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Book Review: Demon Zero

Demon Zero: An Urban Fantasy Adventure (Dark Matter Book One). Randall Pine. Dapper Press, December 17, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 198 pages. 

Reviewed by Ukaisha A. Hall.

Simon Dark and Virgil Matter have been best friends since they were children. They are in their mid-twenties, but everything about their demeanor and personality screams teenage boys. They live in the town of Templar at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains. Templar is a typical town except for the occasional supernatural event or incident. Their favorite hangout spot is the Squeezy Cheez, a throwback pizza arcade from the eighties. Virgil has the great idea that he and Simon should become town heroes who investigate the weird occurrences and fight evil. Simon, who is more levelheaded, ignores Virgil’s foolishness until he is forced into action while visiting his sister’s grave. A zombie, fresh from crawling out of a grave, attacks the young men. Despite a stumbling success fending off the zombie, they decide they’re ready rid the town of the demon in Mrs. Grunberg’s basement. 

Simon and Virgil’s relationship is the main focus in this silly, slightly scary, PG-13 buddy comedy. The banter between Simon and Virgil is never-ending. At times, the voices of the characters merge, twist, and reassemble themselves as the story moves forward. Virgil should be the comedic relief, while Simon should be the more serious character, since he has a more depressing backstory, but having been friends for so long, they can often understand each other with just a look, and even say in unison, “Templar needs heroes!” It is easy to lose track of who is saying what. This is a useful plot device that may validate the characters, confirming the solidity of their long friendship, or cover up poor character dialogue development. 

The two other main characters are Abby, an empath, and Llewyn, a wizard. Abby is witty and acts as a springboard for sarcasm. On the road to vanquishing the demon in the basement and learning about how magic works in their world, they provide continuous silly moments, awkwardness, and doubt.

In Demon Zero, the characters recognize that their world is different but are pushed further into the supernatural aspect with the realization they are amongst the few people who carry magic. This means the plot follows the progress of the young men as they learn about new powers, other dimensions, and creatures. Therefore, the reader is learning along with the characters. The main drawback of this approach is that when a character doubts how the world is built, the reader does too. Once again, the author employs a device that either makes the characters seem more real or attempts to cover up any questions about the world building and potential plot holes.

The author writes description that is so very carefully laid out, especially when it comes to the demon in Mrs. Grunberg’s basement, and creates vivid imagery that helps establish scenes, which works in contrast to the witty banter that continues even when the young men are fighting for their lives. It will be interesting to see how the characters develop throughout the series and whether they will become iconic characters or just annoying.

Randall Pine has created a fun, quick read that begins a new series that will delight fans of The Iron Trial (Magisterium) by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan, and Magyk by Angie Sage.



Book Review: Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I

Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I Marcella Bernard. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, October 11, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 768 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

When I was asked to read and review Pro Patria and learned it was about World War I, I realized how little I knew about this war. What I did know was based mainly on reading Ernest Hemingway’s book, A Farewell to Arms. However, I read that book fifty years ago. So, this was new material for me to explore. 

I was struck by the irony that this book was released during the 100th anniversary of World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. Thus, I was eager to “time-travel” back 100 years to delve into this important global conflict that would shape what followed in the 20th Century.

My first impression when the book arrived: BIG! The book is a hefty 751 pages, is based on the wartime journals kept by Bernardino Bernardini, and includes his 250-page memoir of his military service in the Italian army from 1915 to 1919. He wrote My Military Life two years after returning to his home in Chicago from his service as an Italian Army infantryman.

The author, Marcella Bernard, is the niece of Bernardino Bernardini. She included family history, historic facts, and events, combined with her imaginative enhancement of the story. She describes her Uncle Bernardino as a man whose national identity vacillates between his American citizenship and Italian heritage.

As I began to read this book, I soon realized it is not a “page-turner.” Rather, the author slowly develops the family history, background, and nature of each family member and reveals the growing conflict within the young protagonist over his sense of self and blended loyalties. When he decides to travel to Italy and join the Italian Infantry, and relinquish his American citizenship, the story begins a daily account of his activities. There is a military adage common to all armies that the daily imperative is to: “Hurry up and wait . . .”

