Breath And Mercy

Book Two of the Phineas Mann Series by Mark Anthony Powers 

Breath And Mercy – The Phineas Mann Series. Hawksbill Press, 2022.

There are stories and Stories. Breath and Mercy is part of the second category.

The book begins with Phineas, the main character, starting his day at the hospital. He is still a student, but he’s already reached that brilliant, hellish stage of his career where doctors study and work at the same time and sleep becomes a commodity they are too poor to buy.

He is a kind, caring, goofy and sensible young man, who does everything by the book and loves his job: helping people makes the many hours he spent on books memorising as many names and diagnosis his brain could store worth it. He is enjoying his internship in the cardio-pulmonary unit as well as his flatmate’s company, and life is plain sailing towards a brilliant future. Life is looking good for Phineas. He meets a girl, Iris, who almost immediately tells him that she loves what he does and she would like to be of some help too, but she is too terrified by blood – risking to pass out at the mere idea. This doesn’t discourage them from getting together and, eventually, get married.

For a number of reasons, they move from Boston to New Orleans, at the end of the 70s. They find a decent apartment with a nice landlord that helps them with a few repairs and they also get a dog, as Iris is not very happy to spend her nights alone in their new house on the outskirts of the city. Life goes on, Iris gets a new job, her father dies, her mother falls into a deep depression and Iris leaves everything behind to temporarily look after her. In the meantime, Phineas is about to face a terrible outbreak of pneumonia at the hospital, which is also accompanied by a mysterious bruising on the skin. All the patients die within a very short period of time and no one can explain why, until months after, when the word AIDS enters the world, with all its scary connotations. It’s terrifying, they are all worried – to catch the disease, to not being able to find a treatment, scared of the paralysing uncertainty of the unknown – but eventually things begin to ease. They don’t find a cure, but at least they find some form of treatment that gives a little hope to the sick.

When things seem to finally turn for the best again, a hurricane hits New Orleans. Its name is Jezebel, and just like the biblical princess, it brings destruction on a vast scale. Phineas shockingly finds out that the electrical system of his hospital is located in the basement which will probably be flooded, meaning the only power supply available to the hospital is external power units. Nedless to say that they won’t last forever. Phineas is simply brilliant at organising all he can think of, moving patients and giving directions to his staff, but despite all their efforts and the relatively quick passage of Jezebel, a hard time is ahead of them, made of difficult choices, unbearable heat, no water, no sleep, barely any food. Help will arrive but it will only bring Phineas to a court of justice, his reputation smeared with the accusation of euthanising some of his patients.

Breath and Mercy is a brilliant book, full of plot twists and unexpected events. The way some events are shaped and presented is so relatable. HIV, for example, still scares older generations – both the ones who saw it happen in real time and the ones right after, who grew up in the fear of the disease. It also resonates with a younger public; think about Covid: no one knew what it was, what to do and we could only powerlessly look at people dying. On the other hand, there is the humanity of doctors: we almost look up to them as if they were gods and had all the answers and could fix anything, not realising that they are people, they see terrible things and take incredible decisions and are required to do it everyday and move on to the next patient. I think that telling a doctor’s story from the voice of someone who has been there is simply brilliant (Mark himself was an Associate Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Duke University).

However, there are times when the drama of it all doesn’t come across in all its brutality. I would have loved a touch more pathos, perhaps digging deeper in the testing, desperate and hopeful moments that are typical of any hospital, along with the smell of disinfectant and the cheap linoleum flooring. As much as we don’t want to scare our readers off, some stories deserve to be told in all their ugly details.

Other than that, it’s a brilliant book that I loved reading. It’s a dramatic story told with a very light touch and an incredible ear for words and constructions, making the hand of the writer disappear completely behind a curtain, letting the reader enjoy the ups and downs of human lives with a pinch of irony and a bittersweet insight on the medical profession and all the challenges medical staff have to face.

Breath and Mercy is available for purchase at:

About Mark Anthony Powers

Mark Anthony Powers grew up in the small town of West Lebanon, NH. At Cornell University, he strayed into Russian and Creative Writing while majoring in engineering. After receiving his MD from Dartmouth, he went south to the University of North Carolina for an internship and residency in Internal Medicine, followed by a fellowship in Pulmonary Diseases and Critical Care Medicine. 

