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Book Review: Darkling Spinster

Darkling Spinster. Wes Payton. Torrid Books: September 14, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 352 pages.

Reviewed by Deanna Frances.

Wes Payton’s new novel, Darkling Spinster, is a Western-style romance with a hint of fantasy and science fiction. The novel takes place in the 1800s in a southwestern town called Tombstone and tells the story of a thirty-something unwed “spinster” named Reb, who finds that the small town has more to offer than it initially seems.

In the beginning of the novel, Reb moves to Tombstone to live with her wealthy older sister, Milly, and husband, Monty. The first several chapters describe Milly’s goal of trying to marry off her younger sister. Although Milly introduces several eligible suitors to her sister, Reb cannot seem to move on from her former fiancé, who was killed over ten years prior in the Civil War. Milly’s husband also joins this quest and brings forth an unlikely man that does catch Reb’s attention, a handsome pig farmer named Paul.

As Reb and Paul’s relationship grows, he tells her that he is not necessarily who he says he is and admits that he is a writer, originally from the future, who had somehow traveled back in time to the 1800s. At first, Reb is startled by this news, and ultimately believes that Paul is lying to her. As the story progresses, she realizes that her feelings for Paul are too strong to let his time traveling past come between them, and she agrees to assist him with his quest to find another time traveler so that he can return to his own time.

Initially, I was a bit skeptical about how this novel was going to play out with its wide range of genres, but I will admit that I truly enjoyed reading Reb and Paul’s story. As a fan of romance and historical fiction, this novel fit nicely into my range of interest. I was a little concerned about how Payton was going to tie in science fiction, but I believe that Paul’s time traveling past was a perfect hint of the genre to add to the story.

Knowing Payton’s history with playwriting was very interesting, because I could definitely see his background through the writing style of this novel. The chapters are very short and written in more of a dialogue-heavy “scenic” style, which kept the novel fast paced and interesting. I appreciated the easy-read feel of this novel, but I do wish that Payton would have added more descriptions—the novel feels very scripted and dialogue-heavy as is.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Darkling Spinster, and I believe it is a wonderful read for any fan of historical fiction, romance, and science fiction. I believe that Payton’s seamless use of several different genres has created a novel for many types of readers to enjoy.



Book Review: Beer and Gasoline

Beer and Gasoline. John Knoerle. Chicago: Blue Steel Press, August 1, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 298 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

“The Mojave Desert runs on beer and gasoline,” says one of the characters in Beer and Gasoline. It is that kind of insight into both the location (the desert around Needles, CA) and the times (1968, in all its cold-war paranoia and before the incursion of civilization into the last wild places) that serve as the engine for John Knoerle’s enjoyable spy thriller.

The protagonist, CIA agent Hal Schroeder, has appeared in three other novels in Knoerle’s “American Spy Trilogy.” This book appears to be the final, most cynical, entry in the series. Sent on a mission to uncover a murder near a top-secret installation deep in the desert, Schroeder discovers secrets hidden in the desert that make him question his loyalty to the Agency as well as its paranoid but brilliant leader, James Jesus Angleton. He becomes the key to a story involving double-crossing spies, Korean War deserters, Native American journalists and a young—but already far too cynical—local cop.

Fans of Cold War espionage stories will enjoy Knoerle’s well-thought-out and researched capture of time and place. I found the story easy to jump into, even though I had not read the previous titles in the series, although that might have helped with Schroeder’s backstory. The characters are unique and perfect for the time period. They are familiar without being the same old tropes.

Readers should know going in that Beer and Gasoline is not told in a traditional narrative. Rather, the story is told in flashbacks through documentary evidence: transcripts, newspaper articles, personal letters, and the handwritten notes of an aging, world-weary, and increasingly cynical spy. The presentation is unique, although some might find it distracting. When it works—as in the transcription of a surveillance audio—it’s fast paced, engaging, and moves the story along at breakneck speed. Some of the personal notes and letters required a suspension of disbelief that took me out of the story for a moment, and the author's use of “Dear Reader” seemed a bit out of place. However, these flaws did not diminish my enjoyment of the book.

