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.

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.

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.

Run Away by Harlan Coben

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ I’d give this book four stars for incredible pacing, mystery, and plot. My only disappointment is that as focused as the story was on Paige, I didn’t feel her story was woven through the resolution well enough to leave me satisfied in regard to her. But the rest of the plot was phenomenal.

🖋 🖋🖋🖋🖋 This book is expertly written and I enjoyed every part of it—the plot twists, the unveiling, and the mystery itself kept me guessing and on the edge of my seat.

Published March 12th, 2019 by Grand Central Publishing

ISBN: 9781538748466

Genre: Fiction, Suspense, Mystery

🔪🔪🔪 This book gets three knives for violence. There are quite a few murders, but the way they’re written (mostly) leaves the gore out of it. It’s very matter of fact and the violence is handled well. All in all, not as violent as would be expected from a book with hit men, drug dens, and murder mysteries.

Simon Greene’s daughter Paige has been missing for months. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t seem to track her down, until he finally gets a lead that she’ll be playing at Strawberry Fields at Central Park.

When that meeting goes wrong—leading to a few moments of unwanted viral fame as a video of Simon seemingly assaulting a homeless man takes over YouTube—he loses his only chance to save his daughter as she is sucked back into the drug addict life her boyfriend, Aaron, provides for her.

Not long after the internet craze has faded away, Aaron shows up dead in he and Paige’s apartment, and Simon sets out once more to find his daughter. But try as he might, Paige is in the wind, and now he’s a suspect in Aaron’s murder.

States away, Ash and Dee Dee continue down their hit list, taking out man after man until they draw too much attention to themselves and Ash has no other option than to return Dee Dee to the cult that acted as her home—to keep her safe from the police. Ash doesn’t know who hired them specifically, but someone in this cult wanted those men dead. And as long as he got paid, he didn’t care who died.

Private Investigator Elena Ramirez enters the scene in search of a missing boy named Henry Thorpe, and her investigations lead her to Aaron’s murder scene. Uncertain if the cases are connected but not wanting to miss any vital information, Simon and Elena begin comparing notes and sharing information.

But the question remains: how is Paige connected to these cult murders? Who killed Aaron? And where did Paige disappear to?

I really loved this book, all the way up until the end. Coben kept me on my toes, weaving the tapestry of the murders and the characters lives together so that even I, an experienced weaver myself, was left guessing. The final effect was one of a story where nothing is unbelievable—except for the plot thread that kept you reading in the first place. As I’ve already said, I was disappointed with the resolution for Paige’s character. I guess I had hoped she’d have a larger part to play in the murders, a larger part to play in the mystery. We spent much of the book trying to unravel her story, only to have her be connected to the main tension and plot by a very narrow thread that seems too weak to pull the weight.

I am a tough sell, and Coben had me gripped from paragraph one.

Reviewed by J. J. Hanna

J. J. Hanna is a writer from Littleton, CO. She has a B. S. from Taylor University in Professional Writing, and has worked in various roles in the publishing industry including literary agent, freelance writer, virtual assistant, and publicist. Her favorite genre is suspense, but she also enjoys Fantasy and SciFi. Connect with her online @authorjjhanna and http://www.authorjjhanna.com.

This review was originally published March 9, 2020.

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.