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The Petrus Prophecy
Gary McAvoy with Ronald L. Moore
The swift, suspenseful third entry in McAvoy’s Vatican Secret Archives series again digs into sinister secrets, conspiracies, and prophecies—and the powerful men who will kill to protect them. At the heart of the mystery is “The Third Secret of Fatima,” the last in a string of proven prophecies, “a sacred mystery, tucked away in that most secure of papal vaults.” If phrasing like that, from the opening pages, seizes your imagination, then The Petrus Prophecy (like McAvoy’s Magdalene Chronicles series) will prove irresistible, especially as popes faint when reading the secret—and, in the novel’s present, a Jesuit scholar in Chicago dies as he’s writing a book that would disclose the Third Secret. The manuscript goes missing, and the investigation that follows will find Chicago police detective Rebecca Lancaster and co. crossing the globe, visiting abbeys and corpses, encountering zealots, riddles, and terrorist plots—and possibly facing a world-ending cataclysm from the heavens themselves.

McAvoy, working with Ronald L. Moore, hits the ground running in this propulsive thriller, which adeptly blends ancient mysteries and secret societies with contemporary procedural storytelling. The clues and surprises come quickly as Lancaster and her counterpart in Rome, the Carabinieri’s captain Sabrina Felici, race about in an old Ferrari that, as Felici puts it, “handles Rome’s chaotic traffic like a dominatrix.” Such character touches and a sense of playful fun keep the material from getting bleak or self-serious, even as the stakes prove biblical in scale.

Devotees of religious-secrets thrillers will find much here that’s engaging, if not exactly novel, as the heroes and their allies attempt not just to solve a murder but to learn the truth of the Third Secret—and eventually face the schemes of the Knights of the Apocalypse, a secret society of immense power who stirs a public frenzy with its revelations. The authors have revelations of their own, the welcome jolts and secrets that distinguish this series.

Takeaway: This superior Vatican conspiracy thriller puts a Chicago cop on the trail of an apocalyptic prophecy.

Great for fans of: Ray Keating, Peter Hogankamp.

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

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DAVID'S SLING
ANDREW CERONI
Ceroni (Meridian) offers a meat--and-potatoes spy thriller with a plot that focuses on personal vengeance more than international intrigue. The hero, CIA agent Dave McClure, is a nearly superhuman force of nature. He's faster, stronger, and smarter than his opponents. Tasked with assisting the FBI in tracking down a German terrorist group aided by Russia, he is forced to take on a rogue Russian agent who blames McClure for his brother's death. McClure and a team first have to deal with the German terrorists, who are plotting to kill a number of Olympic athletes in Colorado Springs. Then McClure has to go after the rogue Russian agent who kidnaps and threatens to behead someone the hero loves. It all builds to a gripping chase in unforgiving terrain, with an unconventional final battle scene.

McClure is a Jack Ryan-style superspy in that he's a guy just trying to do a job who gets pressed into more and more difficult situations. He's also not unlike an 80s action movie hero in that he's slow to anger but quick to gain revenge for violence visited on his family. The good guys in this thriller are unambiguously square-jawed heroes who shout exhortations like “Let’s be ready to kick some ass for the US of A,” while the bad guys are for the most part sneering, swearing avatars of international menace.

Ceroni does provide some nuance in the CIA chief who is more concerned with the rules than rescuing McClure's wife. There's also a Russian agent who accepts McClure's explanation as to why and how another Russian was killed, and backs off from trying to assassinate him. Settings like Colorado Springs and upstate New York were clearly well-researched, with vivid detail that enhanced the action in each scene they appeared in. This well-paced spy/action-adventure is a no-frills experience designed for fans of the genre.

Takeaway: Fans of action-driven spy thrillers with square-jawed heroes and sinister villains will enjoy this adventure.

Great for fans of: Andrew Grant, Adam Hamdy.

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

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Six Feet Apart: An Anthology
Marvin Mason
This compelling anthology by four Black male authors features stories about love, relationships, Black Lives Matter, and racial issues, offering in-depth insight into the daily lives of Black men in America during the Covid-19 era. While fictionalized, each story draws from contemporary news to speak to the deaths of real-life Black men and women, with powerful interstitial essays from J. Brinkley exploring the stories of Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, and Stephon Clark, whose lives were cut short due to gun violence and police brutality.

