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More of Us to the West
Trinity Dunn
An unhappy wife who finds herself torn from life as she knows it is at the heart of Dunn’s fast-paced romance with elements of a thriller. Alaina Grace is simply trying to reignite her marriage when fate steps in with other plans. Due to a delayed flight, she and her husband, Chris, are forced to use standby tickets as they embark on a second-chance honeymoon in Bora-Bora. Alaina has the good fortune of getting bumped to a first-class seat next to her school-age crush, the one-time child actor and teen idol Jack Volmer, while her husband makes do with a seat in coach. When their plane crashes in a freak storm, Alaina is separated from her husband, injured, and stuck on an island with a group of strangers—including the familiar face of Jack. As they strive to survive, and she gravitates toward Jack, Alaina finds herself torn between her past and her present.

Dunn does an excellent job of capturing the voice of a discontented wife, trying to rekindle the spark. Alaina’s a complex yet relatable character who has come to that age-old milestone of wondering about the road less traveled: Her internal monologues make clear that she’s unsatisfied in her marriage to her husband of ten years. At times, her thoughts are riddled with insecurities, and other times they verge on the spiteful. But with an ensemble cast of characters who have to depend on each other for support and survival, this novel is more than just a love story.

Dunn writes it all with clarity and precision, creating a bond between the characters and the reader with her vivid imagery and skilled craftmanship. She’s masterful when transitioning between the past and present with flashbacks, intricately layering and revealing the plot. Readers will be pleasantly surprised by the twists and turns as the survivors face the challenges of wilderness life and, when it's all said and done, a satisfying cliffhanger ending.

Takeaway: A contemporary romance boasting a strong protagonist and packed with action, adventure, and suspense.

Great for fans of: Liane Moriarty, Jodi Picoult.

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

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The Printer and The Strumpet
Larry Brill
Brill delivers an entertaining caper set in colonial America’s fight for independence in the second volume of his Misadventures of Leeds Merriweather series (after The Patterer). Leeds Merriweather, a journalist and self-proclaimed “wordsmith,” owns a Boston newspaper in 1773–a publication that many colonists deem sympathetic to the Tory cause. When his business debt gets signed over to crown royalists thanks to his best friend’s gambling habits, Leeds is forced to use his press to further the cause of the King, whether he agrees with it or not. Tables turn once his affections are snared by rebel sympathizer Sally Hughes, and Leeds finds himself torn between saving his livelihood or clandestinely using the power of the press to further the Patriot movement.

History lovers will be hooked by Brill’s foray into colonial Boston, especially his portrayal of key battles and memorable strategists who were instrumental in establishing American freedom. Though he takes plenty of creative license in re-imagining significant events, the engaging characters and wry style carry the story line. Brill pairs an amusing satiric style with period appropriate prose, and readers will chuckle at his characters’ catchphrases (“Flog the frog. I’d been had”) and Leeds’s playful narration, such as the barbed “‘Not to overstate the obvious,’ I said, overstating the obvious.” Brill’s sense of play at times flirts with anachronism, as when he concocts a perfectly reasonable justification for Leeds to exclaim “WTF?”

Sally continually risks life and limb in the name of freedom and exhibits plenty of her own gusto, upending mores as the story navigates bordellos and revolutionary politicking. While this power couple has strong appeal, their romance here proves anticlimactic. Still, fans of witty historic adventure will be left wishing for more of Leeds and his covert printing operations–activities that eventually transform him into a “spot-on American.” This bantering account of early colonial freedom fighters and their innovative maneuvers is equal parts rousing and amusing

Takeaway: A playful tale of colonial America, with wry humor and a rebel heart.

Great for fans of: Edward Carey’s Little, Theodore Sturgeon’s I, Libertine.

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

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For the Love of Many
Vivian Dunn
Dunn’s debut novel is a sumptuous sojourn into the grit and glamour of the Roaring Twenties given new life through the lenses of queer identity and the story of the rise of a superstar. Billie, the chosen sobriquet of Lucille Le Sur, one day to become known as Joan Crawford, is a smallish-town girl with a past who only wants to dance on Broadway –and will do anything to get there. Once on the Great White Way, as a chorine in a J. J. Shubert production, she meets Nadine, a fellow chorine with a reputation as a good-time girl and the connections to go with it. As the pair opens up about their pasts and shared experiences, growing intimate, matters like marriages and careers get in the way of what could be, threatening an early closing on their romance.

Rich with atmosphere and stunning detail, the novel offers an intricately imagined love story viewed from the dual perspectives of Billie and Nadine. Without shying away from the realities of the time period–and what women were forced to do if they wanted their chance at fame–Dunn fully immerses readers in the kaleidoscopic headiness of Broadway life during the Prohibition era, as the women both sing and embody the hit song “T'ain't Nobody's Business if I Do.” Fact and fiction are blended together with a seamless ease, inviting readers into the game of untangling which is which.

