Thursday, February 24, 2011


By Stephen Goldin
$4.99 at

Stephen Goldin describes himself as a professional fantasy and science fiction writer and an atheist.

The first of those descriptors is readily apparent in Polly!, but a surprise turn makes the last relevant as well.

I know I risk turning off some readers if I let on that the book’s protagonist, Herodotus, has the greatest sex of his life with a beautiful woman who may actually be God. But reviews are supposed to warn readers away from books they won’t like, so perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Most readers, though, would lose out if they let a little thing like that deter them from reading this unusual little novel.

As the book opens, Herodotus has just awakened in terror to find his bookstore on fire and smoke billowing upward into his second-floor apartment. His wife has left him, and the IRS claims he owes $8,000, which he doesn’t have. Now this.

Short on good options, he sets out in his decrepit Corolla to pay an unannounced call on his brother, who lives on a ranch in Nevada. On the way, the car breaks down in the grueling desert heat right in front of a mansion. Polly is its owner.

It must be said that Goldin is an atheist with a great sense of humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is well grounded in the Bible and theology – and the Marx Brothers. The verbal sparring that takes place between Herodotus and Polly, whoever she may actually be, is brilliant from beginning to end.

In brief, Polly is a lion-owning, acrobatic, Japanese-speaking, gourmet-cooking nuclear physicist who hosts a houseful of friendly people whose lives she has touched with her kindness and generosity. Not that she always seems so kind to Herodotus, who is understandably confused by such oddities as an elevator in a two-story mansion that ascends for 13 floors.

The book is an allegory of self-discovery – or perhaps, universe discovery – by Herodotus, who can’t possibly match wits with the wise-cracking, teasing Polly. Without giving away more, let’s just say the conversation, which is laced with hundreds of puns and one-liners, eventually works its way around to the Supreme Being.

Whether she is or isn’t literally divine, Polly’s organizing principle is that entropy – the constant tendency of the universe to run down – is unstoppable, even by her, but nevertheless must be resisted.

Overwhelmed with Polly’s seeming omniscience, Herodotus presses for answers to the big questions about life and thereafter. Eventually he asks, “So fighting entropy is the point?” “No,” Polly replies, “Fighting entropy is what I choose to do.”

She wages the battle on an incalculable number of fronts, including helping a group of protesters save a polluted river, teaching illiterate adults to read and befriending a child with leukemia.

Polly! is the kind of book aspiring writers should read just to study the craft. Goldin’s writing is fastidious. And he seemingly has the gift (Would that be a theological term?) of calling on everything he knows from the silly to the profound to create a story that starts out being entertaining and winds up being interesting, even thought-provoking.

Click here to link to Polly.

Bill Furlow

Say Goodbye

By Robert Capko
$2.99 at

Robert Capko has written a military novel reminiscent of Tom Clancy but more accessible—both in length and in laying out the story in a timely manner.

Just as some books are characterized as “chick lit,” I would characterize Say Goodbye as a “guy book,” even though I’m not a guy and enjoyed it very much.

Capko has done his research, and the novel is heavy on descriptions and explanations of military equipment and weaponry. He may have overdone it a touch, but every detail adds to the believability of the story.

John Paxton is a decorated U.S. Air Force Pararescue Jumper (PJs parachute into dangerous situations to rescue military personnel.) who now instructs PJs at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Although he still travels, his work as an instructor is much more conducive to family life with his wife Jill and their two children, four-year-old John, Jr. and two-year-old Megan.

This happy situation changes one afternoon when a two-star general shows up in Paxton’s office and orders him on a secret rescue mission to Serbia–so secret he has to leave immediately without even telling his family. No one in John’s chain of command except this General Reed knows what’s going on.

The story takes place in 1999. The Cold War is over; the Balkan states are in upheaval and fighting among themselves. Even though 9/11 hasn’t happened yet and al Qaeda isn’t a household word, Capko foreshadows later events by making the radical Islamist organization and Saddam Hussein part of the story.

A U.S. Stealth Fighter has been shot down by Serbians, and ostensibly Paxton and his team of PJs have been dispatched to rescue the pilot. But then things get hinky. Why Paxton? He’s no longer an active PJ. Who’s the mysterious McMurphy who is assigned to the mission but is unknown to everyone but General Reed? What’s McMurphy’s role, and what’s in the green backpack he won’t let out of his sight? He’s sure not talking.

General Reed forces Paxton to change out of his Air Force uniform into one that lacks any indication of rank, unit or nationality, and he takes from him anything that would identify him as a member of the U.S. military. If Paxton fails in his mission and is captured, he will look like a mercenary.

Eventually the mission does go badly. The rescuers wind up on the ground but not in the way or the location they had intended. Bad blood develops between McMurphy and Paxton, who is convinced the mystery man is committing treason on Reed’s orders. Not only are the two men’s lives endangered, but the danger extends all the way to Paxton’s family in Texas.

Ultimately, of course, Paxton survives and his true mission is explained, if not resolved. As with a good Clancy novel, there is plenty of suspense, politics and misdirection. Say Goodbye ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the next John Paxton novel, The Long Road Home. Readers can expect another good yarn chockablock with military detail and political intrigue.