The results convey rich emotional turmoil while also, in their depiction of everyday living in troubled times, brimming with unspoken meaning. In “2 Miles” Brandon C. Brown pens a tense story of a middle-class Black man trying to make it home safely from his evening jog, when he makes the almost fatal mistake of crossing into an unfamiliar neighborhood, where he’s confronted by the police. Marvin Mason offers readers a glimpse into the complicated messiness of relationships in blended families in “Six Feet Away,” when a high school teacher falls for the mother of two of his students, and Mark T. Sneed compares the pandemic to a different kind of outbreak in “The Zombie Apocalypse is Nothing Like I Expected,” a story rich with metaphors and masterful wordplay.

J. Brinkley’s exploration into real-life deaths drive home the resonant parallels between art and life while crying out for justice: “This is grossly unacceptable and should never – NEVER happen again. That should be the police oath to us.” Readers looking for an inviting, thought-provoking read will find much to enjoy here; although the subject matter features heavy topics, each of the stories strikes engaging, sometimes humorous, tones as the authors skillfully contemplate and bring awareness to racial inequality, police brutality, and other urgent concerns, all while illuminating the daily struggles and lives of Black men in America.

Takeaway: A powerful anthology focusing on themes of race relations, police brutality, and love during the age of Covid.

Great for fans of: Tarana Burke and Brené Brown’s You are Your Best Thing; Margaret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa.

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

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The Humbling and Other Poems
Robert J. Tiess
Tiess’s striking debut may prioritize insights on humility, but don’t mistake it for a humble affair. In inviting, wide-ranging poems, kicking off with a celebration of “the paradox of Socrates” and a promise “to understand I do not know, / and yet enlighten as I go,” The Humbling probes at the world in gently insistent verse, contemplating the life cycle of a raindrop (“Descending to evaporate / I rise again, embrace my fate”), the pleasures of a reprieve from urban sprawl (“a lake to clear my weary head / and keep my soul from going dead”), and the urgency of nonviolent political resistance (“May tolerance, in time, persuade / as old agendas bend and fade.”)

Many of the selections are composed in rhyming couplets, often conversational and even playful, though Tiess does not limit himself to this simple form when aspiring for more elusive effect: “With one glove off, you trace the heavens, / fingers full of reverence,” reads a celebration of winter stargazing. Still, Tiess admires most what’s clear and what’s enduring, relishing how deer “face elements with fortitude,” or marveling at how “marble hands / ten fingers firmly interlocked” persist after centuries in a ruin. With the uncommon directness that is the hallmark of his work, he urges humanity itself to take steps to persist as well, calling for the crafting of “an ark of love to save / our good world from an open grave.”

Endmatter including essays and a glossary of poetic terms makes explicit what readers will infer throughout: The accessibility of Tiess’s poems is the result of careful craft, a zeal to express complex thoughts that sing yet also communicate. “On the yards of my poems,” he writes in one essay, “I did not want any ‘Keep Out’ or ‘No Trespassers’ signs posted.” Instead, The Humbling is an open house, one whose tributes to Whitman and Tolkien suggest the author’s un-humble intentions: approachable yet resonant literature to move, inspire, and even instruct: “Your dreams must not be mere bouquets / which prettify but whither soon.”

Takeaway: These inviting, incisive poems don’t sacrifice resonance as they strive for accessibility.

Great for fans of: Richard Wilbur, Evan Mantyk.

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

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Defective
Susan L Sofayov
A realistic story centered on mental illness but distinguished by hope and positivity, Sofayov’s debut novel opens with Maggie Hovis struggling to come to terms with her fiancé leaving her. Maggie’s brain seems to house two of her, both a poised and ambitious law student and the screaming, sobbing, shoe-throwing other, who has zero self-confidence and spends days in bed recovering from “episodes.” Called a drama queen by her own brother Mark, and responding to sister-in-law/ best friend Amy’s suggestion, Maggie begins seeing a therapist who, suspecting bipolar disorder, refers her to a psychiatrist. Though apprehensive about being labeled for this diagnosis, Maggie is relieved to discover that her uncontrollable thoughts are not due to some weakness–and now she hopes to win back her fiancé.