The novel has some stylistic quirks. The dual-viewpoint narrative’s quick transitions from one voice to another takes some getting used to and may at times throw some readers off, and intermittent bursts of poetry among the prose provide a refreshing (if odd) change of pace. But this story and romance boasts a solid foundation, compelling characters, and prose that brings the Jazz Age–and what queer existence would have been like in that era–to life

Takeaway: A beautifully penned love story that pays homage to the theater and the queer experience in the Prohibition era.

Great for fans of: Laura Moriarty’s The Chaperone, Renée Rosen’s Dollface.

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

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Scarlet Oak
Angie Weiland-Crosby
Weiland-Crosby weaves a moving tapestry of grief, family, and the enduring power of nature in her fanciful debut. Scarlet, a tree sprite, has seen a lot in her fifty years on earth, but she has never met a human until she encounters Finn, an autistic human teenager, seconds before taking his own life. That moment changes everything for both, in ways neither could expect. In their part of the world, the Smis (short for “Southern Maryland in Shadow”) judges all living things when they die, determining whether each soul moves toward the Light or the Dark. Death by suicide, in the Smis’s estimation, means automatic Darkness. But Scarlet is convinced that Finn did not intend to die and begs for a chance to prove it. She is given one year to pretend to be human and prove that Finn’s spirit belongs to the Light.

Audiences will be swept away by Scarlet’s human life as Willow Brook, who learns that fifty years of tree-sprite living have ill-prepared her for love, jealousy, and heartbreak. Her relationship with Finn’s grieving parents will keep readers guessing as to Scarlet and Finn’s fate—expect tears along the way. Weiland-Crosby’s narrative features multiple perspectives, including its eponymous protagonist, Smis, and Scarlet’s tree host, Horace, offering a multifaceted view of characters and scenes. The lyrical style is touched with poetry, providing insight into the world between fairy and human.

At times, that divide seems arbitrary: The afterlife in Scarlet Oak is clearly non-religious, but Christianity and the Christmas holiday are major forces for good in the life of Scarlett and the Smis. The story grapples with mature subject matter—suicide, alcoholism, ableism—but readers should be aware that the depiction of Finn’s autism emphasizes negative effects on those around him. Despite some uncomfortable moments, this rich fusion of connection and resilience will remind readers of their own magic.

Takeaway: Part paean to nature, part family drama, this lyric fantasy examines grief and love in our world.

Great for fans of: Glendy Vanderah’s Where the Forest Meets the Stars, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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

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Poems from a Gypsy Heart
Verle Jean
First published in 2012, Jean’s hefty (over 600 pages) collection of gentle, nature-minded observational free verse celebrates, among other topics, silence, seasons, spiders, and how “the flute song of the wind/ blows over the green hills.” Unaddressed in these hundreds of short, accessible poems is the title’s cavalier use of a dated term with a history of use as a slur. That’s certain to turn away some potential readers, though a poem called “The Gypsy,” which centers on the possibility (represented by a seagull) of being someplace unexpected tomorrow, suggests that Jean conceives of the term as referring to a general spirit of adventure and curiosity.

Whatever the case, that spirit powers poems like “A Walk Through a Canyon" which finds Jean both ecstatic and contemplative: “in the long time to come, perhaps/ i will remember this is my footprint/ on the red sand, beneath these monoliths of stone/ frozen by time …” Landscape, weather, and time forever reflect each other in Jean’s imagination, a tendency common in dreamy Midwesterners (Jean hails from North Dakota) who have invested years in watching seasons unfold across those limitless heavens. In the playful “White” snow covers trees and ground “as if the sky had fallen down,” while “I Am” finds her engaging in the age-old pleasure of dreaming along with the clouds, which she strikingly likens to “giant leaves / floating across a pond of sky.”

Pleasing imagery appears throughout the collection (“The bush was buttoned up/ with red berries”), even in poems concerning more human topics, such as a grandmother’s mending basket or fleeting memories of youth. Still, the book’s bulk and abundance can overwhelm, with the strongest and most specific poems outnumbered by slighter ones, variations on established themes, whimsical doggerel, and lines whose power is diminished by familiar imagery or inconsistent archaic phrasing, like “’tis” or “thee.”

Takeaway: A lifetime’s worth of warmly observational poetry, focused on time, nature, and arresting imagery.

Great for fans of: Mary Ryan, Ted Kooser.

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

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Vandella
M. Ch. Landa
Landa’s debut novel follows Maia Foster––a 17 year-old cancer survivor raised by her grandmother––as she journeys through the afterlife to save her grandmother’s life. A regular high school student with a crush on a popular jock and conflict with local mean girls, Maia sees her world fall apart when her doctor breaks the news that her cancer is coming back. Then things get strange: She wakes up in the hospital and sees a mysterious man touching her grandmother’s forehead. That stranger Sidney, who looks young but has an air of agelessness about him, hints at knowledge of life, death, and souls, and tells Maia that she has the opportunity to save her grandmother’s life, but for a price. Maia accepts, and together they take a dazzling plunge into the afterlife. But there she loses the medallion that protects her and then, one by one, her senses, all as she discovers that Sidney, her self-proclaimed “caregiver,” hasn’t been completely honest with her.