After almost forty years in clinical practice and teaching, he retired from Duke University as an Associate Professor Emeritus of Medicine and began his exploration of other parts of his brain. Writing, gardening, IT, and magic courses were just some of the enjoyment that followed. A deep dive into beekeeping led to his presidency of the county beekeeping association and certification as a Master Beekeeper. Two cups of coffee and two hours of writing most mornings produced A Swarm in May and other works. To learn more or connect with Mark, please visit (Source:


Secrets of the Volkovs

Book One of the Secret Series, a trilogy by Ellie Jay

Secrets of the Volkovs – The Secret Series (Book One). Ellie Jay, 2021.

Do what you have to do to survive in a world where everyone is your enemy“.

Antonin Jelennski is a young, ambitious police officer originally from Moscow who has been given his first solo undercover assignment in the town of Yaroslavl, 173 miles away from home. He is tasked with investigating the Volkovs, a local family allegedly running mysterious criminal activities – an actual plan for world domination nonetheless. Despite receiving help from the inside by Daryia, daughter of the family patriarch, Anton will soon find himself in over his head, the investigation made more challenging by an omnipresent, omniscient, viciously persistent Vladimir Volkov, his huge progeny and a mole within the local police department, putting Anton’s own family in mortal danger. Will justice prevail or was it too much to handle for our hero?

Secrets of the Volkovs is the first book of the Secret Series trilogy by English author Ellie Jay, a fast-paced story masterfully built through robust dialogues, very easy to read and written in an informal, unpretentious language that is honestly a breath of fresh air.

The book could probably have done with an additional reading and further editing, as typos and repetitions sometimes stand in the way of fluency. Descriptions could also be improved, to make the story more powerful. For example, there is hardly any reference to the space the main characters move within, except for a couple of brief, generic descriptions, leaving the reader to figure it out by themselves. The story could actually take place anywhere in the world, which is a shame, as the Russian winter setting is an interesting narrative choice.

Character development could also be improved: characters do have goals, face obstacles and conflict, but we hardly know anything about their background, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, or motivations informing their actions and decisions, elements that could give them further depth.

The overall impression is that Ellie Jay sees the world she is painting so clearly and vividly she sometimes forgets that the only way we can experience it as readers is through her own words. We strongly believe this book could have been absolutely magnificent if the author took more time to scratch beyond the surface of the story.

Having said that, the Volkovs saga does not stop here, so we cannot wait to tackle the rest of the series!

The Secret Series is available for purchase at:


Free Radical

The debut novel by Tyler Black

Free Radical. Friesen Press, 2021

What could possibly go wrong when your tech firm sends you abroad on a trip to Eastern Europe? Nothing, right? It’s just a work trip. Accommodation is already taken care of and you’ll surely find some fine company to keep you entertained.


Free Radical opens with James, who is also the narrator, sitting in an old truck filled with cigarette smoke and a lot of vodka, with one of his colleagues/companions of misfortunes, Kieran, and Valentine, their local guide. They’re waiting.

This already tragicomic situation will get worse before it gets better, as they say. The night before, over a lush feast and too much alcohol, the unlikely trio has taken the improbable decision to pack and go hunting “the Russian way”. This means, as we will soon find out, a lot of waiting in the truck, drinking and smoking and chatting. As much as James and Kieran are grateful for the hospitality, enclosing three such different personalities into a confined space for such a long time, adding Valentine’s linguistic barrier and the fact that Kieran is the stereotypical IT geek more interested in programming computers than surviving in polite society, is a recipe for disaster.

In a flashback chapter, we discover why James, Kieran and a bunch of other colleagues are in Estonia: they are working with a Japanese company, the Hayashi Corporation, on an Artificial Intelligence product called Taro, a dog-shaped robot. Taro is programmed to pair up with the owner’s voice, learn about their needs and provide for them before they ask for it. The team believes it’s a great idea that will help elderly people feeling less lonely and be taken care of at the same time. Estonia appears to be the perfect place to gain access to a suitable production plant and all the raw materials needed to build this top-of-the-range IT product.