Narrated in straightforward, matter-of-fact language, Sofayov skillfully intersperses Maggie’s fight with her own brain with memories from the past which reveal a family history of mental illness complete with a hidden, institutionalized great aunt, Ella, now dead. Maggie’s decision to buy a tombstone for Ella’s unmarked grave touchingly symbolizes her struggle not just to forestall her own “episodes” but also with the belief that a normal life is impossible for people with mental illness. When the family gathers at the graveyard for her little ceremony, Maggie has traversed the arc, accepted her brain as it is, and arrived at some hard-won hope.

Sofayov succeeds in sketching the complex emotions that course through Maggie’s brain, her visceral need for love, her doubts whether a normal life is possible for "defective" people like her, and her determination to succeed at law school. The characters are all believable and relatable except for smoky hot, green eyed Nick DeCarlo, who is unbearably perfect. The novel also effectively portrays the spectrum of reactions to mental illness ranging from total support to outright rejection.

Takeaway: This smart novel about mental illness and finding love is warm and life-affirming.

Great for fans of: Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life, John Neufeld’s Lisa, Bright and Dark.

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

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Westbound
K. Patrick Conner
Conner draws on his experience as a long-time reporter/editor to imbue welcome authenticity into this polished story of a reckoning with the past. Elliott Madison, retired after three decades at a daily paper himself, is writing a book about his illustrious great-grandfather, William Henry Madison, a Gold Rush-er and global traveler who never struck it rich in the Sierra-Nevada gold fields but, with his wife, Amelia Snyder Madison, built a California homestead into a successful sheep ranch. Elliott is surprised when Phoebe Crighton, a stranger, contacts him seeking information for a genealogical inquiry of her own: her great-grandmother’s uncle, Benjamin Harrigan, worked at the Madison ranch, and Phoebe wants to know more. Phoebe visits Elliott in California, and his worshipful image of his family’s past is challenged by the suggestion that Benjamin and Amelia might have been lovers.

Conner’s unusual plotline will resonate with readers fascinated by genealogy research, especially as Phoebe and Elliott uncover more information, and their friendship blossoms. Elliott’s somewhat myopic view of William’s life, with a focus on heroic endeavors like a ship journey around Cape Horn, makes Elliott believable and relatable. But Conner hints at Elliott’s greater depth and his capacity to be open to new ideas. Elliott gradually seems willing to embrace her positive, inquisitive nature, enabling him to explore the greater truths of his family’s heritage and write about their remarkable lives along with their human frailties.

Conner’s novel is a moving consideration of how art imitates life, as artist/author Elliott expands his world to include Phoebe and all she’s discovered about how her own ancestor’s impact on his great-grandmother’s life. With his engagingly detailed depictions of Amelia’s harrowing trip west on a wagon train as well as Benjamin’s traumatic days as a Union soldier, Conner offers both a riveting glimpse of the past and what it takes to face it honestly today.

Takeaway: A compelling novel centered on a retiree facing the surprising truth of his California ancestors’ lives.

Great for fans of: Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, William Martin’s Bound for Gold.

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

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(P)luck: Lessons We Learned for Improving Healthcare and the World
Alfred Sadler and Blair Sadler
Identical twins Fred and Blair Sadler (Emergency Medical Care: The Neglected Public Service), a tenacious lawyer-doctor team, share their inspiring quest to fundamentally change public policy and improve modern medicine. Inviting readers to “join us on our lived journey of exploration, collaboration, and action,” the duo detail their fight for equity in medicine and their drive to bring accessible medical care to underserved populations, emphasizing their groundbreaking work in organ donation and transplant laws, bioethics, and more. This encouraging autobiography will especially appeal to professionals in the public health sector, medicine, or social services, or anyone curious about what it takes to enact positive change in entrenched systems.

Opening with an account of curiosity-filled childhoods that fostered a love for learning, the Sadlers move readers through their joint careers, in which they influenced laws that have touched millions of Americans–notably The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act that paved the way for medical organ donations. Despite their renown and the pivotal nature of their work, the authors avoid pretension and overstatement, writing instead about the importance of serving others and having “open dialogue between emerging and traditional healthcare professions to encourage collective problem-solving.” This work draws on their backgrounds and the lessons they’ve learned along the way while also digging into the complex problems of contemporary healthcare, but all this presented with welcome clarity and cohesion despite the highly technical topics.

