West Side Story: A Novelization by Irving Shulman

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ The author can’t capture the music and dancing of the musical, but he makes up for it with backstories that build on the plot in interesting ways.

🖋 🖋🖋 The story is written in that pulpy, mass market paperback style so popular in the 1960s, and for the most part it still works. Some of the dialogue feels archaic and the writing melodramatic, but in the end this style fits. West Side Story has always been a romantic, almost overripe melodrama, and pulpy writing captures that atmosphere without making it overwrought.


Published November 16, 2021 by Gallery Books (first printed in 1963)

Written by Irving Shulman, based on the play conceived by Jerome Robbins

ISBN: 9781982147150

Genre: Fiction, Romance

🔪🔪🔪🔪  Various scenes of gang violence, stabbings and shootings, references to weapons. Blood and gore are always minimized, with more emphasis on how people react to the story.ove the plot forward). None of the sex scenes include much detail, but one has quasi-violent undertones.
🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 There is one scene which features an attempted rape, described with no anatomical details.

💣 Occasional use of 1960s racial slurs, or dated slang.

💋💋💋 One sex scene described with minimal detail, a fight scene involving attempted rape, and various scenes of teenagers referencing sexual activity.


Whether you’ve seen the story on stage, watched the 1961 film or Steven Spielberg’s remake, West Side Story is a story that continues to enchant new generations. This novelization by Irving Shulman puts the musical’s dialogue and plot in book format, with some changes. Since musical numbers don’t translate into novel scenes, one dance scene (Tony and Maria meeting at the community center’s dance) remains, the others are left out. New lines of dialogue supplement scenes, making up for moments where musical solos moved the plot along.

Shulman also gives characters more backstory. Maria and Benardo’s parents show up in several scenes, instead of being offstage the entire time. Tony’s family life (where his father is, his own immigrant status since he was born in Poland) gets more detail. Minor characters – particularly Baby-John, a young Jet with a passion for comic books – get fleshed out, becoming more than just side roles. Shulman uses a third-person narrator voice to give setting details about 1960s New York City, and the role that gangs played in its culture.

Given that this novel is based on a musical, one would expect it to rehash the musical’s plot without adding much. In fact, Shulman makes some clever additions. Adding the aforementioned backstories lets him probe the characters’ motivations, making it clearer what drives their destructive behavior. The narrator’s voice lets him describe past events – what kind of violent acts the Jets and Sharks usually do, etc. – which highlight how the Jets and Sharks affect their neighborhood. The musical focuses on how the Jets and Sharks interact with each other, their rivalry that feels so all-important. Shulman shows how everyone outside the gangs see both gangs a threat, and comments on just how many other gangs are in New York City.

These narrator’s details add interesting commentary to the story. Showing how subjective the Jets and Sharks are makes it clear that their justifications (“protecting the street from outsiders”) are flimsy. It also helps Shulman put one of the musical’s implied themes in the forefront: this is a story about people busy dying young. They live violently and not for very long, unless they find something beyond the gangs. This makes Tony and Maria’s doomed love affair, their chance to find something new, all the more tragic. West Side Story isn’t quite the same without the music, but this novel shows that a good musical’s plot is compelling on paper as well.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Cari Mora by Thomas Harris

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ It may not have the re-readability of the author’s best books, but it’s a great ride while it’s happening.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋 The writing style has a clinical, “true crime” feel that fits the subject matter perfectly, and the set pieces are juggled with precision. The character development is also quite good, although it feels less than the sum of its parts.


Published May 21, 2019 by Grand Central Publishing

ISBN: 978-1538750148

Genre: Fiction, Suspense, Crime, Serial Killers, Psychological Thriller

🔪🔪🔪🔪🔪 Many gun battles, references to child soldiers in South America, human trafficking, as well as various serial killer details (descriptions of body disposal, etc.).
💋💋💋💋 There is only one sex scene in the book and it’s described with limited detail. There are various scenes of women being threatened, references to teen pregnancy and sadomasochistic activity (bondage bars, sexual fantasies).
🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 This book follows characters who have lived in war zones (recollections of battle gore, abuse), as well as characters who have serial killer pathologies (kinky sexual obsessions, bizarre behavior).