The hunting trip takes a turn for the worse almost immediately: Kieran is shot by mistake and requires urgent medical attention. The trio therefore drives on frozen roads and the amount of alcohol Valentine downed doesn’t do any favours to his driving skills, culminating with them capsizing the car. They are lucky enough to come across an old couple of farmers leaving nearby who help them with basic first aid. In all this, Taro – who’s travelling with the party in Kieran’s backpack – is active and learning. After having been paired up with Kieran, it will actually find a solution for his master’s deteriorating mental and physical conditions, of which no one is aware of. 

How we went from a modern office in Canary Warf, London, to an isolated, snowy forest somewhere outside Tallin, Estonia, will be revealed chapter after chapter, in a ping-pong of scenes set in the present and immediate past. It actually takes a while to piece all the elements together and the temporal sequence of events is not always straightforward, making it difficult to follow the story at times. Overall, there’s a good balance between descriptions and narration, with dialogues sounding very natural, underlying the writer’s talent. However, the narration is sometimes weighed down by too many technical references, be it jargon, Russian talks or explanations on how computer programs work, which could be quite discouraging for computer novices or non-techies.

The story structure itself could benefit from a thorough polishing of the timeline: while I don’t mind a medias res opening (it’s actually greatly appreciated and a clever thing to do), there are too many back and forth in-between events that don’t seem to have a clear connection to one another until the end of the book. The risk is to lose the timid sci-fi reader, who may never get to the end to see how events are actually knitted together.

Characters composition, though, is great: they are so realistic they may seem the guy sitting three chairs down from yours in your office. As Black himself says in a back cover note, he took inspiration for many of his characters from people he actually met along the way, and that made, in my opinion, a big difference in their personification, making them lovable, laughable and relatable.

All things considered, I found it an interesting debut story, with its ups and downs. We always need to remember that even the best books are not perfect and while this one could do with extra editing, it’s an enjoyable, funny and gripping story that deserves a chance.

Free Radical is available for purchase on Amazon:

About Tyler Black

Tyler Black is an author currently based in Reading, Berkshire, England. Free Radical, his standalone debut, was inspired by two specific periods in his life: first, a backpacking trip that drew him to Estonia in the late 1990s, preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, and his experience of the chaos of that short-lived period; and second, a two-year stint in the UK’s tech industry that lapsed into decades, and which allowed him to pick between the teeth of the corporate beast and glean much from colleagues’ treatment of others. Many friends were made along the way, and many sights seen, all of which shaped his writing and the characters he crafted.


7 Reasons Why Reading is Good for You

Investigating the science on the benefits of reading for National Read a Book Day (6th September 2022)

Today is National Read a Book Day, an annual awareness day to encourage people to take a break and start reading. This day is not about finishing a book from cover to cover in 24 hours (even though we won’t mind if you do), but about spending at least a few minutes of the day reading. For this reason, we thought we’d try to understand – from a scientific perspective – why reading is good for you and how it can help improve your overall health. Here’s 7 reasons:

# 1: Increased brain strength

Using MRI scans, researchers found that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. These get stronger and more complex as your reading ability improves. In addition, the brain appears to be increasingly stimulated as the tension within a story builds up. This positive effect lasts for days after the reading period. 

# 2: Increased ability to empathise

Reading literary fiction long-term (stories exploring the inner lives of characters) contributes to an enhanced ability to understand feelings and beliefs of others, an effect called theory of mind”, i.e. a skillset essential for building, navigating, and maintaining social relationships.

# 3: Reduces stress

A 2009 piece of research measuring the effects of yoga, humour and reading on stress levels of science students found that 30 minutes of daily reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humour. A routine that’s easy to incorporate into everyone’s daily schedule, don’t you think? 

# 4: Helps alleviate depression symptoms

People with depression often feel isolated and estranged from everyone else, a feeling books can help mitigate. Reading fiction allows to temporarily escape your own world and lose yourself in the imagined experiences of the characters. Nonfiction, self-help books could also be useful to learn strategies to manage depression symptoms.

# 5: Prepares you for a good night’s rest

Reading before going to sleep can help you relax significantly and should be part of a good sleep routine. It is advisable to choose a print book over a screen, since the light could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes. If you have trouble falling asleep, you should consider reading somewhere other than the bedroom.