(P)luck tells a poignant coming-of-age story that integrates brotherly love and fighting for justice in the medical field, tracing the Act’s journey from inspired idea to a global norm. The Sadlers are not afraid to dig into the ethical problems inherent in modern medicine, in the process offering a vital example of how to persist in the fight for what is right, even when transformative change seems impossible.

Takeaway: The inspiring account of twin brothers whose perseverance and ingenuity changed healthcare for the better.

Great for fans of: Atul Gawande’s Better, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

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

In the Forest
Charles Bruckerhoff
A young girl discovers the magic of the forest in this captivating debut series by Charles Bruckerhoff. Adelyn, an adventurous girl staying with her grandparents in the country, wants nothing more than to explore the world–and one bright morning she sets off to do just that, armed with only her grandfather’s old wicker basket and a charming polka-dotted hat. As she skips into the nearby forest, Adelyn crosses paths with the native animals, who all take a moment to share with her what makes them so unique. Intrigued by the natural world around her, Adelyn takes the friendly advice of a crow she meets, to “see more, do more, know more,” and ventures deeper into the woods to explore.

Young readers will be charmed by the engaging animals in this tale, and their sage wisdom will ring true for adults as well. A hawk explains that, despite its fearsome appearance, it’s actually “gentle and quiet,” and a small fawn shares how its mother warns it of danger by stomping on the ground– while pointing out to Adelyn that all the wild animals she sees share a collective home. The animals are keen to emphasize their differences from Adelyn, too, as a New England cottontail explains how lucky humans are to have the freedom to choose how to live our daily lives, instead of relying mainly on instinct to survive.

Bruckerhoff swathes the educational text with stunning watercolor images that reflect the beauty in Adelyn’s surroundings, and the peaceful charm of the forest follows Adelyn home when she leaves and realizes “something magical happened back there.” Using the keepsakes she gathered in her basket during her walk, she excitedly describes what she learned about the forest to her grandparents, who in turn help her research more detailed information about the area. This is a vibrant story that will appeal to readers invested in nature.

Takeaway: A young girl learns about the animals residing in the forest near her home in this striking tale.

Great for fans of: Jen Green’s The Magic & Mystery of Trees, Helen Peters’s An Otter Called Pebble; Kate Messner's Over and Under the Pond.

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

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Adelyn's Adventure in the Garden
Charles Bruckerhoff
Adelyn is back in the second of Bruckerhoff’s Adelyn’s Adventure series, and this time she is reveling in the beauty of her grandparents’ garden in the country. After a day of hard work outside pulling weeds, Adelyn is exhausted and ready for bed–but excited to explore the garden in the morning. With a fresh breakfast of cornbread and fruit in her tummy, she sets out with her grandfather’s trusty basket to roam and soon discovers the garden is a treasure trove of excitement. Starting at the arbor gate entrance, Adelyn ventures through the winding paths to explore fragrant herbs, blooming flowers, and luscious fruits and vegetables.

Striking watercolor illustrations with a vintage feel grace the pages, and Bruckerhoff's storytelling speaks to all of the senses. Adelyn whispers “this must be Paradise” at the sights and sounds, and readers will be able to smell the garden’s aroma of fresh rain and earthy soil right alongside her. Those familiar with the first in the series will welcome Adelyn’s quick visits with her old animal friends, though she meets new ones along the way: a ruby-throated hummingbird takes a break from sipping nectar to share some survival skills, and a garden spider speaks, surprisingly, with “a DownEast, Maine accent, in Gregorian chant.”

Christian readers will appreciate the references to biblical stories throughout, most notably Adelyn’s lesson on how the Garden of Eden relates to the harmony found in an earthly garden. She continually uses her grandparents’ teachings as a guide, including reminding herself that every choice has a consequence, and she likens the layout and structure of the garden to her own “moral compass.” The author manages to work some science into the story as well, with insight on the garden’s compass rose for navigation. A self-proclaimed nature lover, Bruckerhoff’s deep love of the wonder of the natural world is charmingly reflected in this tale.

Takeaway: A determined young girl reflects on life lessons in her grandparents’ garden in this multi-layered tale.

Great for fans of: Charity Rios’s My Heart’s Garden, Tim McCanna’s In A Garden.