Years ago in her home country, Cari Mora saw terrible things. Now she works in Miami, a caretaker for at an occasionally-rented mansion that belonged to Pablo Escobar. Hans-Peter Schneider knows that there is more to this house than meets the eye: Escobar’s friends left something there that any man would kill to have. All Hans-Peter must do is get into the house, and take care of some locals who are “watching the home” for a certain man in South America. He thinks this lovely housekeeper may be just what he needs …
It’s hard to read a new Thomas Harris novel without considering his legacy. He started his career with three excellent crime novels (Black Sunday, Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs). The latter two books featured the iconic Dr. Hannibal Lecter, making Harris wealthy and acclaimed. However, his follow-up Lecter novels (Hannibal, Hannibal Rising) left much to be desired, and there’s a 13-year gap between Hannibal Rising and Cari Mora. So, this is a book by an author who has shown his mastery, if not consistency.
The book starts well, pulling readers immediately into its high stakes plot and exotic setting. It becomes clear that Harris is using the “Beast obsessed with Beauty” motif that appears in his other books, but gives readers a new angle on it. Cari’s backstory is dramatic but not overdone, and her struggles as a Temporary Protected Status refugee makes her a different kind of heroine than Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. The scenes of her navigating a male-centric crime world create some interesting drama (especially since some of the men are smart enough to take her seriously). Hans-Peter Schneider is a serial killer like many other Harris villains, but with unique obsessions. Some scenes showing Hans-Peter’s “tools and toys” are quite inventive, showing that Harris has stayed current on technology that humans can use for terrible purposes.
However, even though Cari is fascinating and Hans-Peter is disturbing, neither of them add up to what they could be. Harris’ best heroes have potent images or details that feel specific to them, urges that only they can fill. His best villains have their own urges, ones that complement the heroes in unexpected ways, generating primal competitions to see who survives. Cari has a sympathetic backstory, some interesting images, but no unique drive that sets her apart from other refugee survivor characters. Hans-Peter is creepy but has no vision that drives his crimes, and no special reason why Cari attracts him. Thus, this book has great elements, but they never coagulate into something iconic. It’s well worth reading once, but lacks the “extra something” that made Harris’ best work unforgettable.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Dear Henchman by Hope Bolinger and Alyssa Roat

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ It trades some of the previous book’s pathos for more humor, but the characters and comedy are still spot-on.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 The “characters texting/emailing each other” concept reads clearer in this book, and the sassy dialogue is as good as ever.


Published May 2021 by INtense Publications

ISBN: 9781954601031

Series: Dear Hero #2

Genre: Fiction, Superhero, Comedy, Romance, Chat Fiction

🔪 🔪 Various fight scenes, some played for slapstick comedy or dark humor, and occasional bloody details.
💋 💋 With some of the previous book’s characters now dating, the romantic chatter and kissing/cuddling has gone up a notch, but nothing overtly sexual happens.


Once upon a time, Kevin and Himari were just sidekicks working for a superhero and supervillain that happened to fall in love with each other. Himari happened to be the superhero’s sister as well as the villain’s sidekick, which made things awkward. Now, Vortex has given up the nastier side of supervillain work, so the four of them get along fine. In fact, Kevin is beginning to realize that he and Himari are, well… perhaps getting along too well. Unless, that is, they want to take a new direction. All those ideas stall when a strangely polite villain hits his hero, Cortex, with a serum that strips him of powers. Now Kevin and Himari have to infiltrate the Shadow Assassins and find out what new threat is coming for the superhero world … and maybe get closer to each other along the way.


The authors take a character who mostly served as campy comic relief in the previous book (Dear Hero), and successfully reveal new depths in him. Kevin proves to be funny, flawed and human enough to carry the protagonist role, while his friends each have great moments along the way. The antagonist is built on the idea, “what if a polite Midwestern guy was also a supervillain?” which makes him highly entertaining, too. Just when it looks like he’s the Jim Carrey figure in this superhero comedy, hints of his backstory show that there’s something more substantial going on. As the second act develops, the authors use these details to go deeper into the “do we really need superheroes?” themes of Dear Hero.