Thus, this story proceeds, day-by-day; we follow the movement of his unit marching from one town to another. Day by day, week-by-week, little or nothing happens except constant marching, rumors, and reversal of orders. Yet, as always in war, the infantry will end up in the trenches, at the frontline, or in the fifth-line at the rear. Wherever positioned, the soldier is subject to sudden death or injury from poison gas attack, artillery barrage, machine gun fire, snipers, bayonet wielding enemy infantry charges, and so much more. Plus, even in the rear, deserters are commonplace and exposed to death by firing squad. Bernardino is captured and endures risk of death from starvation, illness, and infection of his injuries. Even death by suicide stalks these miserable men.

If one can find a more positive side to this war story, it is found in the travels across northern Italy, as Bernardino’s unit marches from one town to the next. The historic features and architecture of each town captivate him. A fascinating travel-log emerges to keep the reader engaged and offsets the horrific war scenes.

As the reader travels along with Bernardino, another engaging feature emerges in this story: the fellowship and close friendships he makes with fellow soldiers. His relatives in many towns emerge too. In this way, the reader comes to know and appreciate the various Italian provinces and their unique history, art, and culture. The reader also learns the customs, traits, and nature of the people in the provinces.

Since this book is peppered with statements in Italian, it would have been helpful to a reader like myself, who does not speak or read Italian, to have a translation. Without a translation, the statements work like a “speed-bump” to slow, or stop, the reader as one tries to discern from context or inference what the Italian words mean.

I find this book to be a historic and extraordinary achievement. It will be of great interest to historians, especially in the study of early 20th Century war and culture. It is also an important study of Italian and American cultures and the merger of the two for immigrants in that era. While not exactly a “page-turner,” it is still an epic story of great historic and cultural importance.

As a native of Kansas City, which is home of the National World War I Memorial and Museum, I plan to take my copy of this book to the director of the museum on my next visit. This book should be an important addition to their archives and be offered in their bookstore.

And, From Patricia Needham:

For me the book was a fascinating read. It was never boring, dull nor did it drag. It was an in depth, inside look at Italian culture. I learned a great deal of "new" information about WWI, Italian geography, her customs and people.



Book Review: Desperate Paths

Desperate Paths. E. C. Diskin. Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Publishing, March 19, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 340 pages.

Reviewed by Renee James

E. C. Diskin’s fourth thriller takes readers on a breathless thrill ride, replete with characters we care about who are living on the edge and a plot that soars up hills, over cliffs, and down unseen alleys with manic, page-turning abandon.

Set in a rural, southern Illinois county, Desperate Paths is the story of Brooklyn Anderson, a young, mixed-race woman, coming home from New York City to see her father, who has been hospitalized after a serious fall. Her return opens many old wounds for Brooklyn, who never felt accepted by the community, or by her much older sister, Ginny, a beautiful, middle-aged woman with her own family and a deep resentment of Brooklyn. 

At the same time the Anderson family’s tensions are coming to boil, the community of Eden is stressed over the shooting of Darius Woods, a local man who made it big in Hollywood. Woods had written a screenplay revealing long-hidden crimes and scandals that festered in Eden when he was in high school, and the community is buzzing with rumors that the script will ruin lives and shatter dreams. 

Conflicts, fears, and doubts arise in every chapter of Desperate Paths as the secrets of the Anderson family and the community are methodically peeled away.

Author Diskin manages this large cast of characters and ever-shifting plot with impressive mastery. The characters are complex and intriguing, starting with Ginny and Brooklyn, but also including several secondary characters, including Sheriff Wilson and Brooklyn’s father, John. We are constantly trying to decide if they are good or evil, and how they will figure in the final resolution of the story. Similarly, the plot twists occur seamlessly, never feeling contrived, and they keep us on the edge of our seats from the opening pages to the final chapter.

Desperate Paths has the kind of charisma and readability that will make it a starred read for a broad range of commercial fiction fans. For those of us who love character-driven thrillers, it’s a must-read for its original, fast-moving plot, and its deep, textured character studies.



Book Review: Acre’s Orphans

Acre’s Orphans. Wayne Turmel. Las Vegas, Nevada: Achis Press, January 21, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 332 pages.

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds.

In his previous book, Acre’s Bastard, Wayne Turmel introduced us to Lucca Le Pou. His ten-year-old protagonist is a street-smart scapegrace who knows the back alleys of his home city of Acre like the back of his hand. Lucca has already survived more than most adults, including the disastrous defeat of the Christian forces at the Battle of Hattin. But as much as he hopes to go back to his old life, that wish is not to be realized.

