Dancing in the Dark

Bob Strauss
iUniverse, 253 pages, (paperback) $16.95, 9781491709795
(Reviewed: February, 2014)

Dancing in the Dark focuses on the lives of four adults. At the center is Dr. Harry Salinger, a psychotherapist who regularly pushes the limits of professional ethics.
As the novel opens, Salinger awaits the arrival of long-time patient Jennifer Slater, for whom he harbors a sexual attraction. The 58-year-old widower understands his feelings for what they are: a natural reaction to a beautiful young woman. Whether he acts upon those feelings remains to be seen, and it’s one of the questions that pull the reader along.

Meanwhile, outside the office, he is growing increasingly attracted to Amanda, a former student of his who is now a therapist. Salinger’s life is soon complicated as he finds himself the therapist to Slater’s new beau, Jacques, and falling in love with Amanda, a relationship that is taboo in professional circles.

Author Bob Strauss identifies himself as a psychotherapist, and his knowledge of psychology makes for an intelligent read as his protagonist guides patients – and himself – through life’s daily challenges, exploring their behaviors and the motives behind them. The story is well thought out, consistent and evenly paced.

But while Strauss’ real-life knowledge is one of the book’s strong points, it can also be a weakness, as the author too often falls into therapist-speak, using language that feels unnatural or doesn’t fit the character. For example, in one passage, Jennifer doesn’t merely wish something, but “expressed a wish.” In another, Jacques is made ill by the thought of Slater “fornicating” with another man. While this language may be natural to Strauss, it wouldn’t necessarily be so for other characters and is likely to give the average reader pause.

That aside, this is a professionally written and edited story, one that will appeal to a wide range of intelligent readers.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
New York, New York

Source: BlueInk Reviews

Silicon Seduction

M.K. Poe
iUniverse, 369 pages, (paperback) $21.95, 9781462052219
(Reviewed: February, 2014)

As the title implies, Silicon Seduction is a novel with a split personality; it’s part high-tech spy thriller, part sunny California romance. M.K. Poe’s debut attempts to transcend a single genre, but at times reads like two separate books under one cover.

Each aspect of the story is true to its genre. Romance lovers will enjoy the clever banter and sensual-but-not-graphic interludes between brilliant post-grads Charmaine and Michael as they fall head-over-heels into each other’s arms. Poe’s language becomes distractingly flowery in some passages, though, taking away from the relationship by calling attention to the words used to describe it, such as: “Streaming sunlight illuminated the aqua portals to his soul.”

The Silicon Valley spy mystery—a high tech circuit design with military implications that may have fallen into the wrong hands—separates the lovers as Michael takes on his alter ego: international spy. Fascinating, though sometimes heavy-handed, technical detail here will please James Bond fans, and may teach novices a thing or two, like what a microdot is and why anyone would want to steal it.

The story bounces back and forth between secret communications among agents known only as H-4 and H-7 and emotional reunions between the lovers, interspersed with highly realistic boardroom scenes at Charmaine’s father’s powerful Silicon Valley company. Several spy scenes are genuinely harrowing, and some love scenes compelling, but the two seldom meet.

The disparate stories come together near the end in the novel’s most integrated—and suspenseful—scene, involving Michael, Charmaine, the high-tech thieves and a kidnapping. While it’s fairly satisfying to have the various threads of Poe’s novel come together, a shorter, tighter book might be more apt to keep readers’ attention through to the end.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
Hollister, California

Source: BlueInk Reviews

Wallowa Song

Gaynor Dawson
iUniverse, 154 pages, (paperback) $14.95, 9781491710852
(Reviewed: February, 2014)

The first poem in Gaynor Dawson’s Wallowa Song, titled “Disclaimer” ends this way: “I grew up with the classics/and believe that poems should rhyme.” This brings up several questions: Does including rhyme place any poem on a par with the classics? Do classic poets always rhyme? (Milton didn’t. Frost didn’t.) Are those who don’t use rhyme second-class poets?

In short, many would disagree with the author’s statement. While poems that adhere to a set pattern of accentuation and rhyme can be quite lyrical and engaging if they seem intuitive, they can also seem as if the content has been shoehorned into an ill-fitting format. Such is often the case here.

Wallowa’s content broadly covers four topics: 1) the awesome of experience of nature; 2) amusing verse; 3) the rowing team at Stanford; 4) a rancher's life. While the back cover notes that the poems trace the author’s journey, in reality the poems’ order in no way suggests a chronological progression or intentional "dialogue" between poems for the purpose of dialectical resonance or narrative arc.

Dawson has a gift for creating lovely, absorbing, often anecdotal pieces that can be entertaining and insightful. He describes life in the wild and on a sculling team with lucidity, humor and aplomb. Sometimes, however, his attachment to rhyme leads to poems that are somewhat glib, editorial, quaint and syntactically cumbersome. For example, In "At the Turn of the Tide," he writes: “The Columbia's span/Is more than a mile wide/Where its fresh-water flow/And the gray seas collide...." By changing just a few words, the text is much more expedient and accessible: “The Columbia spans/more than a mile wide/Where fresh-water flow/And gray seas collide.”