Click here to link to Say Goodbye.

Davilynn Furlow

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fools Club

By Craig Mallery
Free at

What an intelligent, taut thriller this is.

Set in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, the “club” of the title is made up of four geeks who failed when they had the chance to profit from their high-flying (for awhile) software startup, Defiance.

Jacob Miller, the engineering genius behind Defiance, never sold a single share of stock, so when the bubble burst and Defiance’s market cap fell from $15 billion to zero, he earned the title King of Fools.

Not part of the club, living large and planning a run for the U.S. Senate, is Jacob’s stepbrother and former Defiance front man Colin Schaeffer. Why is Colin rich and Jacob broke? The feds have been asking the same question but have failed to come up with evidence to indict Colin for any kind of wrongdoing.

The night the U.S. Attorney announces an end to the investigation, clearing the way for Colin’s entry into politics, the Fools gather to literally cry in their beer and bemoan the unfairness of life. After sufficient pitchers are consumed, they come up with the un-Mensa-like idea of egging Colin’s beautiful gated mansion. This childish prank sets in motion events that will reveal the source of Colin’s wealth, threaten his family and career and lock the stepbrothers into a violent dance with a Melissa Etheridge-obsessed lesbian assassin.

Though Jacob is bitter about Colin’s good fortune in the face of his own failure – not the least of that good fortune being his marriage to Jacob’s classy former girlfriend – when he has the opportunity to wreck Colin’s life, he cannot do it. The bonds of childhood and the gratitude for the golden boy who protected him from bullies and tried to teach him about sports are too strong.

Colin suffers no such pangs of loyalty, to Jacob or anyone else. When his campaign manager offers to put him in touch with the one person who can make any lingering concerns about law enforcement go away, he scarcely hesitates before reaching out to the anonymous

A soulless phony who somehow imagines himself as a cross between Bobby Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt, Colin is quickly out of his depth in dealing with the woman who calls herself “Mel” and whose only ambitions are to work as a bodyguard for Etheridge and to become a single mother.

In the end, of course, at least one of the three must go down, and it becomes a question of whose bad judgment will turn out to be the most catastrophic.

We don’t find any bio information on Craig Mallery and don’t know why the book is available for free. Based on his easy descriptions of the Silicon Valley, he apparently is or was part of that world of dot.coms, venture capitalists, fast fortunes and equally fast collapses.

The writing in Fools Club is crisp and clean. The plot moves quickly but not at the expense of the players’ depth. Each character is believable and recognizable except perhaps Patrini, the beautiful female Fool who secretly has the hots for Jacob. The techie/geeky stuff serves the story well and doesn’t compete with it.

Like the other books we recommend on this blog, if Fools Club were published under the name of a well-known writer and you paid $25 for it, you would not be disappointed. If you compared it to a David Baldacci novel – a fair comparison for the genre – you’d find the writing much better, the plot more interesting and the characters more believable.

Click here to link to Fools Club.

Where the Bones Rest

By Roger Pavey
$3.99 at

British scholar Eric Anderson wrote that “the classical historical novel – as concocted by Walter Scott and perfected by Tolstoy – gives the reader an unexpected viewpoint from which to witness a great historical moment.”

In Where the Bones Rest, Roger Pavey tells the stories of ordinary people caught up in the drama of the last Indian war fought east of the Mississippi River. The “unexpected viewpoint” is ground level with a young Indian wife and mother, an opportunistic physician/newspaperman/soldier and a teenage white girl who survived the slaughter of her parents and most of her family by marauders of the Saukie Nation.

The novel has the tone of a sweeping saga that could go on for generations. But it largely confines itself to the period from 1828 to 1833, in which 1,500 Native Americans led by the old warrior they called Black Sparrow Hawk were harassed and then pursued by a ragtag army of mainly volunteer soldiers in the inevitable clash of corn vs. railroad.

In its structure and its detailed descriptions of the suffering experienced by those on both sides, Where the Bones Rest is akin to GI-focused war novels such as World War II’s The Naked and the Dead and the current Vietnam book Matterhorn. It doesn’t draw any large lessons from the Black Hawk War, and, though it treats Namesa, the leading character, and her people with great sympathy the brutality the Native Americans perpetrated against innocent white civilians is not ignored. Nor is the deprivation suffered by the underfed, ill-equipped soldiers.

When we meet Namesa, she is a teenage girl playing classic approach-avoidance games with her eventual husband Jumping Fish. Early on she reflects: “All my life
things had been certain before me. The seasons revolved. We planted. We harvested.
We hunted.” But now Jumping Fish tells her the women will not plant corn in the year 1832 because the white settlers have taken over their farm lands. Instead Black Hawk will seek alliances with other tribes and the British in hopes they will supply both food and aid in battle.

Dr. Addison Philleo is the doctor who sees the opportunity to start the first newspaper in Galena, Illinois. He volunteers as an army surgeon, but he also aspires to glory in combat with the Indians. Philleo more or less serves as the villain of the piece, but he’s only an observer not a decision maker.

