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Even though Sparkling Falls is located in a parallel time continuum, there’s still a sense of modernity, if not in automation, at least in language. Laura, the misplaced protagonist in J.S. Bailey’s “The Land Beyond the Portal”, is quickly at ease with the village’s habitants, speaking the same language and, at times, trading one-liners common in today’s youthful vocabulary. It’s the sort of banter that gives the story’s setting a realistic feel in spite of the shroud of eeriness the citizens reside under.

Since Laura is not the first lost person to travel through one of the portals found in the nearby woods, the citizens quickly accept her into the fold. Laura’s loss of memory helps her adapt, blending into this new culture. And dreams and recollections of who she may be eventually become secondary during her stay, as there are plenty of mysteries in her new world to keep her occupied.

A high infant mortality rate, lost children, and rumors of birthing quotas mar an otherwise small and peaceful enclave, presumably surrounded by endless forests. A deity named Litchfield, visible in Oz-ian form, has long since set the rules governing the citizens, and an annual celebration in his name is considered sacred. The story invokes images of Jonestown and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, as there’s this sense of a more than progressive society that has somehow been both hijacked and stymied by superstition and belief in a false god.

Sensing something sinister at hand, and mindful of her own Christian background, Laura is unable to abide by the required rituals and solemnity demanded by Litchfield and his cronies. The missing of one of her host family’s siblings spurs Laura into action, as she and two of her new friends venture into the ominous wilderness. Their discovery answers many questions while compelling them to consider organizing and rising against their benefactor.

The oft-introductions of so many characters may not be presented in a so-and-so-begat-so-and-so format, but their inclusion does tend to stall things early on, as a number of them are injected with little or no background of consequence. However, the discerning reader should be able to steam ahead while remaining focused on Laura and the building suspense surrounding the missing child, the story behind her new world, and the answers surrounding her identity, the conclusions of all of which will not disappoint.

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I finished “The Razor’s Edge” last evening. I found the only huge difference between the book and the movies to be the in-depth, all-night discussion Maugham and Larry had in a restaurant. That helped to answer some of the questions about Larry that the movies barely touch on. The discussion reminded me of “My Dinner with Andre” and, in fact, it seemed to end similarly, i.e., neither seemed to change the other’s perspective, which, I’m sure, wasn’t the primary intent anyway. But it was interesting to see that although both Andre and Larry each had their own sort of epiphany through the years, neither proved strong enough to sway the world view of each one’s respective listener. I found myself not swayed as well, and in that sense, the book was a bit of a letdown. I’m glad I read it as it is well-written and describes an interesting time in history, but my death anxiety remains challenged and I still agree with the assertion life is absurd. I would question whether Larry really found happiness or not. To my point of view, he’s no different than the rest of us, forced to live among people, some of which can be quite annoying or nasty. There’s nothing like running into someone from the other end of the spectrum to make one ask, “Do I really have life figured out or not?”

I rarely read mysteries – this makes two in a week’s time and two in probably ten years – but I came upon James Fitzroy’s “The Countess’s Portrait” while searching for a Montmartre period piece under Amazon’s Book section. And I have to say there was enough intrigue, sexual tension and danger to keep me turning the pages. The author does an outstanding job of describing the settings while breathing life and personality into each of the main characters.

The action is non-stop and the chemistry between Chester Albany and Pigalle Le Pic roils with multiple emotions including contempt, playfulness and compassion.

If you’re looking for a well-written, credible period piece founded in mystery and passion, this is the one to add to the collection. And only 99 cents!

With a name like America, you’d think the main character in Diane Majeske’s “Death on Deadline” would be knee deep in either a national or an international scoop. Not the case here. But that doesn’t take away from this quirky and altruistic 30-something’s desire to dig for the answers surrounding the deaths of her fellow workers at the local newspaper in Hyacinth, Missouri. There’s even room in this tidy who-dun-it for a little romance.

The story starts out a little slow – e.g., too much info about a cheese and crackers appetite – while providing less-than charitable descriptions of most of the characters. And the reader is nearly a fifth of the way through the story before things turn from trivial to tense. But once there, that’s when the roller coaster ride begins.

“Miss America” is the kind of woman who is compassionate, but she also has a critical eye, a trait that serves her well as a sleuth reporter but perhaps less so as a trustworthy friend or sincere love interest. With job layoffs and death lingering in the air, everyone is suspicious of everyone else’s motivation.

I believe most readers will find America’s out-going, matter-of-fact approach to both her job and private life endearing as well as refreshing. This is a nice read for anyone looking for a mix of crime and romance in small-town America.

As someone who is taking the non-traditional route to publishing a novel, I feel a sense of obligation to review similarly published books. Here’s my first review of one such book.

If you were to read a newspaper report about a local domestic assault or rape, you might find just the name of the perp and possibly that of the victim’s, and little background of either. The crime has been committed but the reader is left to ponder how things got to this point. The novel “Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors” provides the buildup to such reports. If you’ve ever wondered how people get to the point known as ‘the heat of passion’, you might find Benjamin Wretlind’s telling of Maggie’s story both illuminating and perplexing, as I did. Maggie is someone who emphasizes that she is not stupid, but consistently contradicts this claim over the most pivotal decade of one’s life. Early on, while a mere ten-years old, she drifts between the sagely advice of her grandmother and the physical abuse of her mother, both of whom impress upon Maggie just how evil men are. However, Maggie’s choice is to become as close to a boy as much as she can. Over the next ten years, she is as drawn to men as much as Adam was to Eve sans serpent. She finds herself – if not allowing herself – to be placed in situations that will only lead to pain and suffering. Ultimately, she appears willing to follow the same path traveled by her mother – alcohol, shallow intimacy with men, followed by violent crescendos. Incidentally, the story provides enough scenes of criminality to fill a local newspaper.

The setting is aptly described with the showing of trailer park living and dusty desert monsoons. Character development is left to the view of Maggie who sees goodness only in her grandmother and not much at all in anyone else. Some boys and men appear attractive in her eyes, but they are all viewed as two-faced, or in Maggie’s case, two-tongued, which is a preoccupation that provides her with uncertainty rather than trust. Interestingly enough, for Maggie, a man’s tongue provides both metaphor and titillation. It can be used to remind her of the black eels that help clean up her messes while it can also be used to provide sexual pleasure. It’s no wonder her life is filled with confusion and at a loss for direction. Important life decisions – a good education, followed by a good job, followed by a stable loving relationship – are completely out of the question. What matters most is a castle in the sky. Hence, Maggie’s task is to find the bricks needed to build that castle. The point of clarity in which she finally understands this goal comes just at a point in her life when her grandmother is long since passed on and her mother has fallen victim to a violent crime. It’s Maggie’s turn to continue the chain of violence, disillusionment, and disconnection from the outside world.

I really wanted to empathize with Maggie and to like this well-written story, but the main character shows very little in the way of a redemptive quality to help sum up her life by the end of the story and, instead, transforms into someone similar to those men who have wronged her over the years. The only time she seems like a normal, level-headed person is when she takes an interest in learning about anatomy. But even then, the motivation is hardly based on creating an industrious future for herself. If this is the background of such people read about in newspapers, I’m perfectly willing to skim the headlines. I’d probably only skim over a headline of a successful Maggie – perhaps a graduate of forensic science – without reading the article, but with a mild sense of ‘Atta girl!’. Makes for a more fulfilling story.