This is not to suggest Dawson’s poetry is meretricious or slight, or that light verse is problematic. A different strategy, however, might prove more effective overall. Still, those who enjoy wit often combined with an amused and whimsical outlook on life, will find much to like here.

Also available as an ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
West Richland, Washington

Source: BlueInk Reviews

The Dragon in the Room

J. K. E. Rose
iUniverse, 72 pages, (paperback) $10.95, 9781491713174
(Reviewed: February, 2014)

Two failed marriages inspired J.K.E. Rose’s dark collection of 59 free verse and casually rhymed poems about chasing internal and external dragons, her metaphor for love. Mostly focused on romantic relationships, additional poems examine family and self. Rather than individual titles, poems fall under nearly three-dozen “dragon” headings, such as DRAGONSBLOOD, DRAGONLOVE, DRAGONDREAM, DRAGONBITTER and DRAGONSBANE, which are repeated throughout the book.

In addition to the dragon motif, a Viking futhark (from the Runic alphabet) divides poems into sections. Back matter titled “AFTER THE END” introduces yet another symbolic idea, Kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of restoring shattered fragments of pottery to its original form, but allowing the “healed wounds” to remain visible.

Despite the plethora of symbolic framework, the actual poems are fairly straightforward, repeating common words and images, such as blood, scars, tears, skin, bones, dreams, death, and, of course, dragons. The book retains a narrow focus with first-person accounts lamenting the author’s solitude (“You told me not to bleed, / not to stare wide-eyed with loneliness, / not to shiver with despair”) and attributing blame (“I prove you wrong / I make me strong”). Poems toward the end offer glimmers of hope: “I will not fall in love again -- / not fall but soar aloft.”

The strength of this collection lies in the writer’s wordplay. Rose juxtaposes words with similar sounds to add artfulness to routine observations: “if all I need is breath and bread and breadth of hope, / then let me stay” and “I wish, I want, I breathe / holding / haven / heaven // exhale / exhaust then / exit.” She also includes colorful imagery (in addition to dragons), comparing herself to a mountain, marriage to a lion, and her protective shell to a snake scale.

While the author offers little in the way of new insights into love, those with the same dark mindset and affinity for dragons may find poems to appreciate in this book.

Also available as an ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
Ontario, Canada

Source: BlueInk Reviews

Odd Socks

David Clapham
iUniverse, 255 pages, (ebook) $3.99 , 9781475989526
(Reviewed: February, 2014)

Protagonist Andrew Carter’s life is impacted by two young women in David Clapham’s novel titled Odd Socks.

The story contains many plot threads that never seem to come together in a coherent fashion. London native Andrew is a young mathematician during the late 1960s. He’s offered a lectureship at a university where he will be working with a computer scientist and television personality developing home computers.

Andrew accepts and relocates to North Lancashire, where he runs into old friend Toby Morton. At this time, Toby shares his history with Sir Oliver Laine, an MP (Member of Parliament) and businessman, and someone Andrew will come to know. Toby then invites Andrew to his family’s home for the weekend to celebrate his half-sister Antonia’s 15th birthday. After Antonia’s flirting and pursuit, Andrew and Antonia become a couple.

Spring forward 30 years. Andrew’s career is established and he’s presented with an opportunity by Sir Oliver Laine, who is helping launch a pharmaceutical company. Andrew can spend half his time as a supernumerary fellow at Oxford University, and half his time in Viet Nam, assisting with statistical analysis of medical experiments and clinical drug trials. He accepts, and during his first trip to Viet Nam, he meets Cathy, a local teen. Their paths cross again, and soon he brings the girl into his life.

Vivacious Antonia and Cathy are the story’s strongest characters and outshine dull Andrew. In fact, Clapham’s novel is full of pompous British men who talk for pages about themselves or politics or religion, doing little to further the nearly nonexistent plots. The author’s aim here is difficult to discern: Is this a love story? Andrew’s journey of self-discovery? Both? No matter – either way, the purpose is eclipsed by superfluous dialogue and tedious characters.

Clapham’s story sinks under the weight of these many issues. Readers are likely to become confused and disillusioned as they go along, and many may stop reading before the novel’s end.

Source: BlueInk Reviews

The Valley: Sahra's Quest

Elizabeth Martin
iUniverse, 245 pages, (paperback) $16.95, 9781491710326
(Reviewed: January, 2014)

Sahra’s Quest is the first of a planned fantasy series called The Valley, written by transplanted Scotswoman Elizabeth Martin, now residing in Wyoming.

The book’s heroine, Sahra, is a traveling medic roaming The Valley, a protected fortress constantly under attack by bands of renegades. When Sahra’s beloved uncle is assassinated, she begins a quest to discover who killed him and why. But courageous Sahra, who can shoot as well as heal, must also understand who she is — why she has silver hair and the gift of mental telepathy.