The least detailed of the three storytellers is Rachel Hall, a 17-year-old, who along with her sister survives the massacre of her family and neighbors, including a baby girl whose head was bashed on a stump to make her stop crying. The sisters are taken prisoner by the raiding party, and their part of the story recounts their mostly decent treatment by their captives and their eventual return to their community.

The writing in Where the Bones Rest is excellent, even if Pavey allows a few anachronistic phrases like “not so much” into the text. The book is filled with colorful descriptions and dialogue. And for a small slice of history most readers will know little about, Pavey really seems to have done his research and created a book that feels credible.

Those who enjoy historical fiction or stories of the westward expansion of the United States will find Where the Bones Rest a most satisfying read.

Click here to link to Where the Bones Rest.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Lost to the World

By Libby Sternberg
$2.99 at

A police procedural elevated way beyond the norm of its genre by its setting, Lost to the World takes place in the laboratories of polio researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 1954.

Julia Dell, a secretary in the labs who discovers the body of one of her boss’s colleagues, is herself a polio survivor – “a polio” in the crude parlance of the day. She’s engaged to be married, but not very excitedly so, and lives with her over-protective parents. Her supreme sense of urgency about the work being done at Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere by scientists like Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, has nothing to do with hope for a better life for herself. She knows her ruined leg will never be repaired, but she aches for the still-healthy children who will contract the disease if a vaccine isn’t found soon.

Detective Sean Reilly is determined to solve the scientist’s murder, but he’s distracted by single fatherhood. His wife died of cancer a year ago, leaving him with two young sons and a babysitter not pleased to be whipsawed by a detective’s irregular working hours. He’s lonely, somewhat scared and, like Julia, beaten down by life’s circumstances.

And then there is the corpse, Dr. Myron Lowenstein – or is it Dr. Lowenstein? What could be easier than to identify a scientist murdered in his own lab at a prominent research institution like Hopkins? In this novel, even the dead guy has a back story.

Sternberg’s universe is populated by old-school Irish and Italian Catholics and Jewish intellectuals, and her story combines elements of anti-Semitism, The Glass Menagerie, gold-digging single women coming of age in post-World War II America and ambitious scientists competing to find the discovery of a lifetime. Baby Boomers who were children in the ‘50s will relate to the prominence of polio in adult conversations of the time and will recall receiving one or both of the new polio vaccines.

Though the identity of the murderer is kept well under wraps until very near the end of the novel, the reader may think he/she knows where the personal story is heading. But there are twists there, too.

This is the second Sean Reilly novel published by Sternberg’s tiny family publishing business, Istoria Books, and a third is in the works. If the others are as well-researched and as finely drawn as this one, she’ll have a franchise that
reasonably can be mentioned in the same sentence with Scott Turow’s.

Click here for link

The Bird Menders

By Marian Van Eyk McCain
$5.99 at

More than “chick lit,” this first-time novel by a retired psychotherapist is the story of a woman who gave up her newborn daughter for adoption, then is reunited with her three decades later.

Along with all the attendant joy and awkwardness – though perhaps not the anger – you would imagine, both the mother and her late-20s daughter have secrets they don’t want to share with the other. Marsha is a successful mystery writer who, on a working vacation to Italy, begins writing scenes involving her idealized adult daughter. In truth, she knows nothing about her, but she’s reached that time in her life when she would give anything to meet the girl who was the product of a brief fling with a charming Italian lover.

Benny, the daughter, has had a seemingly happy childhood scarred by events nearly no one else knows about. Although she initiates the reunion, her standoffishness with her biological mother cannot help but hurt Marsha, who nonetheless tries to be content merely with Benny’s presence.

The novel’s setting in an Italian village (interspersed with trips to Marsha’s London home and flashbacks to Benny’s childhood in Australia) is well drawn and makes the reader envy the characters who spend their summers attending a language school there. The book’s title is a literal representation of one of Benny’s activities and a metaphorical description of what’s going on with the women and their supportive friends.

Although this is Marian Van Eyk McCain’s first novel, she has written several non-fiction books, which undoubtedly enabled her to develop the tools of an author. The book’s structure is not simple, with the voice alternating among the women and their male friend Frank and the time and location following the speaker. But McCain pulls it off to create an interesting character study and a compelling story of a different kind of love.

Click here for link

The Defector

By Mark Chisnell
Free at

The Prisoner’s Dilemma constructs a theoretical situation in which two prisoners accused of colluding in a crime must decide independently whether to cooperate with the authorities or stonewall. Both prisoners’ fates depend on the combination of the decisions they make.

Mark Chisnell cleverly uses this non-zero-sum “games theory” problem to construct an escalating series of events in which fired currency trader Martin, a brilliant, macho young man who doesn’t always use the best judgment, is forced to play for higher and higher stakes, ultimately his life and that of others.

This is a muscular, plot-driven book with elements of extreme brutality. The characters, including the diabolical villain Janac, are fine but not complex. It doesn’t matter because the action is so good and comes so fast that the reader never loses interest.

This thriller apparently was published in 2009 in the U.K. Why it’s available now for free, we don’t know. We don’t recommend books here based on price – they’re all cheap – but as a freebie, it doesn’t get a lot better than The Defector.

Click here for link