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The Summerlands: A Mystical Tale of Angels, Elementals, the Afterlife, and Souls on Missions
Susan Butler Colwell
Debut author Colwell hits the ground running with this quirkily endearing magical metaphysical fantasy that delves deeply into nothing less than the construction of the universe. At twenty-one, Sera Parker finds her way from the palatial Sherman Hill orphanage of her youth to Leesburg, Virginia, guided by the only mother-figure she’s known, Celeste, and her own intuition. Upon arrival, she finds herself among curiously familiar strangers until the day her true memories and self come back to her -- in truth, she’s surrounded by people she’s loved since time immemorial. What follows is a thrill-ride of discovery as she faces the mysteries of who she is, why she’s missing memories, and just what, exactly, her role will be in the battle between the forces of light and dark.

In an epic feat of world-building, the author delicately balances action with herculean amounts of exposition. While some of the large swaths of information, covering angels, demons, elementals, and souls, can be overwhelming, bogging down the narrative flow, Colwell takes exceptional effort to ensure readers are fully immersed in Sera and her journey, even when the story meanders. Interactions in the Summerlands and some situations -- telepathically chatting over ice cream with an elder in the form of an Earth-plane dog, for example -- may come across to some readers as over the top, though it’s just that embrace of possibilities that marks the boundaries among the realms.

One of the most appealing aspects of the novel, aside from its beautifully rendered expressions of emotion, is the unique blend of science fiction and somewhat simplistic metaphysics combined with the relatable psychology of a person rediscovering and exploring their own identity. That, in conjunction with the artfully sketched cast of secondary characters, helps create the start of a series as endearing as it is thoughtful. Cleverly added musical and pop culture references also add a pop of surprise delight.

Takeaway: This debut novel, first in a planned series, offers an engaging blend of science-fiction, metaphysics and fantasy centered around the exploration of self.

Great for fans of: Devon Monk’s Ordinary Magic series, Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: C

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No Birds Sing Here
Daniel V. Meier, Jr.
In this humorous rebuke of faux intellectualism, two misguided individuals set out on a journey to discover what it means to be an artist. Beckman is a wannabe author and psychokinetic who spends his time re-reading his own work, dreaming about the future, and causing trouble. Malany is a poet with manufactured success who maintains a devoted asceticism, abstaining from all forms of excess. Both are fleeing their former lives: Beckman refuses to follow in his lawyer father’s footsteps, while Malany avoids her doting, wealthy husband. The two embark on a transcontinental odyssey, pretending to be established writers in small towns across the U.S. From disapproving rednecks to shallow and hedonistic academics, the couple encounter a cast of characters as lost as they are, unhappy with their circumstances but unable to transcend them.

Meier (The Dung Beetles of Liberia) has written a scathing satire, a critique of empty artistry. Through Beckman and Malany, he explores the identities of two annoyingly inauthentic people. Although a self-professed writer, Beckman never produces anything throughout the story, waiting for the “right” experience to spark his inspiration. Malany, though devoted to her work, is not the radical she appears to be, hiding her true origins to maintain a façade of independence. Because the two main characters are so self-serious, the book is often funny. Even more minor characters put on airs to an amusing extent: A pool shark’s crafted machismo hides the secret of his sexuality, while a professor’s wife playacts as various literary figures. No one is likeable, which limits the novel’s audience but also seems to be the point.

The prose can be flowery (“He sat on the edge, shivering for a long time, steeped in wordless disgust at his present condition in life”), but with Beckman as the protagonist, the oft-pretentious descriptions play as comic. However, less successful sentences (“He pretended anger, but Herschel, with omnificent impenetrability, looked as insular as a priest who had just performed Mass”) can be choppy and difficult to read. For the most part, however, the satire lands, and the story is fast-paced and thought-provoking.

Takeaway: This satirical novel’s social critique swipes amusingly at writerly pretensions and small towns full of secrets.

Great for fans of: Virginie Despentes's Vernon Subutex, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

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Avocado the Turtle : The One and Only
Kiara Shankar, Vinay Shankar
In this uplifting tale of personal acceptance, a boisterous turtle, rejected by her peers, finds a new group of friends by being herself. Avocado was born different from the other turtles around her: Her name is peculiar, her extroversion pushes others away, and her attempts at conversation fall flat -- turtles prefer to hide in their shells. When her community chooses to banish her, she responds by finally trying to conform to their standards, hiding inside her own shell. But a chance encounter with a new group of friends, who like her exactly as she is teaches her the power of owning her uniqueness.

