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.

Amazon Link   Barnes & Noble   Indiebound

Our Precious Bond by Marlene F Cheng

Geneva hadn’t planned on falling in love that night.

But when the big, handsome, professional hockey player known only as “Y” arrives in her Vancouver Emergency Room with a leg injury, Geneva — the ER physician on duty — feels a strange vibration circling the space, “as if a wind had blown in with him and hadn’t yet settled. ”

Thus begins Our Precious Bond — an exquisitely written story of secret love, twin sisterhood, enduring family traditions, and more — all wrapped in an absorbing narrative just waiting to be made into a major motion picture.

Seriously, it’s that good.

Geneva and her twin sister Venice are part of a huge Swedish family that celebrates its rich heritage at the drop of a varmrökt lax  — that’s salmon smoked slowly over alderwood, brushed with clover honey. The delicacy is just one of many served at extended clan gatherings along with shared wisdom and an outpouring of love. These gatherings lend a warm backdrop to the developing storyline.

But the family collectively wonders: when will these two twins — one now an accomplished ER doctor and the other a successful attorney — find someone and settle down? Neither has shown an inclination toward serious relationships so far. But that’s about to change in a big way.

Alternately endearing, dramatic and lyrical by turns, this extraordinary book takes the reader on an intimate journey into the lives of the three primary players — Geneva, Venice, and the enigmatic hockey star known only as “Y” throughout the story. Along the way, we meet many singular supporting players.

There is Cloud, a Canadian First Nation anthropologist with a passion for helping his people achieve a bright future off the reservation. There is Grandpa, who startles his granddaughters with the revelation of an enduring devotion to a woman not his wife. And there is 80-year-old Sister Hilda, who extends redemptive hope one night to a schizophrenic young woman in a long red scarf — and, in so doing, touches many lives.

Exemplary writing abounds in these pages:

“I walked home in the dawn. The fog was lifting off the ocean to ascend into the North Shore Mountains in a diaphanous mist of beauty. As the morning came clear, I saw my world in a new light. My world, as I had known it, had changed. By choice, I had rendered it so.”


“I had questioned my happiness, lost whatever there was to lose, and now
as I slowly find some, I treasure it with all my being. ”

And, finally, our favorite:

“She smiled at Grandpa. Their eyes met, and he smiled back. Those smiles held a thousand memories that the rest of us will never know, and love danced a terpsichorean delight around the room. ”

Five-plus stars to Our Precious Bond. Only rarely do we see such a sweeping story made intimate through the talents of a clear new voice in fiction.

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I Can See You (Emma Willis Book 1) by Joss Landry

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Ten-year-old Emma Willis can see the future. It’s both a gift and a curse.

Sometimes she saves lives. But in other cases, when she can only shiver in the night and watch helplessly, she just screams and screams until the dark visions dissipate.

And on each of these nights, someone dies.

In this, the first installment of an extraordinary series by acclaimed author Joss Landry, Emma must overcome her personal fears to match wits with a brutal kidnapper and murderer.

At the same time, she risks social isolation from family and friends, who deem Emma’s special gift a possible manifestation of witchcraft.

Emma’s powers are a genetic legacy from her grandmother. But they also are a psychic liability that is putting her young life in very real danger.

After warning off best friend Tommy from an imminent bike rally disaster, she reluctantly joins forces with local authorities in a desperate search for the killer of three small children and a police officer.

Emma’s teacher Christina also gets involved — and not just in the investigation. She rediscovers a smoldering attraction to police detective Hank Apple’s hunky persona, and their renewed relationship adds extra zest to the book’s complex and thrilling plotline.

The killer — a master of disguise — begins stalking Emma, resulting in added police protection. But Emma finds new courage — and remarkable new powers — when she digs through her grandmother’s dusty belongings and finds two items with incredible occult power: a leather-bound book of spells and a beautiful amulet on a golden chain.

Used together, they embolden Emma to turn the tables and begin tracking the psychotic perpetrator’s own movements through OBE — Out of Body Experiences. Emma uses these to help detective Apple and his partner begin tightening their case.

But things don’t go according to plan and deadly dangers arise as the manhunt closes in on the killer. The breathless ending should satisfy — and surprise — even the most demanding reader. It’s that good.

Five-plus stars to I Can See You. It’s yet another award-winner for author Joss Landry, who offers still more adventures for this exciting new young female lead character in the sequel, I Can Find You, now widely available.

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K.I.A. by Alexander Charalambides

Hildegard Pine holds her frosty breath on the edge of a snow-filled clearing, watching a couple of teen-aged fellow students being led away with bags over their heads, never to be seen again.That’s the grisly consequence of not making the grade at Truman Academy, the chill-inducing location for KIA by groundbreaking author Alexander Charalambides.

This first-rate YA thriller follows lead character Hildegard and her unlikely comrades — Grace and David — from their survival-of-the-fittest beginning at the isolated Alaskan military school to discovery of a startling secret about their own genetic pasts.

In the process, they must cope with grueling physical training and draconian interpersonal conditions that often pit them against both peers and sadistic instructors. It’s a fascinating read that moves fast and features acerbic, clever repartee among the intrepid trio as they struggle against both their hostile far-north environment and a harsh boot camp-like school setting.

Hildegard reluctantly assumes a leadership role as they fight to survive day to day and discover the true reason their parents have shipped them off to such a dreadful place. What common condition binds these extraordinary teens together, and what will they discover about their enigmatic shared beginnings and their tentative, danger-filled future?

