25 minute read

Indie Reviews




Self-Published & Small Press Book Reviews


Floating Underwater.



Tracy Shawn’s second novel Floating Underwater, set in a small California town on the Pacific Coast, takes readers on an utterly absorbing, heartfelt journey of grief, loss and, ultimately, redemption and hope

Paloma Leary and her husband Reed are both reeling from her third miscarriage. Paloma prefers not to chance another pregnancy and seeks to adopt, but her husband, who lost his father at a young age, wants a biological child of their own. Paloma herself lost her mother to schizophrenia when she was a girl and also an older sister who was kidnapped, so she has other, unresolved issues besides her multiple miscarriages.

In addition to these very real losses, Paloma also suffers from visions: She knew she would miscarry before she lost their baby, for example. She works as a floral designer, but her real calling is her care and tenderness for her neighbors, especially her boss’s grown daughters, Serena and Tatiana. Serena and Tatiana are both talented artists, but Serena is either mentally ill, magically visionary or both. Paloma grapples with her relationships with them, as well as those of her critical mother-in-law and equally critical and controlling best friend.

As the story unfolds, Paloma discovers her strengths, comes to accept that her visions can be a gift, not a burden, and changes the way she interacts with friends and relatives. Because she heals herself, she can now also help others, including her very grounded husband. “With ever-so-wary footing, they managed to tiptoe above the most traumatic stories beneath their lives.”

Mystical and magical realism permeate this women’s novel, and Amy Harmon fans would embrace Shawn’s adept storytelling. The author delivers spot-on dialogue, believable and enchanting characters, and surprising twists. It’s easy to imagine the novel as a talked-about book club selection (in fact, there’s a list of questions at the book’s conclusion).

Poignant and beautiful, Floating Underwater leaves readers yearning for a sequel and another look at these captivating characters. 


Slaves of the One They Chose to Obey.



This memoir relates how abuse, greed, blame, lies, and misplaced trust decimated a family.

A native Zimbabwean, Shinete Christina Maunze is one of 13 siblings raised to believe in the power of Apostolic “prophets,” witch doctors, and diviners generally bent on seeking power and control for their own gain. Maunze converted to Catholicism as a young woman, in 1973. But her large family remained Christian in name only, and regularly consulted witch doctors, seeking to poison or kill rivals, cheating spouses, and ungrateful offspring. In fact, the author believes the event that began her family’s downfall was when seven village men, envious of her father’s success as a woodcarver, paid to have him poisoned.

Chapters focus primarily on individual family members who fell victim to manipulation or purchased the intervention of “folk healers.” These include Meg, a manipulative in-law who denied her own epileptic son anti-seizure medicine because his illness allowed him to “contact” spirits and the undead, and the author’s niece, Chanel, who died after a self-administered abortion after her mother refused her suitor and had his family cursed.

After decades of warning her family to follow a righteous path and being ignored, the author feels vindicated, citing a paraphrased quote from St. Paul [Romans 6:16]: “[W]hen you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey.”

This is a heavy-handed cautionary tale of blind faith as well as the author’s rationalization for her family’s discord. The story isn’t told chronologically, and Maunze’s rambling accounts make for an “I told you so” diatribe that can be wearying, confusing and often misleading. Adding to the reading challenges, her own religious agenda, punctuated by frequent sermonizing, routinely interrupts the narrative flow.

At its heart, however, the memoir is a revealing look at contemporary Zimbabwean culture. It may appeal to readers interested in Africa and the role of religion there. 


Tokyo Zangyo.



American ex-pat Michael Pronko’s fourth book in his stellar Detective Hiroshi series opens with a high-level executive waking up naked on the roof of his company headquarters across from Tokyo Station, then falling to his death.

The executive’s company is Japan’s largest advertising agency, Senden Infinity, which is about to expand into international markets. The victim, Shigeru Onizuka, was set to transfer to the New York office.

Detective Hiroshi Shimizu is a forensic-accountant-turnedhomicide-detective who looks for financial causes for crimes. Hiroshi’s team, including a crusty veteran detective, former sumo wrestlers and an indispensable young woman assistant, is back to solve this case.

Readers learn early on that the dead man supervised Mayu Yamase, who killed herself by jumping from the same spot three years before, after working 100 hours of overtime in one month (the Japanese word for overtime is zangyo, hence the book’s title). The media covered her suicide as a case of karoshi, death by overwork, which happens in Japan.

Shimizu and his team eventually link the case to Mayu’s suicide. The bad guy isn’t hard to figure out, but the novel’s real villain is Japan’s corporate culture of overwork and saving face.