As a fan of spy fiction, history, and the Mojave Desert and its residents, I enjoyed the ride. 



Book Review: Season of Lies

Season of Lies. Dennis Hetzel. West Virginia: Headline Books, Inc., May 1, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-Book, 348 pages.

Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.

This was my first sports/political thriller and all I can say is, “Holy cow!” Hetzel rolls out a sequence of events hung on a taut timeline and within twenty pages it is a book you cannot abandon on a nightstand.

Two important seasons are about to collide: the World Series and the American Presidential election. The novel takes place just as the Cubs have won the World Series and one year before the Presidential election. Both games are rematches and rest on how they are being pitched. Both teeter on the edge of being games of lies and deceit played by complicated and misguided villains and countered by people of generally good character.

Author Dennis Hetzel goes right to the top with high-powered characters including the incumbent President, Luke Murphy, who is running for re-election, and a talented, highly-paid baseball pitcher, Trey Von Ohmann, who has just been traded to the President’s favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. The book begins vibrating almost immediately as a large comet streaks across the sky, and a world poised on making decisions based on unfounded superstition is looking for answers in unlikely places. 

I would categorize Season of Lies as a realistic thriller. Hetzel packs the book with archetypes that we quickly register and recognize but gives their characters enough latitude to make decisions that seem more spontaneous than plotted. Everyone has at least a semi-legitimate reason for what they do. There are an assortment of supporting characters including political rivals, backroom consultants, on-air personalities, a major sports mogul, damaged old friends, a neglected wife, and a drug addled young woman whose diary entries stir up the past. All of them come with personal agendas that are sometimes in direct conflict with the two main events.

If there was ever a fiction book about shifting power and the puppet masters who do the shifting, this is it. Social media and established media is always watching and writing—not weeks or years later, but within minutes. There is no waiting for things to be discovered and proven. There is no place to hide. The fact finders and benders keep the pressure on everyone. We are drawn through this book as the stakes keep rising until we, and the characters, are nearly exhausted from being outraged by dealing with lies and half-truths.

I think this book will appeal to anyone who loves their reading fast and furious. I watch sports and politics enough to hold dinner table conversation, but this book put me right into the fictional Cubs organization and carrying my iPad through the halls of the White House. I learned about pitching and playing in a high-powered, multi-billion-dollar sport. I learned about how rumors and partial truths can be powerful weapons in chewing up time. This is good, clear, powerful writing with no extraneous fol-de-rol that shows that the writer knows what he knows. It is Hetzel’s walking the tight rope of plausibility that makes this novel believable and exciting.

I was prepared to dismiss some characters as one-dimensional archetypes, mainly Luke Murphy, the incumbent President, and Trey Van Ohmann, the baseball pitcher. To Hetzel’s credit, he gave them and every character enough of a backstory to keep them believable. He generally stops them from sliding into predictable situations, although there were a few times that he could not resist that temptation.

There are no true superheroes or totally misguided villains in this book. We know the stakes are high, and we know that America has embraced a philosophy leaning dangerously toward the ends justifying the means without any ethical balance, thereby creating cravers of power who are dangerously without scruples. Hetzel shows us that lies are the real terrorists that hold all of us in the tumultuous netherworld of both real and imagined fear.


Book Review: An Obliquity

An Obliquity. D. M. Wozniak, Chicago: D. M. Wozniak, July 17, 2017, Trade Paperback and E-book, 539 pages.

Reviewed by Terry Needham.

An Obliquity is a “deviation from moral rectitude and or sound thinking” –Merriam Webster Dictionary. It is also the appropriate title of D. M. Wozniak’s exciting sequel to his highly acclaimed dystopian novel, The Perihelion. The perihelion is the point in an orbit of a celestial body that is nearest the sun, a highly symbolic event that opens this two-book series. It aptly describes the theme that drives these dystopian events.