Clever characterizations and outstanding writing  elevate this Young Adult novel far above other stories in its genre. Here’s a sample of the often lyrical turns-of-phrase found in the book:

“Light sweeps under the curtains. Through the building, I hear the vibrations of a heavy engine, coming slowly to a stop. There’s another beam of light, and then a third, rolling under the curtains, around my room, and then rumbling still.”

And, in a remarkable passage that sums up the sheer evil oozing from the chief bad guy:

“Up close, G is much worse. He smells like fresh mud, and his head looks like an egg, just fished from a sewer.”

The ending to this cautionary tale of fast friendships forged under less-than-favorable circumstances is especially satisfying. As they say: “Wait for it… Wait for it…” At well over three hundred pages, the book nevertheless holds a reader’s rapt attention from mysterious beginning to climactic finish.

KIA is a storytelling triumph by standout writer Charalambides. We’ll be on the lookout for more adventure-packed, character-driven work by this accomplished British author.

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Strutting and Fretting by Kevin McKeon

The complicated life of a repertory theatre actor takes center stage in the extremely well-written novel Strutting and Fretting by debut author Kevin McKeon. Opening in the 1970s resort town of Santa Maria, California, during one summer theatre season, the story soon plunges the reader deeply into lead character Bob’s angst-ridden life.

His ill-considered marriage back in college has ended badly, and Bob now spends his time either agonizing over what went wrong in the failed relationship, or nurturing a near-constant fantasy of bedding virtually every woman he meets.

Well, maybe not every woman. There’s Lou, the gruff middle-aged stage manager. And there’re the overworked and underappreciated wardrobe girls, whose names he never bothers to get. He barely gives them a glance, and when he does, he says with the characteristically wry humor that pervades the book, “I felt like a white slaveowner surveying the plantation.”

But pretty much every other female is fair game as he tries to sort out and balance his basically good-guy persona with the more controlling side of his nature.

Yes, Bob is complicated. And this superb work of fiction peels back the layers of his carefully guarded soul for readers to explore. It is a masterful examination of a young man struggling to balance chronic low self-esteem with a performer’s perpetual need for approval.

But there is also a skillful leavening of lightheartedness as Bob and the entertaining ensemble of supporting players gamely make their way through a season of Shakespeare, and audience-pleasing musicals, and the occasionally challenging contemporary play.

There is so much to like and admire about this book, from the well-drawn, three dimensional characters (including a fellow actor who carries a trembling chihuahua with him everywhere in a gym bag) to Darkly Effeminate Mario, the hypersensitive director of Henry V, to the author’s evocative writing style that succinctly sums up the raison d’être for actors everywhere to do what they do best:

“Basically, an actor was little more than a bum,” Bob explains to the reader at one point. “A vagrant. An addict. Theatre was the drug of choice. Once you were hooked, you were constantly on unemployment, constantly auditioning, always at the mercy of directors’ or casting directors’ taste…The performance was the high, the community and the friends you made, they were the high. But coming down was a bitch, and getting off it could kill you.”

In short, this is a wonderful insight into the world behind the stage lights — written by a man who has clearly been there, pursuing the mysterious passion that drives actors the world over to practice their craft.

We give Strutting and Fretting five-plus stars, and put it at the forefront of all the serious new fiction released this year. It currently is available only as a self-published novel like so many other Indie works on Amazon. But it deserves a much larger stage, if you will.

Don’t be surprised to see this rare gem rise quickly to bestseller status either on Amazon or with a New York publisher — and then be optioned to Hollywood. We sincerely hope there are more works forthcoming by this talented writer.

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The Prophet and the Witch: A Novel of Puritan New England (My Father’s Kingdom Book 2) by James W. George

Never has history been brought more vividly to life than in the pages of The Prophet and the Witch, where a colorful cast of characters awaits readers eager to get behind the scenes of one of America’s greatest forgotten conflicts.

Join master historical storyteller James W. George for this riotous, yet sensitive, retelling of King Philip’s War — the struggle to subjugate the native American population of 1670s New England to colonial rule. It’s also a tale full of rich portrayals and unsettling situations. Here are a few snapshots:

Defrocked Puritan minister Israel Brewster tames and marries fiery beauty Constance Wilder. Captain Benjamin Church and Captain Samuel Mosely lead a bloody but futile assault on an entrenched native American stronghold. And Linto, holy advisor of the Wampanoag tribe, agonizes endlessly about telling  elders to fight the English deep in the treacherous swamps rather than head-on. But this tactic slowly turns against the proud warriors until only a handful are left.

Indeed,  there is no shortage of conflict — actual and psychological — as the saga unfolds at a rapid rate. But the pacing is superb, and the author still manages to build in complex characterizations that propel even minor players far into the reader’s imagination.

Linto improbably quotes Biblical verse to Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief, as they stoically endure their long retreat. Elsewhere, Brewster falls in to fight alongside — and eventually against — flamboyant militia man Dutch Cornelius in one especially disturbing scene. And, along the way, another shocking revelation rivets readers’ attention to a mysterious murder, reminding us all that history is fashioned, for good or ill, by ordinary human beings, not exalted heroes.

“It’s a cruel world, Linto, and men need to kill for what they believe in,” philosophizes Metacomet’s war captain late in the narrative.  “Men need to kill and die for the things and people they love.”

This is a remarkable book that should be required reading for anyone who believes that history is just a dry procession of facts, dates and faraway places. The Prophet and the Witch roundly belies that truism, and those who read it will eagerly await more from this talented writer.

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