Pronko has lived in Japan for over 20 years and runs a website about Japan’s jazz scene. He slips his appreciation for the music into his immersive narrative. He also includes references to Japanese traditional culture and writes evocative passages about restaurants where the cops like to eat, including this one about entering a noodle shop: “Inside, the rich flavor of boiling ramen and meaty broth enfolded them. It was calming and mouth-watering, like entering a kitchen and a steamy bath at the same time.”

The story and its message for corporate culture is compelling and undeniable, and Pronko’s appreciation for Japan is palpable. His writing is crisp and always engaging. After this latest engrossing story, readers will be eagerly awaiting the series’ fifth installment. 


Bom Boy.




Yewande Omotoso’s debut novel Bom Boy (pidgin for ‘baby boy’) is a story about grief, loneliness, and a hunger for belonging. Lékè is markedly a misfit from the outset. Near silent and anxious, Lékè struggles to connect with those around him, preferring to read atlases on his bedroom floor or garden with the only person who seems to understand him, his adoptive mother Jane. But when he is ten, Jane loses her battle against cancer, and Lékè disappears inside himself. As an adult, Lékè is estranged from society, a topic of gossip at his workplace and living in a rented garage. He frequently schedules doctors’ appointments despite nothing being wrong with him and stalks women at the mall, vaguely knowing that he is starved but not knowing for what. It isn’t until he is given a series of letters from his father whom he has never met that Lékè begins to confront his fears. Though Lékè is the main character, we also see the world from several other perspectives—primarily his birth and adoptive parents. Because of this, Bom Boy is able to explore topics such as racism, poverty, and grief, which wouldn’t have been possible if it focused on Lékè alone. The different perspectives also serve to underline the core theme of family history and how one can be bound by or move beyond it. One of the best qualities of Bom Boy was how the prose—notably the dialogue—was concise but expressive. A great example of this is one of the opening scenes in which Jane and her husband Marcus argue while they’re getting ready for bed about how to raise Lékè. She smoothed balm over her lips and the mint brought her back to the room, to her husband. She turned to address him. “I don’t think you should force him. Not unless he looks like he’s actually having fun.” “Fun?” Marcus scowled. “That’s a long way away, dear. I’m just trying to get the boy to act normal.” Jane shook her head and Marcus raced to defend himself. “I don’t mean it like that, you know what I mean.” Jane sighed. She studied him, noticing a slight paunch where he leaned over the book in his lap which, ignoring her gaze, he now opened and pretended to read. Just this brief snippet captures so much of what is great about this novel. The scene is incredibly mundane, yet it reveals important details about the characters without explicitly saying how they feel. This level of subtext persists throughout the novel, and the reader is expected to make connections of their own, to interpret and understand character dialogue as they would in real life. The only criticism I have for is that the ending felt rushed, leaving less room for the methodical pacing and character development that I’d grown to enjoy. That said, Bom Boy is still a short and refreshing novel that I very much recommend, especially if you love character-driven writing. 

The House of Rust.



The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber tells the epic journey of Aisha trying to find her father who went missing while fishing. She embarks on an adventure filled with monsters, a talking guide cat, and also her responsibilities as a family member and young adult in her everyday life.

The House of Rust is a beautifully written piece of work. Every sentence flows so effortlessly into the next. At times, it is as if you are reading a poem. The imagery is fantastic. The reader is fully immersed in Aisha’s journey. You can feel the amount of pressure others and herself put on her. You can feel her fears, and her courage.

This novel gives hints of The Odyssey and The Iliad. Aisha must overcome challenge after challenge. Face her fears up front. She isn’t just on a journey to find her father, she is also finding her true self along the way. There are many elements to this story. There are magical creatures that are tied into real life that help Aisha throughout the novel. There is also the element of family relationships. Aisha has many decisions to make as a young lady that deal with her home life. Her journey helps her find these answers.

Readers will find themselves sympathizing and empathizing with Aisha. Readers will relate with our hero. We all want to do what is right without compromising who we are as a person and what we believe in. She will become a close friend to you as you watch her grow into her own. The House of Rust is a fantastic, immersive story that many will enjoy and relate to. 


Young Blood.