Acre’s Orphans opens in the aftermath of Hattin. Acre, now virtually defenseless, is awash with fear as it prepares to surrender to the Muslim armies of Sal ad-Din. A mysterious outsider is stirring up resentment for the defeat. Lucca and Brother Marco, his mentor who was a former knight and occasional spy, soon realize this unrest is part of an effort to discredit a powerful Christian nobleman. Brother Marco dispatches Lucca to Tyre, where the nobleman resides, to warn him of the threat. Lucca, who has only been beyond the walls of Acre once, must travel through leagues of war-torn countryside. His only companions on this trip are a slightly older Druze girl, a leprous nun hoping for refuge from the Muslims, and a Hospitaller knight of dubious reputation.

Acre's Bastard was an exploration of the seamy side of the Crusades, and this second installment of the series takes the reader into the shifting political and military landscapes of the Holy Lands in the 12th century. Lucca must navigate his way through the uncertainty around him while both doing his best to keep his companions safe and to accomplish the task given to him by Brother Marco. As he does this, the scared boy he was begins to melt away and the young man people will follow begins to emerge. 

I enjoyed reading Acre’s Orphans enough that I finished it in three days. I found Lucca Le Pou to be an engaging character, as are the supporting characters. Their interactions feel like those of real people, with none of the stilted set-piece scenes some stories fall into. The landscape they move through is believable enough that you feel you could almost trace their path. The plotting is good, and the pacing keeps you turning the page. In other words, it’s a good read and well worth your time.

In his closing notes to Acre’s Orphans, Wayne Turmel tells us Acre’s Bastardwas originally to be the only book about Lucca. That changed when his daughter indicated she wanted to read more of his character’s adventures. I am glad she changed his mind, because I too am looking forward to reading more of Lucca’s story. I suspect others will look forward to further installments as well.



Book Review: Post-Apocalypticon

Post-ApocalypticonClayton Smith. Dapper Press, October 24, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 269 Pages. 

Reviewed by Jose Nateras.

In “The Apocalypticon Trilogy,” Clayton Smith has crafted a world readers will find both familiar and drastically changed by the events of the apocalypse. 

The trilogy’s first installment, Apocalypticon, centers on best friends Patrick Deen and Ben Fogelvee. Doing their utmost to survive in post-apocalypse Chicago, the two set off on a cross country road trip to Disney World that quickly goes south. Throughout his character’s tragi-comic, nail-biting quest, Smith somehow manages to fuse the bleak landscape of works like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, with the lighter zom-com fare of movies like Zombieland, creating a world as brutal as it is funny; a world more than worthy of a return visit to this, the next entry in the series.

In Post-Apocalypticon, the second book in the trilogy, Smith picks up not long after the events of Apocalypticon. Ben has taken over the training of the Red Caps—the security forces for the post-apocalyptic-wasteland-reinforced train that is conducted by returning character, Horace. In the first years after the apocalypse, Horace’s train safely transported valuables between the few monied survivors still willing to pay to transport goods from place to place. Now, among the goods that Ben and his bumbling trainees are safekeeping is something particularly valuable indeed—a sealed case with contents that could change the world. When Ben’s advice goes unheeded and the train ends up snared in a less-than-subtle trap, Ben finds himself launched on yet another danger-filled adventure across a wasteland full of bandits and other baddies, setting the stage for the forthcoming conclusion to the trilogy. 

Throughout Post-Apocalypticon, Smith makes the task of maneuvering through drastic tone-shifts look easy. Going from laugh-out-loud snark, to wince-inducing gore and violence can be tricky. Yet Smith manages to consistently tap into the black-humor and a jaded-by-the-end-of-the-world inspired snark that allows for any tonal-whiplash to feel fun. He takes his readers on a rollercoaster ride that can make an anecdote about accidentally killing your buddy with a machete into a running joke, highlighting the need to train new Red Caps with nothing but pool noodles for battle prep. Keeping that in mind, Smith’s ability to consistently evoke glimmers of humanity and pain amidst all the violence and laughs is quite impressive. His dialogue is sharp-witted and stylized in the vein of Joss Whedon; his characters as jagged and broken as you’d expect of survivors of the apocalypse. Yet jagged and broken or not, they haven’t lost their sense of humor, making it impossible for readers not to root for Ben Fogelvee as he journeys across the post-apocalyptic desert.

Post-Apocalypticon is a worthy second installment in a trilogy fans will surely be chomping at the bit to see completed. Genre enthusiasts are sure to get a kick out of Smith’s use of familiar motifs from the realm of end-of-the-world fiction, just as they are sure to be entertained by the fun that is far less common to a sub-genre known for its typically dour tone.


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