Arguably, if there’s a problem with Dear Henchman, it’s that given the antagonist’s backstory, he could have been a lot darker. Adding more bite to his behavior could have given the plot more sense of danger, deep bass notes to complement the lighter material. However, going too far down that path might have made the story too dark. Most superhero deconstruction stories are pretty brutal, as anyone knows who has read Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke. Both Dear Hero and Dear Henchman aim for witty humor over harsh realism, so the authors’ choice to go lighter makes sense. Fortunately, the humor is smart and satirical enough to make up for any sense that the book is lightweight.


A very entertaining sequel, and a great example of telling a funny superhero story without descending too far into camp.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Wounds Are Where Light Enters: Stories of God’s Intrusive Grace by Walter Wangerin

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A very rare Christian memoir that captures life’s chaos and its redemptive moments, without letting one element strangle the other.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 The writing is stylish without being overdone, intense without being melodramatic.


Published November 21, 2017 by Zondervan

ISBN: 9780310240051

Genre: Memoir, Christian Nonfiction

🔪 One or two chapters describe death or threats of violence.

💋 One or two stories reference sexual violence among inner-city families.

🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 Many chapters refer to people facing racist behavior, systemic poverty, and (occasionally) sexual abuse.


Across his career, pastor and writer Walter Wangerin (1944-2021) was many things. Many remember him best for his fantasy novel The Book of the Dun Cow or his religious nonfiction book Ragman and Other Cries of Faith. However, many would argue that the key to Wangerin’s work is that above all else, he was a pastor. Wounds are Where Light Enters collects a series of scenes from Wangerin’s life, most about his family or the years he spent pastoring an African-American church in Evansville, Indiana. Each story deals with a moment where lessons – about God, about the sins that hold people back, about redemption and growth – came in unexpected ways.


Wangerin has written about his life a variety of small books. Everlasting is the Past described his crisis of faith during seminary. Father & Son discussed his experience as a white father adopting an African-American son. Letters from the Land of Cancer dealt with Wangerin learning to live with an illness that ultimately killed him. This book isn’t tightly organized around a time period or subject like those books, but, like those books, it’s not afraid to discuss the darkness. Wangerin talks about spiritual lessons that he and others learned the hard way, and sometimes about the tragedy of friends who opted for bitterness rather than growth. Since Wangerin was a white pastor serving at an African-American inner city church in the 1970s, there are a few heartbreaking stories about poverty and bigotry. Each story is told with strong images, but not drawing out the details too much.


These intense little stories might have been depressing if they were just about darkness. Since Wangerin also makes the redemptive moments intense, it serves as a good pairing. Stories about racism that could have been brutal come across as tragic, a description of how far people can drift from truth. Stories about reconciled families that could have been schmaltzy come across as honest. Given how common it is to find Christian memoirs that talk all about the victories and never about the struggle, it’s refreshing to find a book that truly balances the light and dark.Wangerin went on release two books of poetry, but this appears to be his last book of original nonfiction material. A sobering yet hopeful collection, it’s a fitting capstone to his work and legacy.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts 1 and 2 by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Not every element lands perfectly, but the story works far more often than it fails, and proves to be just as exciting as the earlier stories.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋 The plot successfully balances elements from the novel series with a new generation of characters. The book isn’t written solely by Rowling, and being a play, it has some farcical elements that wouldn’t work in a novel, but it still captures the books’ tone.


Published July 31, 2016 by Arthur A. Levine Books

ISBN: 9781338099133

Genre: Fantasy, Theatre Play

🔪🔪🔪🔪 Fantasy violence sequences happen throughout the story, none of them bloody, but sometimes shocking.


Nineteen years have passed since Harry Potter and his friends saved the wizarding world from the evilest sorcerer in history. However, Harry and his wife Ginny have to face the fact that saving the world doesn’t make them cool to their kids – in fact, a famous legacy can be a handicap. When their middle son Albus goes off to Hogwarts and befriends Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius, it seems like life has no more surprises. Then Albus and his friends discover time travel secrets that could allow them to save people that their parents couldn’t help. Reality itself is about to change in ways that the Potters would never expect…

Writing a sequel to a well-loved series is never easy – especially when the series told a complex story about a prophesied hero changing his world. In this case, the time travel elements let the writers “have it both ways.” They can reference great moments from the books, while generating new insights about the past that make the concept more than a retread. Like David Eddings’ The Malloreon (a sequel series to his fantasy epic The Belgariad), there are plot twists that cast doubt on what’s come before. Much like Eddings, these twists are clever but don’t completely work – it’s hard to write a fantasy epic that asks big questions, resolves them, then wrenches them open again. In the forced moments, this book feels less like Harry Potter, more like Doctor Who.