Considered both coming-of-age novel and fresh crime fiction, Young Blood by Sifiso Mzobe was originally published in 2010 by Kwela Books, a South African publisher. The author, a journalist from Umlazi, South Africa, brings the story of Sipho Khumalo to life with sparse, honest language that draws the reader in. Sipho, an impressionable seventeen-year-old from a caring family, admits to his parents that school is not for him, that “nothing in class” makes any sense but that dropping out does. Despite his parents’ urging to stay in school, Sipho leaves for a year and embarks on a dark journey into a life of crime.

In Umlazi, becoming a part of the crime scene is easy, as stealing cars permeates the very culture Sipho was brought up in. Being the son of a mechanic, he takes to the “job” easily, and soon, he is caught in the snare of stolen BMWs and large sums of money. He flits from party to party, easily lies to his girlfriend and family, and witnesses countless acts of violence. “I knew I was saying goodbye to my childhood, embracing manhood from a different angle,” Sipho says.

But Sipho is not immune to the emotional toll his choices place upon him. When he stands witness to a murder at point-blank range, Sipho recognizes his actions are wrong. “I lost my mind completely,” he says. After being dropped off at home, he shows the reader his unease with the crimes: “I rushed inside, pretending to attend to a runny stomach. I tiptoed to my room, pulled the covers over myself, and fell asleep fully dressed.” And much later in the book, after meeting with his uncle about possibly moving pills, Sipho looks in the mirror at his reflection and thinks, “From ear to ear, a dry, joyless grin was on my face.”

Young Blood is not a book for the faint at heart. Mzobe’s journalistic training manifests in each meticulous detail that paints a harrowing portrait of crime life in Umlazi, and hijackings, cold-blooded killings, and drug and alcohol use leap from the page. But at the heart of the book lies another message, one about friendship, family, community, and the value of education. It’s this message that leaves the reader hopeful. 


Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa.



Short stories are my first love when it comes to literature. There is something raw about them. Compared to longer works, they have so little to hide behind. Their flaws are much more easily apparent, and they are able to explore ideas that may not convert well to long-form prose. So, when I had the chance to review a collection of shorts, I jumped on it.

Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa is collection of twenty-one short stories that were submitted for Short Story Day Africa 2020. There were two requirements: entries had to be between 3,000 and 5,000 words in length, and had to focus on ‘disruption.’ From an escaped pet octopus to the Earth’s crust collapsing to an invasion of religious zombies, these disruptions have quite a range, and they often serve as backdrops to portray the human spirit. The beautiful and the ugly, grief and hope, warnings from our past and for our future—Disruption captures all of this.

Of the stories in Disruption, there were some clear standouts for me. I was fascinated by the premise of “Before We Die Unwritten” where greed for an unobtanium-adjacent material caused the world to collapse. It felt all too real, a town council deciding if the 0.001% chance of a catastrophic ecological chain reaction was worth the potential profit.

“Laatlammer” was great example of worldbuilding, with its OPTIC system (Opt-In Communism) and its characters needing to use mandatory hashtags in conversation, like #antibiotics, so the government can monitor them. Written from a child’s perspective, it delivered on an enjoyable plot while tackling themes of poverty, economic disparity, and hope.

“Shelter” was easily my favorite story in the collection. It does an excellent job of taking the ‘what if’ of hypothetical future and intertwining it with the daily life of someone living in that world. The simple storyline of a mother racing with her child to a storm shelter was elevated by the subtle worldbuilding and the character’s perspective. After sitting at the front of my mind for two weeks, I came back to “Shelter” and read it again, and I was even more impressed the second time by the author’s skill.

The stories in this collection are a call to continue hoping. As long as we move forward and continue to survive on this earth, there is still time for healing, both for the earth and ourselves. But, in the meantime, if you’re in need for some levity, philosophizing, or anything in between, consider picking up a copy of Disruption. 


How Do You Live?



When Genzaburō Yoshino sat down to write How Do You Live? he could not have known the enormous impact the book would have on his native Japan. Recognized as “a crossover classic for young readers” that tackles politics, science, ethics, history, and more, the book has been updated and republished multiple times since its release in 1937 and has finally been translated into English by Bruno Navasky.

How Do You Live?—both a coming-of-age novel and lesson book all in one—features two voices: fifteenyear-old Honda Jun’ichi (known as Copper) and his uncle. The story begins two years after the passing of Copper’s bank executive father, when Copper and his mother have moved from a mansion in the city to a modest house in the suburbs. Copper, though intelligent, observant, and self-aware, grapples with life and all the changes it has to offer. His uncle, who frequently visits Copper and his mother, has a hand in helping Copper navigate those changes successfully by imparting life lessons mainly via the writings in his notebook.