Avantika Mishra’s illustrations add a 3D pop and a welcome splash of color, capturing the emotions of Avocado’s banishment, her period of exile, and her happy life with her newfound friends. The lushly colored backgrounds, cute animals, and appealing nature imagery give children a lot to look at, though as the story goes on both the story and the illustrations veer into the repetitive, such as the several pages of Avocado visiting and strolling with a giraffe, a pig, and a bee.

The Shankars, a father-daughter writing team, have imbued this short tale with a lot of heart. The story of a dejected turtle regaining her confidence is easy to understand and relate to. Unfortunately, with subject matter that is so well-covered, the narrative often lacks the engaging specificity of the best picture books. The tale, told from a removed third-person perspective, concerns the ways that animals treat each other in conversation, but Avocado the Turtle offers few instances of dialogue and no direct interactions between Avocado and the other turtles, whose choice to exile her is breezily summarized. Still, the lesson is as important as ever, and Avocado’s journey to acceptance is a helpful and heartfelt reminder for children of all ages.

Takeaway: This simple tale of a misfit turtle offers a charming lesson to children about the importance of self-acceptance.

Great for fans of: Dan Bar-El’s Not Your Typical Dragon, Leslie Helakoski’s Woolbur, Helen Lester’s Tacky the Penguin.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: B
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

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The Restructuring: Who Are You?
J.L. Stafford
One part self-help, one part self-reflection, and one part affirmation, Stafford’s raw, engaging debut collection of poetry delves deep into the mind, heart, and soul. In direct, even simple language, Stafford challenges readers to dig into their emotions and take a hard look at what they’re truly feeling, writing “Being guided by the fear that the hurt will not go away is how we practice avoidance today.” The collection touches on themes of fear, trust, acceptance, and hope in a style that pushes the reader, through inquiry and encouragement, to face themselves. Stafford makes clear that such self investigation need not be harrowing, advising readers to “Examine yourself with compassion.”

Stafford offers guidance on how to cope, how to center, and how to focus on healing through embracing emotions head on. At times, as Stafford reinforces these ideas, the language and advice become repetitious, but readers will still take away sound tips and memorable quotations to apply in moments of self-doubt or when feeling overwhelmed. This collection would pair well with readers who like to journal, as the questions woven throughout (“Can you acknowledge the source of your discomfort?”) could serve as inspiring prompts.

The collection opens with a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and poet, that sums up what Stafford offers in the pages to come: "People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar." Featuring prose passages about self talk and visualization, this collection strikes an inspiring and uplifting tone throughout. Though it lacks much of the metaphor, imagery, and rich language of most poetry collections, The Restructuring will resonate with fans of the increasingly popular style of micropoetry favored by Instagram poets due to the length of the pieces, the concision of the ideas, and the freeness of form.

Takeaway: This encouraging collection of poetry urges readers toward self-discovery and doing the homework -- on themselves.

Great for fans of: Amanda Lovelace, R.H. Sin.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B

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Adventure in Pico Bonito
M.G. Alonzo Cortes
The vibrant debut from Alonzo Cortés, Adventure celebrates in vivid oil paintings the wildlife of Honduras’ most famous national park, the sprawling Pico Bonito, whose name means “beautiful peak.” The simple narrative follows a Honduran family and a guide on an excursion through the park. Siblings Olguita and Oscarito face occasional fears (Oscarito needs help crossing a stream but is excited at the prospect of bragging to friends about a minor scorpion sting), but the adventure overall is joyous, with the kids dazzled by animals, awed by a waterfall, and pleased to feast on rainforest fruits. The story concludes with didactic dialogue about the urgency to protect wildlife and practice balanced and sustainable tourism.

The primary appeal of Adventure is in Alonzo Cortés’ thirty-plus paintings of Pico Bonito’s colorful residents. Her butterflies and beetles burst from the page; her jaguars and snakes stir a sense of respect and mystery rather than fear; and with thick brushstrokes and inspired layerings of paints she evokes the textures of the plumage of her aracari and hummingbirds. The storytelling is less accomplished and more generic, and it’s done no favors by the book’s layout, which presents many of these paintings in one section, in the middle of the story, a point of disconnection between the narrative and the imagery.