# 6: Helps prevent age-related cognitive decline & potentially help you live longer 

Studies show that seniors who read and solve math problems daily maintain and improve their cognitive functioning. Those who have engaged in mentally stimulating activities all their lives are less likely to develop the lesions found in the brains of people with dementia. Research conducted on a sample of over 3,500 people also showed that those who read books survived around 2 years longer than those who didn’t. People who read over 3.5 hours a week are 23% more likely to live longer. 

# 7: And remember: flipping pages is good for you! 

Studies have shown repeatedly that people who read print books score higher on comprehension tests and remember more of what they read than people who read the same material in a digital form. That may be, in part, because people tend to read print slower than they read digital content.

Disclaimer: The above article is for informative and entertainment purposes only and does not constitute medical advice.


  1. Benefits of Reading Books: How It Can Positively Affect Your Life. Available at:
  2. Why Should You Read Every Day: Scientific Benefits of Reading Books. Available at:
  3. The science-based benefits of reading. Available at:

The Reaper Chronicles (Book One & Two)

The Reaper’s Quota and Chasing the Reaper by Sarah McKnight 

“I want to be human again. I want another chance to live life the right way, without going into a murderous rage. I think I’m perfectly capable of pulling that off if I ever get the chance”. 

The Reaper’s Quota starts in medias res by introducing Grim Reaper #2497 (who suspects he was called Steve in a previous life, because “it just feels right”). He’s behind with completing his monthly 30 Random Deaths quota and faces extermination if he does not meet his targets. While he understands how critical his situation is, Steve is also a Grim Reaper with a conscience, struggling to come to terms with the fact that he needs to kill additional humans for fundamentally no reason. However, work is work so he sets on a worldwide journey – physical, metaphysical and spiritual – to find his victims, always looking for a good motive to terminate them, making sense of life (or death, more specifically). During this journey, he encounters all sorts of humanity: good, harmless people, evil people, not so remarkable people, until he meets somebody who can actually see him, changing his afterlife forever (pun intended). Spoiler alert: Book One ends with a cliffhanger. 

In Chasing the Reaper, Steven Kelton from Indiana (it was his name after all) gets the second shot at life he was hoping for, starting from when he left off. However, he cannot remember anything about his previous human life (let alone his Reaper life) and doesn’t understand why, mistaking a trauma he doesn’t know he had for a midlife crisis. He is also gifted with the ability to see Grim Reapers, which really unsettles him – to the point that he starts seeing a psychiatrist. In his quest for logical explanations and answers to the meaning of life he’s so desperately trying to grasp, he will find love and start the most surreal exchange with Reaper #1632 who constantly follows him around (for circumstances we cannot explain without additional spoilers). His past as a reaper will eventually catch up with him, leaving Steve to make the most difficult decision of his life. 

The Reaper Chronicles is an extremely well written series, the two stories intertwined in a subtle, clever way, every scene flowing seamlessly into another, taking the reader on a journey. It is incredible how Sarah McKnight managed to pack so much action into only 200 pages of writing! In more than one occasion, the story brought a tear to my eye and I found myself hoping that Steve would ultimately find happiness and meaning. His character is the ultimate positive hero that everybody can’t help but cheer on.

While McKnight manages to keep the tension up for most of the narration with imaginative, vivid descriptions and masterful dark humor, there are some slow moments that could have done with a bit less detail (especially in Book One). However, she presents a slow and steady stream of events that make the reading very pleasant.

My advice to you, dearest reader: if you have 24 hours to spare, do put your hands on a copy of both and start reading NOW. You won’t be able to stop.

The Reaper Chronicles Series is available for purchase at:

About Sarah McKnight

Sarah McKnight has been writing stories since she could pick up a pencil, and it often got her in trouble during math class. After a brief stint teaching English to unruly middle schoolers in Japan, she decided she wasn’t going to put off her dream of becoming a writer any longer and set to work. With several novels in the making, she hopes to tackle issues such as anxiety, depression, and letting go of the past – with a little humor sprinkled in, too. A St. Louis native, she currently lives in Pennsylvania with her wonderful husband and three cats.