The Perihelion unfolds as a mystery wherein someone is plotting to kill off all the 99ers, 1% insect/animal hybrids which are considered unstable and must be destroyed. In An Obliquity, Aspen Curie, a wasp-hybrid who seeks freedom in destruction and fulfillment in revenge, drives this central theme. Her story is spiraled by a constellation of other characters who are desperate, empathetic, pathetic, wounded, vengeful and remorseful; some are seeking love or redemption, some salvation or freedom, and one mournful soul just wants to escape Bluecore 1C to join family in The Redlands. Each character is engaging and brilliantly woven into the paths of other characters as unpredictable and fascinating events unfold. This is a brilliant nail-biter of a story rich in symbolism with sudden twists and turns.

The author’s prose reflects a very high intellect as evident in the symbolic themes, rarified vocabulary, and extraordinary imagination. I relished the challenge, but kept my dictionary handy, just to be certain I kept up. I strongly recommend reading The Perihelion first, then An Obliquity, for continuity, engagement, and reading pleasure. Each book is equally exciting and compelling, but it always makes sense to start a story at the beginning. 

These books are over 550 pages long yet are hard to put down. It is a daunting undertaking and the reader will need to be fully engaged to keep up. But, you will be grateful, as I was, and crave yet another sequel. After reading these two books, I am hooked on this series. I just have one question for D. M. Wozniak regarding Aspen Curie, Bluecore 1C, and the Redlands: what happens next?


Book Review: And These Are the Good Times

And These Are the Good Times. Patricia Ann McNair. Side Street Press, Inc. Chicago, IL, September 20, 2017, E-book and Hardcover, 172 pages.

Reviewed by Starza Thompson.

As a recent Chicago transplant, I always find it fascinating to read stories about the city. I love learning about old streets, old bars, and old hangouts, thinking about the lives of those who lived here before I called this city home. And These Are the Good Times is a series of slice of life stories that touch on one woman’s history as she spent most of her life in Chicago. Her stories range from talking about her father and her brothers, including the bars they frequented and the places they lived, to remembering particular moments of foreign trips that defined and shaped her life. If the city of Chicago has captivated you as it has me, and if you crave stories about the people who live here, then And These Are the Good Times is a perfect read for you.

McNair takes the personal and precious moments of her life and shares them with her readers as if she were writing in a journal, with her raw emotions and feelings poured over each page. Her father died when she was 15, which she mentions repeatedly. She shares a few memories of him at his favorite bar, enchanting audiences with his many tales, while begrudgingly giving McNair change to feed the jukebox of which he was always suspicious.

The book is filled with such accounts. For example, she tells about her visit to Cuba and sleeping with her escort, then overhearing him talk to his disabled father. She also discusses the letters her mother kept of her ancestors communicating with relatives in America while they were stationed in Korea and provides a story about her brother and how he was bigger than life and yet struggled to survive, among other stories. Throughout these tales, she talks about how her writing has helped her through her life and how it helped her relate to her mother and her ancestors.

McNair is indeed a good writer, and her tales have the potential to enthrall the reader by telling unique stories about Chicago and her life. Yet, many of the stories felt disjointed—they would start with a memory, a slice of her life, and then meander into talking about writing. It felt like she was trying to accomplish two different things with these stories: telling her own personal memories about her life and talking about her experiences writing, but without a structure and strategy in place it made many of the stories feel unfocused and uninteresting. I enjoyed the bits of stories that she provided, but I would have liked this book to either be about her life or be about her writing and not try to be both things at once.

McNair is a creative writing professor at a school in Chicago and her previous short story collections have won multiple awards. She knows writing and she knows Chicago—if this book were a bit more focused, I know it would receive similar accolades.

And These Are the Good Times takes a brief look into the life of a Chicago native and the many interesting times she and her family have had throughout their years in the city. Readers who are curious about Chicago, who love learning intimate details about others’ lives, and who crave raw and deep emotions entwined in quirky and sometimes sad stories will find this book to be an interesting read. 


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