However, even when the twists feel forced, the characters are interesting enough that it’s worth seeing them to the end. Harry and his pals are older but no less fascinating, and their adult struggles feel genuine. Harry’s parenting concerns particularly take fans into unexpected territory: the novels talked a lot about his mother, less about his father. As he painfully finds out, being a legendary wizard doesn’t make up for the fact that he is a father with no example to follow. Albus Potter and his Hogwarts friends are equally interesting, especially when their struggles link them to their parents in unexpected ways. Some of them find that they’re more like their parents than they would ever admit. Others have to live down the consequences of their parents’ choices, pain maturing them before their years.


While it has its rough edges, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child captures that thing which made the Harry Potter novels so good. It combines fast-flying adventure with interesting character drama. It introduces plot twists that couldn’t be predicted but make perfect sense in hindsight. The play script format makes it different from reading a novel, but no less exciting.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Dear Hero by Hope Bolinger and Alyssa Roat

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ One of the very few books that truly is laugh-out loud funny.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 As a book made up of characters’ texts/emails to each other, it doesn’t have a “recognizable writer’s voice.” That being said, the writers organize events clearly, the formatting is well done, and characters’ dialogue clearly sets them apart.


Published September 2020 by INtense Publications, ISBN: 978-1947796799

Series: Dear Hero #1

Genre: Fiction, Superhero, Comedy, Romance, Chat Fiction

🔪 🔪 Being superheroes and supervillains, the characters organize their lives around fights (minor and major), but the violence is described in minimal terms.
💋 There is increasing “romantic chatter” as the story goes along and a few brief kissing scenes, nothing more explicit.


In a world not unlike our own, superheroes and supervillains exist. But they have a problem: how to find nemeses to fight on a regular basis? Enter Meta Match, an app that allows heroes and villains to meet up and plan fights. Cortex needs a new villain fast, so he uses the site to connect with another young kid on the block: the nefarious Vortex. They hit it off well, but as they get to know each other better… it may be that they’re hitting it off in ways they never planned.


Chat fiction, much like choose your own adventure stories, is a concept that sounds great but is hard to do well. Roat and Bolinger overcome this problem by replicating many kinds of chat rooms – text messages, online message boards, mistyped emails. The descriptions of fickle side characters trying to dominate online discussions makes the story clever and also topical. They also have a great ear for dialogue – smart-aleck comments, villains joking about what they do to their victims, etc. This makes it easy to tell the characters apart, even in the most complicated battle scenes where several characters are sharing messages about what’s happening.


As far as the superhero elements go, the authors use the romantic elements to consider a classic question: what cost does the superhero life carry? The story begins feeling like a Marvel story, but slowly gets darker as the protagonists consider whether these fights are really just games, and whether the game will leave them cynical. The plot never enters grungy Zack Snyder territory, but faces these questions honestly while keeping things witty.


All told, Bolinger and Roat produce a highly entertaining read. This book will appeal equally to superhero fans interested in a prose take on the genre’s tropes, or romantic comedy fans seeking a new angle on the “enemies become something else” trope.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old compiled by Miriam LeBlanc

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ If you want Christmas stories that capture the season without being syrupy, this book is for you.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 The writing is consistently good in every entry, and many authors show they are not afraid to show a sad situation before showing the goodness.


Authors:  Henry Van Dyke, Pearl S. Buck, Beatrice Joy Chute, Ruth Sawyer, Elizabeth Goudge, Selma Lagerlöf, Rebecca Caudill, Madeleine L’Engle

Published October 5, 2021 by Plough Publishing

ISBN: 9780874860313

Genre: Fiction, Short Story Collection, Holiday Stories, Christian Fiction

🔪 Some stories occur in poverty scenes with stark imagery, or feature threats of violence that aren’t carried out.
💋 No sex scenes, little romance.
🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 A Trigger Warning: this book has references to alcoholism, sex with masochistic dialogue.