That layout encourages readers to take in the few pages of prose in somewhat lengthy bursts, with the paintings coming pages later, after the story has moved on. Since those animals and incidents are at times vaguely described, the story doesn’t fire the imagination as powerfully as it would if text and paintings worked in unison. In prose, this trek into the majesty of nature is sweet but not inspired. The paintings, though, will bring readers to that beautiful peak.

Takeaway: Dynamic paintings of rain forest wildlife make this picture book journey into a Honduras park a memorable trip

Great for fans of: Yossi Lapid’s Yara's Tamari Tree, Anthony D. Fredericks’ “A is for Anaconda: A Rainforest Alphabet”

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: C
Illustrations: A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B+

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Jacobo's Rainbow
David Hirshberg
David Hirshberg (My Mother’s Son) crafts a detailed, painstaking portrait of the 1960’s student protest movements, through the eyes of protagonist Jacobo Toledano, who grew up in the secluded paradise of Arroyo Grande, a village of eight close-knit families in west-central New Mexico. The community is isolated, but Jacobo and his family do not see this as a “hardship”; their seclusion keeps them safe from the prejudices of greater society, fostering community and self-reliance. Jacobo leaves home for the fictional University of Taos, where he learns the language of current events, pop culture, protest, and even romance from his radical new friends: cult personality Myles, headstrong Claudia, wise Herzl, and photographer Mir. When these friends organize a Free Speech protest that leads to police hostages and the occupation of campus building Kettys-Burg Hall, Jacobo is forced to reckon with the true nature of protest and the hypocrisy of egocentric activism.

Hirshberg leaves no stone unturned in this engaging study of youthful idealism and adult understanding. The story unfolds through the recordings of Jacobo in retrospect, and Hirshberg often employs foreshadowing techniques to insert adult Jacobo’s reflections into his recounting of the events at Kettys-Burg Hall. Artful characterization illuminates each characters’ true motivations in joining the Free Speech Movement, revealing the ways that “group dynamics play such an underreported part in how we behave.” Hirshberg balances this analysis with suspense, romantic entanglements, twists about Jacobo’s past, and a sure hand for vivid simile.

Just like the novel’s rainbow motif, which touches its clothes, houses, mirrors, and visions of nature, Jacobo’s sound moral compass and commitment to justice are the story’s constants, even as the plot thickens. Readers may, at times, wish Jacobo would stay in the isolated safety of Arroyo Grande, but also cheer him on as he eschews complacency and commits to bettering the lives of those outside of his village.

Takeaway: Contemporary activists will see key parallels to today in this resonant story of the 1960’s idealism and protest.

Great for fans of: Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, John Sayles’ Union Dues/.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

Click here for more about Jacobo's Rainbow
Playing Soldier
F. Scott Service
Iraq War veteran Service (Lines in the Sand) delivers a blistering rebuke to the military with this extraordinary war (and peace) memoir. “A lot of war stories begin with heroes,” Service writes, explaining that discovering his father’s old field jacket from the Korean War as a child sparked an interest in the military and a fervent wish to become a hero himself. After marrying his college sweetheart, Rita, and settling in Montana, Service committed to the Army National Guard, expecting to be a weekend warrior after his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. But the military had other plans for him: Service promptly shipped off to Iraq (after flirting with the idea of being a conscientious objector). What Service eventually came back to on the homefront was an overturned life — a divorce, brief homelessness, and a near run-in with suicide.

Service dishes up brutal honesty about how, during his active duty in Iraq, his disillusionment with the military and its mission festered. His luminous, illustrative prose (“A lush garden of fear. An empty desert of courage”) paints vivid word-pictures: readers will feel the grit of the Iraqi sand, the unrelenting heat of the sun, and the constant fear of imminent death. They’ll taste the contraband booze and relive the devastating moment when Service’s wife lambasts him with divorce papers.

The most terrifying content — when Service ends up with his gun in his mouth, intent on pulling the trigger— will be triggering for some readers. However, Service’s account stands as a crystal-clear example of the mindset many returning soldiers experience. Playing Soldier offers a stark reminder of the urgency of mental health awareness and treatment— particularly for veterans with PTSD. Any returning veteran will glimpse themselves on every page, and Service’s insights will minister to those who have loved ones facing similar struggles.