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

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Adelyn's Adventure on the Beach
Charles Bruckerhoff
Bruckerhoff continues his lively Adelyn’s Adventure series with a dive into an Atlantic seaside vacation. When Adelyn and her grandparents pack up and head to the shore, they enter a vibrant world brimming with new life–and new thrills for the inquisitive Adelyn. Eager to explore her surroundings, and paired with her grandfather’s wicker basket and a shovel, Adelyn discovers the magic of the ocean through the eyes of amusing local animals, including a cheery Great Black-backed Gull who calls her a “flatlander” and offers a freshly harvested clam for a snack.

Though Adelyn is on the hunt for fun, she pays close attention to the critical need for ocean life along the way. She learns how nature recycles its resources and that seawater is the “soup of life,” supporting living organisms with rich minerals. Discovering the benefits of seawater is just the beginning, though, as Adelyn plunges into the full cycle of life by finding out about plankton crowding the ocean as a food source, land and sea animals fighting to survive each day, and barnacles that function as water filters. Even the more dangerous ocean creatures share their purpose, like a deadly jellyfish that doubles as a source of nutrition for turtles.

Adult readers will appreciate Bruckerhoff’s nods to safety—Adelyn’s grandmother advises her “never turn your back on the sea”—and the opportunity for youngsters to explore their own conservation roles when Adelyn works to free a baby humpback from a fishing net and cleans up trash on the beach. Similar to other titles in the series, Bruckerhoff emphasizes Christian beliefs among the playful lessons and draws parallels between the ocean’s power and the Biblical creation. Bruckerhoff’s elegant, cool-toned illustrations suggest the beauty of marine life, and the theme of personal responsibility to keep Earth healthy ripples through nearly every page of this informative tale.

Takeaway: The magnificence of ocean life and the need for conservation illuminate this story of a young girl exploring the seashore.

Great for fans of: Steve Jenkins’s Down, Down, Down, Erin Guendelsberger’s Inky the Octopus.

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

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Optimizing Strategy for Results: A Structured Approach to Make Your Business Come Alive
Timothy Mwololo Waema, Ron Price, Evans Baiya
Part business guide, part companion workbook, Optimizing Strategy for Results encourages business leaders and management teams to rethink using traditional education and data driven methods in response to volatility. Drawing on their almost 100 years of combined professional experience, the three coauthors introduce their conceptualization of strategy for organizations in a detailed yet flexible seven-stage framework that draws upon innovation, human capital, axiology, and emotional intelligence to produce alignment within an organization with its vision and overall purpose. The guide addresses common misconceptions about strategy before diving into what the authors deem its true building blocks of purpose, core values, and vision. These, they argue, when combined with creativity and emotional intelligence, can result in “continuous opportunities for growth, insights, and competitive advantage.”

The first of three main sections serves as an introductory lesson in strategic theory and emphasizes the importance of human capital in terms of building strategic intelligence. The bulk of information is in the second section, which walks readers through the creative thinking, decision making, and contingency planning stages of the strategy process and includes detailed questionnaires, tables, and creative exercises that illustrate or expand upon the topics presented. The final section instructs readers on best practices for putting these lessons to use, with an emphasis on effective communication and evaluation techniques. Action steps and a summary at the end of each chapter break down the who, what, when, where, and how for all those involved in a particular stage of the strategy process.

The authors warn “strategy often fails or underperforms because we don’t recognize how aligning the diversities of people’s talents, skills, and passions plays a key role in achieving superior results.” The authors have created a clear-eyed, practical-minded guide that prepares corporate leaders and strategists to make plans in dynamic environments. Extensive and thorough, Optimizing Strategy encourages organizational leaders and management teams to put people first and prepare for the worst.

Takeaway: Corporate leaders and management teams will appreciate the “people first” approach emphasized in this strategy guide for volatile times.

Great for fans of: Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff’s The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist's Guide to Success in Business and Life, Patrick Bet-David’s Your Next Five Moves: Master the Art of Business Strategy.

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

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Dream Phaze - Imagination
Matt Watters
In the gripping second installment of Watters’s virtual reality-exploring Dream Phaze series, Dr. Saxon Zynn and his wife Margo are back with new complications, as their advanced technology known as Dream Immersion (DI) is twisted for devious purposes. After a DI rape leaves a woman traumatized and experiencing PTSD, Saxon and Margo discover a dangerous pattern forming in their software. They’ll have to work together to find the culprit before more violence upsets their dream reality–but the company is threatened when they may be forced to reveal user identities in order to stop the brutality.