Sahra’s husband Logan recognizes that Sahra has a mission and doesn’t try to hold her back. Among their loose-knit band are: Gertrude, a steady-as-you-go fellow medic; Willi, a teenaged girl afflicted with TB; and Alice, a child with the same telepathic gifts as Sahra. Villains include the murderous Sykes, and Marianna, the power-crazed leader of the psychic Elites, whom Sahra must confront and subdue. The cast of characters also includes the mysterious Monahan, whose loyalties are unknown.

Sahra’s Quest, the author’s first full-length book, is competently structured. However, all the characters speak alike, displaying no accents, idiomatic speech patterns, or special patterns that would help readers tell them apart. The more noticeable weakness is the lack of any backstory about how or why The Valley became isolated, making it hard for readers to empathize with Sahra and her cohorts; the action is non-stop with no pause for retrospection. Sahra’s fierce determination buoys the plot, but by convention, the author should have included enough background material to make the situations more coherent.

The Valley: Sahra’s Quest is an acceptable start-up from a new fantasy writer. In future installments, however, Martin should more fully map and explain the world she has created in order for the series to garner wide appeal.

Also available as an ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
Casper, Wyoming

Source: BlueInk Reviews

Liberty's Dawn: Book One of the Liberty Trilogy

Art Theocles
iUniverse, 385 pages, (paperback) $21.95, 9781469751573
(Reviewed: January, 2014)

This unusual novel mixes historical fiction with a science fiction twist, telling a story about the American Revolution from a different perspective.

Nik, John, and Sid are three seemingly normal men living in early 21st century North Carolina, struggling to make ends meet in jobs they do not enjoy. On a camping trip, they find themselves hurtled through time back to 1780. After the initial shock and exploring of their surroundings, they decide to observe, from hidden vantage points, the last battles of the Revolution. To their amazement, they discover the details are different than what history records, and take it upon themselves to ensure that events happen as they remember.

While the premise behind this novel is intriguing, there are many elements that strain credulity. Even though none of the three men have any military experience, they have detailed knowledge of military tactics, both from their own era and the time of the Revolution. They know much about the details of each battle they come across, yet none have previously shown much interest in history. From their camping trip, they conveniently have enough supplies to let them live comfortably on their own, and enough weaponry and ammunition to take on the British Army, one of the strongest military forces in history.

In terms of pacing, the book drags, with travelling and camping scenes heavily outweighing action scenes and historical interaction. In addition, the author has a distinctly conservative view on the contemporary economic situation, politics, and environmental issues, which he interjects into the story at several points. Readers with a different take may find these sections difficult.

The first in a trilogy, Liberty’s Dawn establishes the setting, characters, and plot for the novels to come, but some rethinking in future books might be required in order to attract an appreciative audience.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

Author’s Current Residence
Bailey, North Carolina

Source: BlueInk Reviews

The Bribe

Oskar Klausenstock
iUniverse, 280 pages, (paperback) $17.95, 9781491709146
(Reviewed: January, 2014)

Two men in whom history has engendered mutual hatred gradually surmount their past experiences in this absorbing novel.

Elderly Nathan Klein is in a nursing home recovering from a stroke when he sees an old man with one leg sitting on a bench in the garden. In a spasm of revulsion, he recognizes the man as Herr Arbeitsleiter Gerhard Reichenberg, the Nazi officer whose battalion demolished Klein’s native Polish ghetto and slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Despite the efforts of a warmhearted physical therapist, Miss Hedberg, Nathan cannot help but envisage Gerhard as the epitome of Nazi cruelty. Gradually however, with Miss Hedberg acting as postmistress, the two men begin a correspondence.

Also available in hardcover and ebook.

The halting revelation of their memories is well paced and convincingly drawn. Nathan vents his hatred of those who perpetrated the Holocaust, and is surprised when Gerhard reveals his secret: He had fallen in love with a beautiful young Jewish girl who had been sent to clean his military quarters. He has been vainly searching for her for 50 years, meanwhile having metamorphosed into a man ashamed of his country and its wartime atrocities.

The book’s most impressive passage is Gerhard’s description of a post-war visit to Jerusalem, vividly illuminated with precise sensory images and sociological detail. Equally as moving is Nathan’s description of returning to his empty village after six hellish months of hiding in the nearby forest. A jarring note, however, occurs when Klausenstock emphasizes Nathan’s lonely existence by giving him a pretentious son married to a spoiled materialistic flibbertigibit, both of whom Nathan despises.

Reconciliation of Holocaust enemies is not a new theme, but the story gains substance and dimension by Klausenstock’s assured use of physical and atmospheric details, and by psychological insights that slowly reveal the sources of each man’s behavior. Klausenstock is a fluent writer, in command of his material and his historical period. The novel’s redemptive message should satisfy anyone looking for an uplifting read.

Author’s Current Residence
Tiburon, California

Source: BlueInk Reviews