplenty. And this book — sixth in a series — affords him the opportunity to showcase his abundant sleuthing skills and rapier repartee to best advantage.

In a dizzying bit of deductive reasoning, Mordred and his associates at MI7 come to the startling conclusion that two of the three players in the disparate conundrum outlined above are collaborating. Exactly why, and where they might be headed remains unknown.

But this is just the sort of spiderwebbed situation that causes mystery and spycraft lovers the world over to rub their hands together and gleefully cry, “Game On!” Mordred et al fill the remaining chapters with remarkably cinematic dialogue detailing Mordred’s hunt for the minor miscreants — fourteen-year-old Aisha Sharif and sixteen-year-old Sebastian, the bucktoothed, homely son of the founder and director of Chewton Black, the private security company whose firewalls were allegedly breached.

The characterizations in this first-class piece of fiction are deep and absorbing, as is the byzantine plotline that forces the reader to pay close attention, lest a critical twist slip by unnoticed. And, in the end, it’s just this kind of diligence that provides a payoff as the literary drapes are pulled back in a revelatory last chapter reveal.

Accomplished author J.J. Ward outdoes himself in this combination detective slash international intrigue tale — written with style and skill. Readers will find John Mordred to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction today. Very well done and roundly deserving of its five-plus star rating. Read the entire series, including Mordred’s next adventure: World War O.

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The Secret Book of Harmony by Anna Iourenkova

Many an esoteric piece of literature has been written over the eons, trying to shed light on the nature of man. And, even as far back as Adam and Eve, relationships — both discordant and harmonious — have figured into this discussion.

Into the debate now comes an ambitious treatise by author Anna Iourenkova, a certified practicing hypnotherapist, a painter, a video-meditation creator, and a poet nominated for two Russian National competitions: “Russian Heritage 2016” and “Poet of the Year. Debut 2016”.

Her thoughts on relationships and the many factors that contribute to their success — or failure — make up a large part of her thoughtful work The Secret Book of Harmony.  It’s not a subject to be dealt with lightly, and Ms. Iourenkova’s insights stir deep reflection.

“How often we need to give a direction to our life,” she writes in her opening chapter. “We run after health to escape from aging, dependence and death…We look for safety to protect us from inner frustration. (And) we search to be recognized, to dare to recognize ourselves.”

Writing often in rhyming couplets that sometimes require a second reading — English is not her first language — Ms. Iourenkova nevertheless weighs in on subjects as varied as dependence and independence, constancy and change, ego’s purpose, and life, karma and choice.

“A goal is usually valuable only during its achievement  process,” she observes in one of many passages discussing humanity’s endless need for fulfillment. “The top of our desires’ hill is always followed by a downward slope. We stop appreciating what we’ve found, what was just a day before precious for us.”

Later in the book, she takes on the painful subject of betrayal in a relationship, highlighting in a particularly poetic passage the fragile nature of such a situation. “Partners in a couple are communicating vessels. If one is empty, he shares the content of the second, which either gives a nestle or engages a wrestle, so on receiving it the first one doesn’t always reckon.” Such a situation, she adds, rarely resolves in anything but sorrow and an ever-present neediness.

Still later, Ms Iourenkova draws further on her many years in dealing daily with people and their problems to observe that, paradoxically, “We sacrifice our health for wealth, then we spend our wealth for health. We want to grow older, and when our wish is realized, we become effectively old longing to be young again.” A humorous conundrum, to be sure.

Finally, on the Meaning of Life, she compares the universe to an ocean of light, and adds that our souls are made of this light. “We are limpid, gleaming, vivid water,” she says lyrically. ”In this ocean we totter. Leaded by the Universe’s current to the  Earth’s shore we take temporarily (the) shape of a wave once more.”

And, she completes that thought with this admonition: “But while being alive, we invent other meanings of life. Each one finds his own: to be useful for others, to realize his mission, fulfill his role, to enjoy, to be happy, to love, to be loved… All this composes our precious experience. The most important, before passing by, whatever we do, (is) to be satisfied with our life.”

Indeed, there is much, much more wisdom and philosophical insight to be discovered here, if the reader can, as Ms. Iourenkova herself says, “focus on the content more than on its shape.” For even in its “imperfect English,” there is a great deal to be learned — a veritable treasure trove of carefully considered thoughts and observations that will surely uplift and energize even the most casual student of the human condition.

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Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child by S. Craig Zahler

A newly arrived baby with a feral scream becomes the most abhorred — and the most unique — resident in a small orphanage with the very word “unwanted” in its title. And thus does tiny, misshapen Hug Chickenpenny begin his stay at the Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted.

In this wonderfully macabre story by skilled writer S. Craig Zahler, the anomalous infant, terribly deformed at birth, and named  “Hug” by a doting caretaker, terrorizes the orphanage with his piteous demands for attention and hideous appearance.

Therefore, it is with a collective sigh of relief by all but the outnumbered caretaker, that Hug is soon adopted by the curious Dr. Chauncy Hartfordshire Hannersby — a teratologist of some repute.

What’s a teratologist? You’ll find out as you explore this terrific tale of the unfortunate baby who grows dutifully over the next four years into his destiny as Dr. Hannersby’s adopted son and acolyte.

Fate intervenes in the forest one day, however, as Hannersby and two other aging scientists ingest some not-so-mellow mushrooms. This forces Hug, as a displaced minor once again, to take up temporary residence back in the Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted. It’s not a happy return.

The new headmistress is the former sullen receptionist, and she joins many of the normal children in making Hug feel the weight and scope of his deformities. Then, miraculously, salvation arrives in the form of another adoption — this one with a much better outcome. In fact, this placement leads to many unexpected — and unpredictable — adventures for Hug and an important new friend as he continues to grow up.

This absolutely unique book is part Cider House Rules and part Elephant Man, with a dash of The Hardy Boys thrown in for good measure. Again, it defies easy categorization.

Mostly, it’s just a superb story about surviving tall odds to ultimately triumph over unspeakable adversity — even if you’re riddled with deformities and periodically expectorate glittery vapor and brightly colored amethysts (outlandish as it seems, this makes perfect sense in the book, so skilled is the author at making the outre highly believable.)

Complex, well-drawn characterizations, compelling imagery and a well-ordered story arc complete a trifecta of literary accomplishment here that is achieved by few elsewhere.

Five-plus stars to Hug Chickenpenny. It takes the reader on a highly implausible — yet eminently readable — journey through an imaginative and poignant narrative that is well-told from beginning to its surprising end.

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