As in the first book in the series, Dream Phaze: Germination, Watters takes readers on lavish virtual reality adventures in the DI world, where users can set up luxurious virtual homes and businesses in an experience called Joyville or participate in (or bet on) organized DI sporting events like the World Obelisk League and Exoskeletal Combat. Of course, the endless possibilities bring with them a dark side. The DI rape occurs during what’s deemed a “white experience,” meant to be the safest of DI events, and Watters’s plot quickly pits issues user privacy against victim safety. Alongside the security issues compromising the program, Saxon and Margo struggle with her father’s failing health and outside pressure to buy large amounts of company shares.

Return readers will note this recent installment leaves behind some likable characters as Saxon and his wife have now become shrewd business people hell-bent on preserving their wealth–a choice that exposes how money can corrupt, particularly when the couple minimizes the assault while debating its possible impact on their privacy clause. Watters includes a glossary of technical terms, as well as a chart illustrating how the virtual experiences are set up. Sci-fi fans fond of virtual reality will be fascinated by both the technology and the issues it raises.

Takeaway: A virtual reality immersion program is threatened by unexpected violence in this intriguing thriller.

Great for fans of: D. Rus’s AlterWorld Vivian Vande Velde’s Heir Apparent.

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

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Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3: The color of my vote
Edited by Mysti Berry
The third volume in this ballot-minded crime anthology series once again finds democracy at stake, both in its diverse, hair-raising fictions and in the real world, enough so that its publication is again pegged to a fundraiser for voting rights causes, this time with proceeds going to Democracy Docket. Editor Berry, who conceived and has overseen all three installments, notes in her introduction two distinguishing characteristics of the latest crop of crime tales crafted around the subject of voting: First, this time, many of the stories pulse with fresh anger, which Berry persuasively links to the zeitgeist. Second: They increasingly edge toward speculative fiction, which makes sense—so does American life.

From page one, this volume stirs chills of recognition as David Corbett’s “An Incident at the Cultural Frontier” opens with a trucker’s convoy of “inspectors” rolling up on a polling place, and Faye Snowden’s electric “The Obsession of Abel Tangier” turns on the line “Ethel started bringing a loaded Smith & Wesson .45 to every school board meeting after the death threats started.” Other stories center persistent American anxieties, like the possibility that an organized crime syndicate will do whatever it takes to rig a Newark mayoral race in Thomas Pluck’s “Joey Cucuzza Loses His Election,” or the radio host whose racist invective reveals the ugly truth of a beach town’s secession campaign in Sarah M. Chen’s jolting “Riviera Red.”

The speculative tales prove both playful and upsetting. Babies seize the power of the ballot from indifferent parents in Camille Minichino’s inspired and inspiring “Vote Early,” while Ember Randall’s “How to (Actually) Change the World” imagines the fate of the first A.I. candidate for president. History and political violence (the murder of a Chicago alderman in 1963; the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914) loom over the collection, but what’s scariest is most familiar: men with power intimidating everyone else to give up their own.

Takeaway: Outraged crime stories from diverse authors, all centered on the act of voting.

Great for fans of: Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, Malka Older.

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

Click here for more about Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3
Queen of Secrets
E.J. Tanda
Tanda’s sweeping historical fiction debut follows Barbara, a caregiver for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s, and her patient, Violetta Giordano, a Mafia widow with a storied past. Barbara, trapped in a relationship with her abusive, gambling addict boyfriend and out of options, seizes the opportunity to work for Violetta in San Jose in 1939 as a last-ditch attempt to earn a living. When the two women meet, their relationship is initially tense, and Barbara worries it won’t improve–but soon Violetta begins to open up about her past, eventually relating her entire life story to Barbara.

Tanda suffuses her storytelling with heart, and readers will be transported back to an earlier time, following new Italian immigrants eking out a living in California. Violetta’s whirlwind romance with handsome Sardinian newcomer Gaetano sets her heart aflame, even as she is promised to another man to seal a Mafia deal. There are sharp, suspenseful moments when readers will clearly experience Violetta’s desperation alongside her, but at other times, some flowery choices (the two lovers are wont to quote Shakespeare) can prove distracting to the overall tone of the plot. Nonetheless, the tender and tense moments scattered throughout this story help the buoy its dark atmosphere.