The beauty of this book lies in the simplicity of the words that ultimately weave complex, profound, and poignant statements about humanity. “It’s not often that two people need to settle an argument with violence,” one of Copper’s professors says. And his uncle, sometimes quoting Copper’s father, presents gem after gem: “You can’t become a great man without having great thoughts”; “You must attend to the things you feel in your own heart, the things that move you deeply”; “If your regrets help you to really learn an essential thing about being human, that experience won’t have been wasted on you”; and “There is nothing more beautiful than people nurturing goodwill toward their fellow beings.” On every page, lessons abound.

Had this book been presented solely in epistolary format, it would have risked sounding preachy. But with Copper’s narrative interwoven, readers are shown the lessons instead of simply being told. We experience Copper’s kindness toward his friend Uragawa, understand the importance of courage, and feel the impact of broken promises. Readers learn that, like Copper, one thought must guide us on our journey through life and its many stages: “How will you live?” 


The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.



Short stories are my first love when it comes to literature. Based in Buenos Aires, Mariana Enriquez contributes to several newspapers and literary journals both fiction and nonfiction. With a degree in Journalism and Social Communication from the National University of La Plata, Mariana has been writing since 1995. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is her first collection of short stories, and a second translation from a 2017 book, The Things We Lost in the Fire. What makes this anthology so appealing is how quick the horror alters reality and your worst nightmare without warning.

A standout collection in the horror genre, every piece is haunted by death and self-destruction. Defiantly not for the faint of heart.

In, Kids Who Come Back, I found myself immersed in a world of missing children, street urchins, and runaways. A story packed with so much detail it qualifies as a novella.

Like Enriquez's previous work, she travels deep into Argentina's socio-political context, extracting how far the human mind will go when creativity has no bounds. Enríquez pulls all the stops to showcase violent fetishes and sadomasochists the way David Lynch did in his seminal 1992 film, Fire Walk with Me.

I also loved, Meat, a tale about a rockstar with a bizarre fascination to make teenagers around the world obsessed with him. But when two girls’ fierce devotion boil over, they mysteriously become hellbent on shocking the world.

Another exceptional story, The Cart, is about a drunken slum-dweller who leaves behind an accumulation of misfortune when he gets in a fight with a neighbor...forcing him to abandon his cart of junk. Simple I know, but you'll have to read it to learn what stared the argument in the first place.

With as many stories packed in this slim book, they’re all so fresh and natural it becomes impossible to turn away from the creep-factor present on your shoulder longer after a story’s been read. Another fascinating venture Mariana offers her readers is an examination of female desire, and how society is secretly obsessed with fear, disappearance, and death. Despite the graphic element, it was fascinating to see how all the characters were kept in-tune without losing momentum. Enríquez does exactly what gothic storytelling must do, and that’s putting the supernatural in places you never knew it could exist. I highly recommend The Dangers of Smoking in Bed to anyone looking for some modern macabre. Even the translator, Megan McDowell, marvelously kept the atmosphere for an English-speaking audience. 


Idioms From Around The Globe.


Idioms are one of the few universal principles in language that unites us all. In different countries around the world, it is idioms that we all use as a way to understand our world and communicate with each other. Why do we do this? Can’t we just say we are tired instead of saying we had a long night or that we woke up on the wrong side of the bed? There is no such thing as a long night since every night is the same number of hours, and you can’t actually have a good or bad side of a bed. It’s not like the bed has feelings. We all know that, taken literally, idioms are not as fun or creative. Can you really be better late than never? No, Tame Impala, you can’t. You can’t really call it a day because there is no phone number to call the sun to let it know you want the day to end. We could do view idioms as literal phrases and be a pain in the butt, but that is kind of boring and can become increasingly frustrating if you are that guy. Not appreciating idioms is not appreciating ourselves. We are, as idioms suggest, all poets at heart, using our words, not only to describe our world but to make it a little bit more interesting too.

Here is a list of idioms from around the world that you may not be familiar with.

England – Taking the mickey.

The English have this saying when they make fun of each other. If you said this in America, you’d have a few blank stares coming your way. Some would think that you are talking of the famous mouse that bears the same name. No one would think you are making fun of them.

Stop taking the mickey out of him.

American equivalent – Stop being a downer.

England – Biting more than you can chew

This one is quite popular over here on the American side of the world too. Unfortunately, this is never used in a good situation, though. It’s not like you are bragging about taking the biggest bite at the dinner table (although I don’t know why you would do that); you are saying that you did too much and are now in a bad spot. If you want to avoid the idiom comparison altogether, you could just say you are quoting Frank Sinatra and act like that bad spot you are in was all a part of your plan.