Christmas is a time that inspires many, and makes them reconsider just what they think about God (and more particularly, Jesus). For writers willing to lean into the questions that the season brings up, Christmas stories can convict as well as inspire. This collection includes twenty acclaimed Christmas stories from authors in different cultures and periods. From stories about Christmas in gritty urban environments (“Transfiguration” by Madeleine L’Engle) to historical tales set in Siberia (“The Guest” by Nikolai S. Lesskov) to fantasy stories about supernatural encounters (“The Cribmaker’s Trip to Heaven” by Reimmichl), these stories show Christmas in its many shades and environments.


Christmas books, like Christmas songs on the pop station, often lean so far into sentiment until they become silly and insubstantial. This collection aims for quality over sentiment, collecting pieces from many different decades (some going as far back as 1910, or the last 1800s). Famous Christian authors like Madeleine L’Engle are included, as well as more obscure ones like Henry van Dyke that are worth rediscovering. This gives the book a very diverse feel, and not all of the stories are for young children. However, the Christmas themes of generosity, beauty out of chaos show up in every story in some way, showing how Christmas’ core message and ideas truly resonate across social classes, generations and locations.


Quality storytelling makes this book that very rare thing: a Christmas story collection worth not only reading once, but poring over multiple times. Many readers will even find that it’s a book worth reading throughout the year.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Perfect for classic crime noir fans, and for readers seeking a well-developed psychological thriller.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 The author creates an almost cinematic style with strong images, tight plotting and careful pacing the suspense elements.


Published December 7, 2021 by New York Review of Books

Edition: Movie tie-in edition

Originally published in 1946.

ISBN: 978-1681376103

Genre: Fiction, Suspense, Crime

🔪🔪 One death by poisoning, a violent fight at the climax, various scenes of psychological suspense.
💋💋💋💋 Various sexual references in dialogue, and three to five brief sex scenes (all of which move the plot forward). None of the sex scenes include much detail, but one has quasi-violent undertones.
🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 🚩 A Trigger Warning: this book has references to alcoholism, sex with masochistic dialogue.


Stan Carlisle isn’t planning to spend the rest of his life as a low-level carnival lackey. He’s got plans, and a taste for stage magic which Madam Zeena helps him develop. Before long, the carnival isn’t big enough for Stan’s dreams, so he and his new wife Molly hit the road as a mentalist act. When Stan changes masks to become Reverend Carlisle, Spiritualist minister and counselor to those interested in the other side, Molly worries that they’ve gone beyond putting on a show for honest money. As Stan targets a wealthy new “client,” he nears the line that he may never return from.
This novel was a bestseller when it came out in 1945, then in and out of print for decades – this edition was released for Guillermo del Toro’s new movie version. C.S. Lewis fans may be familiar with it, since the author’s ex-wife Joy Davidman went on to marry Lewis (an unusual courtship captured in the movie Shadowlands). Like many noir novels, Nightmare Alley is an antihero story about a character’s lusts taking him into dark territory. Gresham makes Stan likeable enough that even as he descends, he’s still fascinating to watch. Molly increasingly becomes the moral voice, but the story balances her warnings and Stan’s hunger for more, making each compelling. The balance is helped by Gresham capturing the suspense in magic acts – the magician collecting or deducing information, pretending he’s struggling to get a reading, the climax as he shocks the audience. Like a great thriller novelist describing a heist, Gresham transports readers into these scenes, making each detail feel vital. Thus, even as it becomes hard to imagine how Stan can survive his journey, readers stay to see how he reaches his destination.
Stan isn’t the only fascinating character – Gresham describes the carnival and its inhabitants with vivid language. Many have compared the carnival scenes to Tod Browning’s 1932 movie “Freaks,” an inside look at circus performers that makes even the most unusual performers (the man with no legs, the conjoined twins) seem human. This helps the book enormously, keeping the “weird events at the carnival” setting from becoming garish or cliché.
Overall, Gresham tells a classic noir tale of someone flirting with forbidden things, a journey that feels preordained but can’t be missed. The characters walk dark paths, but the book never lands in nihilism. Readers see how characters lose their way, but the morals are implied rather than preached. Decades later, this gut-wrenching thriller still holds up.


Reviewed by G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and storyteller. His short story series “Tapes from the Crawlspace” is available to watch on YouTube, as are various pieces published by Tall Tale TV. He has published over 300 book reviews in publications like Aphotic Realm and The Waynesdale News. He will read anything once, but prefers thrillers, fantasy and horror.