While the novel offers the suspense, intrigue, and even the romance you would hope for in the kickoff to a series titled “Mafia Matriarchs,” historical fiction readers will appreciate Tanda’s serious handling of the Italian immigrant experience, as she draws on her own Italian heritage to paint an honest picture of the trials her community faced–while not shying away from the drama of what one character calls “The Black Hand, the Commission, Cosa Nosta. The mob. The Mafia.” Tanda consulted with sensitivity readers on her depiction of Barbara, a Black woman who encounters the systemic racism faced by Black people in America. The essence of Tanda’s message: that we are all not that different.

Takeaway: The start of the “Mafia Matriarchs” series offers tense historical fiction in early 20th century America.

Great for fans of: Amy Harmon’s The Song Book of Benny Lament, Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World.

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

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Road Kill
R.J. Norgard
The second Sidney Reed mystery from Norgard (after Trophy Kill) pits the appealingly complex private investigator Reed against a classic murder mystery and frightening heavies, all set around an unyielding, evocatively described winter in Anchorage, Alaska. Reed, reeling from the loss of his wife, is barely able to get through each day. He's hired to help the defense of Rudy Skinner, facing trial on a charge of murdering an indigenous man with a snowplow. A tip about the identity of the actual killer leaves Reed facing double crosses, meth dealers, wannabe actresses, crooked cops, an ambitious district attorney, plus an array of friends concerned by his ongoing mental health struggles. The climax, involving the cruel Alaska winter, ties surprising twists and turns with a fight for survival.

Despite strong pacing and effective interrogations and courtroom drama, it’s nuanced and complex character work that drives this thriller. Reed is a broken man trying to put himself together, returning to work, starting to date again, even seeing a therapist, though he finds himself unable to let go of the past. He always tries to do the right thing, especially when innocents are involved, no matter the cost. The villains, too, are multilayered characters, like the actual killer and his criminal father, whose individual senses of morality lead to some unexpected conclusions. Alaska’s winter storms raise the stakes throughout, as simply driving on a road becomes a perilous undertaking, much less being outside for extended lengths of time.

Norgard makes the reader care about Reed's journey, and it doesn't hurt that Reed has an insolent wit that he can't seem to turn off, a defense mechanism as he haltingly tries to process his grief. Norgard's attention to detail with regard to both character and setting elevates Road Kill far above a typical hard-boiled detective story, and fans of mysteries with memorable leads will find much to like in its mix of hard-boiled, funny, and haunted.

Takeaway: A tough Alaskan winter raises the stakes in this polished and compelling character-driven mystery.

Great for fans of: Peter James’s Dead Simple, Dana Stabenow.

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

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Rode
J. Adams
“I want to feel the miles roll out from under the wheels,” young Jack, a disappointed romantic caught between careers and lives, declares early in Adams’ long dark novel of the soul. Jack was planning to light out to the California coast, on a bus, rhapsodizing to a woman he cares for about how, rather than take a plane, he’s going to “Appreciate the distance, you know what I mean?” Her curt response—“So you’re trying to save money?”—exemplifies the novel that follows, a book in which the philosopher/ex-fireman/hustler, stranded at a San Francisco intersection, dreams of motion but finds himself stuck, reflecting on a life lived in pursuit of meaning and feeling despite the practical-minded world’s insistence on punishing such desires. “If beauty is the easiest good to recognize, it is also the easiest to mistake for something else,” he notes, deep in the book.

Adams builds to that insight over the course of that long night, and the extended memories of friends and lovers and disappointments that preoccupy Jack as he contemplates how he came to be so alone. The follow-up to Bent, Rode offers Adams ample chance to showcase a feel for motorcycles, night skies, crooked-steep San Francisco streets, and the thrill and terror of sexual outlawry. He’s especially good at pinning down moments between people that list quietly, inexorably toward a discomfiting wrongness.

A book of significant beauty and pain, broken relationships and sexual frankness, Rode’s survey of the events and people that led Jack toward bottoming out also at times proves playfully comic (Jack learns the worst thing a first-time sex worker can say to a prospective john: “My schedule’s wide open at the moment.”) The title promises momentum, but this character study is all about how a man got brought to this point, told with painstaking detail. But readers of impassioned, character-driven fiction that transgresses the polite will find much to relish here.

Takeaway: A penetrating novel of a philosopher/hustler/ex-fireman, reflecting on his life, stranded in San Francisco.

Great for fans of: John Rechy, Nelson Algren.

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

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