Takeaway: This candid and moving memoir cuts through often-romanticized ideas of military life of the military with its consideration of the true meaning of service.

Great for fans of: Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July, James Webb’s Fields of Fire, John “Chick” Donohue and J.T. Molloy’s The Greatest Beer Run Ever.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A+
Marketing copy: A

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Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists
Christine Shields Corrigan
Corrigan, a contributor to numerous nonfiction anthologies, delivers a raw, honest telling of surviving cancer in this moving memoir. Through a firsthand account of her diagnosis and her aches and pains, worries and hopes, she details her battle with an illness that is too rarely discussed with such frank intimacy. Corrigan seamlessly transitions from flashbacks of her first run in with the Beast (her private name for cancer) as a fourteen year old girl diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, to her adult experience facing breast cancer.

The inspiring Again exemplifies Toni Morrison’s insistence that "If there's a book you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Corrigan writes that she “wanted a trail map” when faced with her second diagnosis, one that offered valuable insight to cancer victims and reveals the formidable role that a loving support system plays in recovery. Each reflective chapter offers an account of a milestone in Corrigan’s treatment, with "The Practical Reality" sections offering hard-won advice, like “take your spouse, partner, family member, or trusted friend with you to your appointments.”

Corrigan's writing style is clear and relatable, eschewing medical jargon. Readers will feel like old friends as she pulls them in with her quirky to-do lists at the beginning of each chapter—such as “Listen to James comment on my incessant need to over-explain”—and shares her daily thoughts and activities: “I needed to make sure lunches were made, schedules kept, and deadlines met, all while dealing with chemotherapy, its side effects, surgeries, and their recoveries.” This unflinching story of strength and vulnerability pairs the practical with a heartfelt glimpse into the inner workings of healing. Corrigan has mapped out a touching journey and a helpful guide for anyone who has had to deal with cancer, through their own diagnosis or the diagnosis of a loved one.

Takeaway: This honest, warmly emotional memoir maps out a welcome practical roadmap for readers and loved ones facing a cancer diagnosis.

Great for fans of: Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks, Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A+
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A+

Apocalypse: Here and Now! Are You Ready?
Betsy Fritcha
A certain practicality stands as a hallmark of Fritcha’s brief analysis of biblical prophecy and world events. Her study of the Old Testament prophets and analysis of the Bible’s promise of a day of holy justice rapidly pivots into addressing the particular questions readers may have about the end times and other apocalyptic mysteries: What precisely does the ‘mark of the beast’ signify? Who are the Nephilim -- the “fallen angels” -- mentioned in the book of Genesis? And is it possible for believers today to draw on the power of God for miracles? Fritcha’s overall aim with her analysis, though, is not to offer her own answers but to draw readers to hear and heed what she calls the “one voice of TRUTH.”

In her discussion of the Mark of the Beast and the Nephilim, Fritcha is clear in her explanation of difficult-to-understand texts. Particularly enlightening is her listing of other resources to encourage readers to grow in understanding by studying for themselves. Her emphasis as the book closes shifts to asking readers to make a fundamental choice – to accept God and be prepared for a day of judgement.

Fritcha uses idiosyncratic capitalization to refer to God and certain virtues. Although she explains this choice in the introduction (“GOD, TRUTH and LOVE are fully capitalized…”), readers will likely find themselves more distracted than edified. Her examinations of prophetic stories and (sometimes extensively quoted) passages from scripture are less exegetical than inspirational, as she launches from them into her own musings on the nature of God or God’s relation to creation in the past, present, and future. Her goal, she notes, is to drive the reader to the Bible themselves so that they may arrive at their own understanding of what she would call TRUTH. In Apocalypse, readers will find a passionate cry to explore scripture combined with some specific biblical interpretation.

Takeaway: Christians seeking a passionate call to choose God will find it in Betsy Fritcha’s slightly idiosyncratic study of biblical prophecy.

