Plum Rains on Happy House by Michael Greco

Review by Diane Donovan

Plum Rains on Happy House is set in Japan, where an odd kind of boarding house containing a strange cast of characters engages a Westerner, Lawrence Thornberry (called ‘the Ichiban’ by the house observer), in a culture clash of oddity that opens with a powerful description of this individual’s countenance:

“He wore pointy shoes that were like two little brown puppies scurrying on the leash ahead of their owner, determined to get somewhere before anyone else. The Ichiban looked like a ski jump with feet—his body always seemed a half step behind, as if his shoes were in charge and the rest of him was just along for the stroll.”

The first important key to appreciating Michael A. Greco’s production is an acceptance of its quiet descriptions and contrasts between Japanese and American cultures.

His approach to description, which might seem so exquisitely wrought to some (as in the passage above, which will particularly appeal to poets with a solid appreciation of metaphorical color), might feel a bit too slow to others.

Greco himself remarks on cultural differences in many ways throughout the story, providing further clues to his plot and choices which belay the Westerner’s usual penchant for fast-paced action and startling surprises over astute observation:

“No one smiled at him as he passed with his bulky backpack and his suitcase, and this confirmed things he had heard or read; the observations of Westerners that the Japanese were not an outgoing bunch, rather stand-offish, inward looking, not exactly what you’d call friendly—the opposite of what the world considered Americans to be: open and affable, fat, gun-toting, frontier individuals.”

Readers who approach this story awaiting a crescendo of action may thus be disappointed, but others able to see this novel for what it is–an astute, reflective piece taking the time to peel away layers of Japanese psyche and society like an onion–will discover riches in the odd cast of characters, quirky old house, efforts of an English teacher to absorb Japanese culture, and the haunting reflections of a different kind of sentient house that holds the heartbeat of Japan within its walls.

There are no seismic events in this story: no shocking confrontations or thriller-style moments. Indeed, its winding plot and characters sometimes thwart the reader’s logical understanding as much as the historically enigmatic Japanese culture may defy neat categorization and pat interpretation.

As a result, some readers might see the story as elusive and puzzling. Perhaps the best prerequisite to a thorough appreciation of Greco’s tale is to hold a prior appreciation of surrealism art’s ability to take familiar places and objects and skew them for a different, thought-provoking result. Viewed in this manner, the fine art of cultural inspection and impressions give Plum Rains on Happy House a unique literary feel that sets it apart from other stories.

This story will especially please wordsmiths and poets, as well as those familiar with Japanese culture and scenarios. These audiences will find the literary work delightful and evocative where everyday readers might find it hard to pin down and challenging, and will appreciate the haunted house’s major role in influencing “the Ichiban” and his obsessions.

The house is flowering–and so will the reader, if they allow proper time to walk Plum Rains on Happy House’s surreal hallways. This is a gem of metaphorical description, and provides insights that linger in the mind long after the mysterious, true nature of Happy House draws to an end.

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Deliberate Deception by Joe Porrazzo

Review by Cy Young, Publishers Daily Reviews

Great writers are often measured by reviewers using a literary yardstick of sorts.

In “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” Lajos Egri applies a mathematical formula to dramatic structure.  He contends that the degree to which the reader cares about the main character and the depth of the danger he endures is in exact proportion to the readers’ satisfaction at the end of the story.

In Deliberate Deception, skilled storyteller Joe Porrazzo executes this formula to perfection.

To deal with the first element of the equation, the reader instantly sympathizes with Alex Porter, who’s just moved to Tucson and opened a P.I. office.  His first assignment, to test the security systems of Doolittle-Mitchell Air Force Base, is successful, partly due to his experience as a retired Air Force OSI Colonel.  Porter’s painful background, the loss of his wife and daughter, add greatly to his appeal.

The P.I. is quickly pulled into a complex plot involving six murders, all occurring within a week’s time.  The deeper Alex digs into these murders, the more threats to his life multiply.

What follows with lighting speed and mind-boggling plot twists is a masterfully told drama of fascinating intrigue, deceptive characters who are seldom who they seem to be, and a ‘What the hell is gonna happen next!’ thrust that keeps the reader on edge waiting anxiously for the next unexpected and surprising slam in the gut.

Porrazzo, a retired U. S. Air Force officer still employed at the Department of Defense, expertly weaves his knowledge and experience of covert operations, as well as a full familiarity of police work, into a fascinating complexity of danger and a spellbinding panorama of action, surprise, and dramatic tension.

The story shifts effortlessly from Tucson to Trinidad to D.C.  We were particularly hooked by Porrazzo’s military expertise, his sense of drama, and his ability to combine Air Force protocol with interesting characters who always kept tricking us with their false facades.

His descriptions of locales, scenery, and neighborhood angst were compelling.  We could smell the decay and poverty of the Tunapuna District of Trinidad where Porter goes to meet Ronnie Brown, a minor but interesting player.

Finally, the dialogue moves quickly and reveals character. And referring back to the formula for a great work of fiction, the writer masterfully fulfills the first piece of the mathematical equation by making us care deeply for Alex through the trials he endures…leading us to the second part by providing a satisfying ending to the drama.

The final equation: Deliberate Deception = Five-Plus Stars.

Amazon Link

CFI! The Book: A Satirical Aviation Comedy by Alex Stone

Step into a world where student pilots repeatedly overshoot runways, foreigners desperate for a pilot’s license are casually extorted for an upfront nonrefundable fee of $10,000. And their instructors are all so broke that they spray Windex on their dress shirts every day to avoid the expense of washing them.

Is this comical fiction or appalling fact?

Flight instructor-turned author Alex Stone isn’t saying for the record. But his hilarious look inside one hapless flight school employee’s life is enough to make you wonder if the skies above you are safe or if an incompetent student pilot isn’t about to suddenly nose dive into your house, killing your whole family in one spectacular, pyrotechnic event.

It’s possible & even arguably probable if this book, with its memorable, offbeat characters and uneasy message are to be believed. But in the end, it’s probably just a harmless good read — something to curl up with by the fire and enjoy this winter, or throw in the beach hamper this summer.

Wherever you read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Stone delivers a solid, well-written narrative with an ensemble cast of fallible, believable players, like George, the perennial student who can’t seem to find the airport at which he’s supposed to land even when he’s flying right over it. Then there’s the beyond-weird father and his look-alike five-year-old son who show up for a demo ride, saluting and giggling right up to the moment he panics in-flight, seizing the controls in a dangerous death grip.

And finally, running this sleazy fly-by-night flight school is Todd, the owner who would rather see one of his planes disappear with all hands on board so he can collect on insurance than perform anything like proper maintenance on his ratty fleet of Sixties-era aircraft.

Yes, it’s a dysfunctional gathering of misfit students and desperate pilot instructors populating the pages of this rare glimpse into just how the pilot of your last commercial flight may have paid his or her dues down in the likes of this Florida flight school, where instructors are cheating death every day just trying to earn enough flight hours to move up one more level to a flying job that is more than a cut above the national poverty level.

And while the text is often peppered with aviation terms familiar only to pilots, Stone does include a handy glossary in the back to help any bewildered readers sort it all out. But even without that, the book is carried along nicely by the diverting antics of students and management, and the lengths to which instructors must go to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

Five stars to CFI. It’s a heckuva good book — but don’t read it if you’re about to go up in a private plane. You might seriously wonder if you’ll ever come down again in one piece.

Amazon Link

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.

Amazon Link

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.

Amazon Link

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…)

Amazon Link

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.

Amazon Link