American equivalent – We use this one in America quite a lot. Hopefully, not too much.

Of the two British ones, I like the one that I actually have used before. Yeah, I still say that taking the mickey sounds weird and offensive. I’m not sure who is going to be offended by that, but I am sure that someone will.

French - Coûter les yeux de la tête - costs the eyes in your head

Gruesome imagery aside, this French idiom means that an item is too much money.

If I said this in a store, people would be confused. First off, they don’t speak French, and neither do I, so the whole situation would be uncomfortable. Then I’d claim that the item that I want would cost the eyes in my head. My luck, the store clerk would assume I have on my contacts and think nothing of my rejection of their item.

American equivalent – It costs an arm and a leg.

I wonder if there is an idiom for an item even more expensive than the eye item. Like you would say, “this costs the eyes in my head and an arm and a leg.” The thing is so expensive you needed to say two idioms to get your point across—basically, college loans.

French - Ne rien savoir-faire de ses dix doigts - not knowing how to do anything with ten fingers

This French phrase means that somebody is

completely useless, which if you are like me, you don’t have to think too hard to name that person. You only have ten fingers, so if you can’t do anything with them, you are out of luck. An American equivalent would be to call someone a Butterfinger. A Butterfinger is a person who drops everything. It isn’t exact, but it is pretty close. Of course, if you really wanted to make a point with someone, you can call them a Butterfinger who can’t do anything with their fingers. That seems harsh, though.

American equivalent – Butterfinger

I gotta say that the last one was my favorite phrase so far. I like describing someone useless as bad with their hands. It comes across as an idiom you could say to the useless person, and they wouldn’t know that you are talking about them.

Germany - Die Daumen drücken - press the thumbs

When I heard this, I looked at my thumbs and wondered why I would ever want to press them. That’s strange. However, this option is much better than the last one where I was talking about my eyes in my head. I will never say this in German or English because no one would know what I was talking about. I wouldn’t even get suggestions either, like with the other options. American equivalent – Cross your fingers.

I didn’t notice how many idioms involved the human body. I am running out of body parts here.

German - Lügen haben kurze Beine – lies have short legs

I like this one. This has a good ring to it, in English, that I could find myself saying this to someone when I feel that they have lied to my face. It is short, no pun intended, succinct and easily understood. I am actually upset that this one is not more common in America.

American equivalent – We could say this phrase in America. I haven’t heard many say it, though.

China - bù jīng yī shì, bù zhǎng yī zhì – wisdom comes from experience

This is actually one that I can use if I were to sound smart and wise. My friends would look at me and shake their heads because I said another cheesy wisdom line that is not relevant to anything. If you think this sounds like something from a fortune cookie, then you’re right because I got this in my cookie with my dinner earlier. Also, my lucky numbers are 3, 8, 44, 57, 61. Doesn’t wisdom come from, you know wisdom? I’m just saying I know a bunch of old dudes

with a bunch of time on their hands, and they don’t know much.

American equivalent – You would say this in English if you are a shaman, a Wiseman, or just a regular person trying to help someone out.

Chinese - jiǎo tà shí dì – to step on solid ground.

This Chinese phrase means to stay focused on the basics and fundamentals to proceed with a task. It is very useful advice for people who want to sound smart. Then you realize that the person never spoke of the basics or the fundamentals, and you are screwed. We wouldn’t say this in America, although we do agree with the general principle of pushing through a task using the basic ideas that got you there. My best examples are trust the process or stay the course. Both stress that the individual doesn’t stray too far from their original plan.

American equivalent – trust the process or stay the course.

I couldn’t include a list of idioms without the guy who practically spoke in them, Shakespeare. Can you imagine him trying to order some fast food? He’d confuse the knucklehead at the drive-through with his meter.

William Shakespeare - wear your heart on your sleeve

We all know that one person who says this line proudly as if it is an honor to have such sleeves. They act like this is a part of who they are, and you, or anyone else, can’t stop them from living their life as they want. Run, if anyone says this line to you as a way to describe themselves.

And last but not least, let’s give books a little love here too. Here is a famous idiom from a book that is more known as an idiom than anything related in the book.

Jekyll And Hyde – From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

You would call someone Jekyll and Hyde when they act like two different people. I have heard this phrase used so many times in many instances that the book’s story has been lost, but the idea of a dual personality has not. Many understand this idiom without ever even reading Stephenson’s novel, which is quite impressive for him and us. 