Great for fans of: Dennis Mather’s What in the World Is Going to Happen, Jimmy Evans’ Tipping Point

Production grades
Cover: C-
Design and typography: C
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: C

Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation
Joseph N. Abraham MD
Joseph N. Abraham’s debut aims to answer a pressing question: “Why do we have a great capacity for logic within certain contexts but refuse to apply that capacity in other contexts?” Spurred by the dismissal of his scientific arguments by leading authorities, Abraham, an emergency room physician, has turned his training in “negative data” to the global history of conquest and monarchy, examining our tendency towards illogical thinking -- especially humanity’s historical bad habit of supporting the rule of authoritarian leaders. Abraham contends that everything we’ve been taught about history is flawed because historians and laymen alike have failed to recognize that civilization is built upon narcissism and psychopathy. He cites supporting examples as varied as Hercules, Aragorn, Al Capone, ancient Rome, Pol Pot, and contemporary corporations.

Lovers of pop history will find much to enjoy in this cultural history’s ten entertaining chapters. The connection he draws between ancient conquerors and modern mob bosses and corporations is fascinating, and his efforts at reading the past through modern psychology produce interesting insights. Professionally trained historians will be frustrated by his reliance on Whiggish periodization and sweeping generalizations, while readers of premodern literature and theology may wonder why those texts, detailing the horrors and pleasures of conquest, are absent from Abraham’s analysis.

Abraham anticipates some of these critiques, presenting them as further evidence for his argument precisely because it upends prevailing scholarship. In this way, Kings reads as much as an attempt to provoke discussion as to prove its thesis. Yet Abraham doesn’t simply put forth a historical account. His work is a call-to-arms urging readers to assert power over our political system to consign to the past the psychopathy that has shaped our culture. Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths is a concise, compelling, and challenging exploration of how humanity became what it is.

Takeaway: Abraham’s entertaining and informative debut will inspire readers to rethink why humanity embraces authoritarian leaders.

Great for fans of: Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy; Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B+

Click here for more about Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths
Wrath Child: A Supernatural Thriller
Erik Henry Vick
Vick (The Bloodletter Chronicles) weaves a suspenseful web of gore and horror in this supernatural thriller. Special Agent Gavin Gregory of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit is about to take an extended vacation to rebuild his marriage when a notorious serial killer known as The Smith resurfaces from a killing-spree hiatus. Gavin knows this killer well and is put on the case, but quickly discovers he’s in over his head. Enter Deborah Esteves, a psychiatrist who treated The Smith in 2014 and has developed some surprising theories about the eerie psychic phenomena that may have complicated her past work with violent patients. With Deborah’s help, Gavin must catch the killer before the killer catches another victim.

Vick masters the balance between external and internal stakes as an abundance of characters bring this gritty murder suspense to life. The events unfold along three timelines—2004, 2014, and the present—with the narrative gracefully crossing between them while delving deep into The Smith’s psychological unraveling. Some readers might find keeping track of the large cast frustrating, especially with the regular point-of-view shifts, but the skillfully crafted internal struggles of key characters create an emotional and sympathetic connection that will keep fans engaged and flipping the pages. Foreboding hints of the supernatural loom from start to finish, certain to delight both horror and thriller enthusiasts.

Vick is a seasoned writer who doesn’t hold back. His opening line (“The alley stank of garbage and human waste and blood and imminent death”) demonstrates his ability to evoke the senses and paint a visceral scene -- and alerts readers that the story to come contains a fair amount of gore and disturbing images. The well-crafted plot, memorable characters, and decidedly wicked villain will linger long after the last page is turned. Those looking for an engrossing supernatural thriller containing high stakes will find much to enjoy.

Takeaway: Supernatural thriller and horror fans who don’t mind a bit of gore will get caught up in this smartly plotted thriller with memorable characters.

Great for fans of: John Connolly’s A Book of Bones, Vaughn C. Hardacker’s Wendigo

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A-

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Orange City
Lee Matthew Goldberg
In this ambitious dystopian series debut, Goldberg (The Ancestor) explores life in the mysterious “City,” a second chance for outcasts, criminals, and the otherwise desperate. The Man, an elongated, many-limbed human being, overlooks the City’s inhabitants from a looming tower, holding them accountable and keeping them productive. Residents who slack off or disobey get banished to one of the many Empty Zones, left to rot among the starving and depraved. The story kicks off when City resident Graham Weatherend, a neurotic adman, agrees to sample a new soda product for his boss and experiences surprising mood swings. As he becomes increasingly dependent on the soda to live, he unravels a wide-reaching conspiracy, uncovering the City’s dark origins and his own place in the Man’s schemes.

Goldberg gives an original spin to well-worn science fiction concepts (surveillance, conformity, drug use, automation). The sodas Graham drinks are both hallucinatory and mood-altering, and the City more like a Panopticon — residents live in fear of being seen, even when they are possibly safe. However, because the novel tackles so many high-concept ideas, the narrative can feel disjointed. Seemingly important details (an early storyline involving lucid dreaming, for example) get explored briefly and then retired.

Graham is a character with a lot to lose (his banishment to the Zones would mean certain death), one readers will find it easy to root for. Goldberg’s skillful prose adapts to the changing moods of his protagonist. During a particularly lustful moment, Graham hears a woman’s voice “so throaty and alluring that he wanted to climb inside the cave of her mouth and spelunk,” a description that is the perfect balance of shameful and compelling. With its tragic protagonist and new take on illicit drugs, this daring first installment will appeal to fans of smart dystopian fiction.

Takeaway: This hair-rising science fiction novel is perfect for fans of layered conspiracies, altered reality, and eerie dystopias.

Great for fans of: Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A

Click here for more about Orange City
Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient
John Holliday
This historic biography surveys the life of the missionary, publisher, and adventurer Walter Medhurst, an ancestor of Holliday’s, and celebrates his work to introduce western religion, medicine, and education to China in the 19th century. Medhurst began his life in a large coach inn between South Wales and London. That start offered little indication of the distances he would travel as a printer, writer, and minister for the London Missionary Society (LMS), part of the Evangelical movement that swept England in the 1800s. As China opened up to outsiders following the First Opium War, Medhurst, eager to spread the word of God, moved to Shanghai. There he established churches, schools, and a hospital that still exists as a major medical facility; he also translated the Bible into Chinese and distributed thousands of copies.

Medhurst’s life covers a fascinating period in the tumultuous East-West relationship as Western nations sought to build empires as China crumbled internally while firebrand Christians were intent on bringing their brand of religion to all parts of Asia. Holliday’s account surveys the major upheavals and changes in China, including war with the British, the Taiping Rebellion, and the scourge of opium. Medhurst crusaded against the illegal but widely accepted opium trade by exposing in official reports both the terrors of addiction and the stakeholders who profited from it, such as the East India Company.

While Medhurst and his mission of spreading his faith -- especially through print -- throughout China during the waning days of the Quing dynasty are fascinating in and of themselves, some occasionally stilted prose make for difficult reading at times. The author’s enthusiasm, an abundance of compelling period detail, and the sheer determination Medhurst and his family showed in the face of tragedy gives history- and mission-minded readers good reason to follow this journey to its end.

Takeaway:This uneven biography of evangelist Walter Medhurst’s work in 19th century China will appeal to students of missionary Christianity.

Great for fans of: Stephen R. Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War or Jonathon D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of the Xiuquan.

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The Eyemonger
Daniel J Solove
Tiptoeing the line between oddball fantasy and horror, Solove debuts in children’s literature with an age-appropriate, delightfully illustrated story concerned with issues of privacy. An unsettling, eyeball-covered stranger calling himself the Eyemonger arrives on a small urban island and proposes that he take over this cobblestone city’s security. The townspeople, delighted, immediately take him up on the offer. After all, thanks to his abundance of eyes, he promises to “surely make everyone all get along” and “fully prevent all that is wrong.” The Eyemonger embarks on an intrusive quest, using not only his own eyes but also a small army of flying eyeballs, to infiltrate every inch of the town and stop all wrongdoing at its source. But the oppression of constant surveillance weighs heavily on the town until a young artist named Griffin takes a stand and refuses to be bullied.

Solove’s underlying theme and catchy rhymes sit perfectly on the cusp of children’s and middle-grade reading levels, and Beckwith’s eye-catching and brilliantly detailed illustrations will inspire young imaginations to soar. Solove’s background in privacy law is on clear display through the clever manipulation of the Eyemonger—who preaches “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”—until he at last understands that inspiration and creativity come to a standstill under his vigilance. The topic and the somewhat horrific countenance of the Eyemonger will be too intense for some young readers but will likely spark interest and discussion in middle-grade audiences.

Beckwith’s evocative illustrations create a gaslit, vaguely steampunk mood that will remind readers of classic adventure tales even as the story takes on complex themes of consent and creativity. Despite the divergence from more traditional storybook lessons, the concept of government overreach presented in this uniquely cautionary fantasy will educate children and their caregivers as well.

Takeaway: A beautifully illustrated and curious tale cautioning readers of all ages about the importance of privacy.

Great for fans of: Kobi Yamada’s What Do You Do With A Problem? and Chris Riddell’s My Little Book of Big Freedoms.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A+
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B-

Click here for more about The Eyemonger
The Desolate Homestead: The Montana Series: Book I
Donnie Vakarian
Vakarian’s auspicious debut novel — the first in his Montana Series — is set in the late 19th century and largely on the two square miles of western land owned by widower Tom Dowdy, a loner who has trouble with Daly, the local sheriff. When he discovers Abe Cooper, a wounded former ranch hand, hiding out on his property, Tom is initially wary. But he’s attracted to Abe, who is also “interested in men.” Abe is wanted by Daly for killing a man, but he claims it was self-defense. As Tom provides risky sanctuary and tends to Abe’s wounds, a romance develops. Tom dreams of building a life with Abe, but a bounty on Abe’s head and Tom’s need to bring on workers may jeopardize their happiness.

Vakarian makes Tom a smart, endearing protagonist who proves perceptive sizing up Abe — and judicious when talking with homophobic Sheriff Daly, who suspects Abe is on his property. Tom is comfortable with his sexuality, longing for a past lover, Matthew, and uninhibited when coupling up with Abe. The author persuasively depicts the realities of farm and frontier life, and Western terms (yannigan, sawbones, picket pin) create a sense of authenticity. The sheriff may be hissable, one-note villain, but Vakarian makes some shrewd observations about queer life, and allows for engaging ambiguity in Abe’s character.

The plot is compelling enough that readers may feel short changed when it ends abruptly. The abundant erotic passages certainly flesh out the same-sex relationship, a pairing that readers will hope survives, but the lengthy, frequent and explicit sex scenes threaten to overwhelm this thin Western. Vakarian’s effort to appeal at once to readers of historical fiction, m/m romance, and erotica will likely disappoint one of those audiences. Otherwise, this is a terrific start to a series that will have readers craving more.

Takeaway: This explicit gay frontier romance is stimulating, likable, and certain to leave its audience wanting more.

Great for fans of: Cowboys: Gay Erotic Tales, edited by Tom Graham.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B-
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: B+

Click here for more about The Desolate Homestead
Enemy of Humanity
Jubei Raziel
Filmmaker and photographer Raziel eviscerates organized religion. With a laser focus on the fundamentals of Christianity and the contents of the Bible, Raziel promises to “make the most authoritative case against the world’s greatest religion, Christianity” and then strives to persuade readers of the faith’s misconceptions, contradictions, “arrogance,” and “delusional superiority.” He argues that the majority of Christian scripture is blatantly fictional, a collection of myths pirated from more ancient texts. In plentiful asides he skewers a capitalist bent in Christianity today and even presents the hypothesis that “following and practicing Christianity likely increases the probability of becoming diagnosed with a mental disorder.”

The caustic tone will be off-putting to many readers, particularly devout ones, though this intense criticism of faith will resonate with the religiously disenchanted. Raziel holds nothing back in his zealous disparagement, lobbing accusations of bullying, deception, and propaganda at Christian leaders while also labeling Christian beliefs “barbaric and cultish.” Despite Raziel’s claims that he will adhere strictly to scientific evidence, his treatise disappoints with its over-reliance on Encyclopedia Britannica, nearly word-for-word rewritings of Wikipedia, and exuberant jeering statements of personal opinion presented as established fact. Enemy of Humanity also gets sidetracked with withering, evidence-free digressions, such as a vague and hard-to-follow condemnation of David Barton, a Christian activist responsible for manufacturing what believers claim as “historic research.”

The strength of this scathing exposé lies in its clever demonstration of similarities between world religions and Raziel’s inclusion of useful suggestions for readers who find themselves at a religious crossroads. He offers concrete recommendations for other spiritual activities, including meditation, prayer and adaptation of religious rituals for everyday practice, to assist disillusioned Christians in their transition from organized faith. Equal parts derogatory and enthusiastic, this acerbic confrontation of religious beliefs is sure to spark animated dialogue and prompt intense speculation.

Takeaway: Anti-religious readers and dissatisfied believers will find an abundance of fuel for their fires in this blistering attack on organized religion.

Great for fans of: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great.

Production grades
Cover: C
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B-
Marketing copy: B-

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