Featuring an angelic language, death personified, plus demigods and dragon, this coming-of-age story covers a lot of fantastical ground. Lovers of young adult romance steeped in fantastical journeys and coming-of-age themes will appreciate this story, if they’re comfortable with the issues of age, power, and consent that mostly go unaddressed in the budding romance between an underage teen and an apparently ageless being who can read her mind, has observed her since her girlhood, and is described in the narrative as a “man” while she’s referred to as a “girl.”

The descent into fantasy is slow and immersive, allowing time for the Maia and readers to acclimate to a convincing world, which helps develop stakes that give the story power. The worldbuilding is strong on both the fantastic and realistic sides, and a moving twist shifts the novel’s focus to familial love and sacrifice rather than romantic love.

Takeaway: Strong worldbuilding and an engaging teen protagonist ground this fantasy in real emotion.

Great for fans of: Archer Lakhani’s The Safekeeper, Neal Shusterman’s Everlost.

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

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Gaining Altitude : Retirement and Beyond
Rebecca Milliken
In her debut, a hybrid work between memoir and self-help, Milliken deftly addresses the complexities and emotions of choosing to retire from full-time work. At age 63, after 30 years as a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., Milliken made the difficult decision to retire and reinvent herself as a writer—no small feat in a city that measures human worth by accomplishments. Shedding her longtime identity as a therapist amid criticism from others about her choice, she took a leap of faith into uncertainty.

After an uncomfortable start in which she questioned what on Earth she should actually do with all her new time (learn Arabic? Volunteer for the Red Cross? Take up pickleball?), Milliken began to relish retirement, learning to ask herself new questions: “What seems important now that wasn’t before?” “Who am I if I am no longer who I used to be?” One of the most liberating aspects of retiring, she writes, was the opportunity to learn by doing and not to fear the possibility of making mistakes. “Mistakes are mirrors where we get an opportunity to see ourselves more clearly than usual,” she points out, as encouragement to those facing similar fears and thoughts. Milliken also celebrates the freedom to let her thoughts meander, to allow the random and the trivial to float through her head as a means for sparking creativity.

Milliken’s expertise as a psychotherapist is evident both in the introspective way that she chronicles her journey and in her wise and measured words—words that will strike a chord with readers contemplating their own next acts. A helpful list of books for more on the topic will also guide readers as they prepare for the imposing life change that is retirement, though readers will likely feel that Milliken’s own account, centered on how “this freedom invites me to be, not do qualifies for such lists itself.

Takeaway: Anyone with mixed feelings on the precipice of retirement will gain insight and comfort from this wise account.

Great for fans of: Gene Cohen’s The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, William Sadler and James Krefft’s Changing Course: Navigating Life after Fifty.

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

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Penance
SETH SJOSTROM
This swift-moving and violent actioner follows FBI agent Alex Penance as he must use his phenomenal fighting skills to battle Mexican gangsters. Penance was marked for promotion, but he gets exiled to rural Mississippi when he has a fling with a senator's girlfriend. The Las Piratas have been kidnapping girls in the area, and when Penance arrests a cartel lieutenant, the gang promises retribution. Along the way, Penance has several run-ins with the Whatcoms, a local family of criminals, and embarks on a tentative romance with local Assistant District Attorney Annie Hunt while planning for a showdown with the cartel.

Sjostrom (Patriot X) keeps the action on full boil, as Penance solves virtually every problem with violence. To quickly interrogate a suspect, Penance shoves his head through a window. Even a disagreement with the local district attorney quickly gets physical. And when he finds a young woman being preyed upon by her boyfriend in his car, his first reaction is to smash glass. Even a meeting with an FBI psychologist about his propensity for violence…turns violent. Occasionally, we glimpse a warmer side of Penance, as when he shares an empathetic moment with an overwhelmed single father, and his relationship with local police officer Bubba comes across as genuine. But the various character-driven subplots, including his love-hate relationship with the Whatcoms, get overwhelmed by the continual fracases.

Indeed, most of the characters are either dishing out violence or defending it, including a local judge. When the cartel attacks, most of the town is willing and able to join the defense, and this includes the pastor, who is well-versed in the use of his AR-15. Sjostrom definitely has a flair for staging the brisk fight scenes: "… he sprung up to fire on the last visible guard only to see him knocked backward, a bullet shattering his skull." Action aficionados will enjoy the fast-paced conflict all the way to the satisfying conclusion.

Takeaway:: Fans of red-meat action will revel in the continuous stream of fight scenes.

Great for fans of: Stephen Hunter, Nick Petrie.

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

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Murder In the Haunted Chamber
Bill LeFurgy
LeFurgy’s second historic mystery takes a turn for the supernatural. It's 1910, and Baltimore is at the height of the spiritualist movement. Ever logical, returning hero Sarah Kennecott, a doctor on the autism spectrum, is a skeptic even when faced with the ghost of her own sister asking her to investigate the murder of a young woman. But when a decidedly living client—claiming to be a spiritual medium—shows up seeking her help in finding the same woman who appeared in Sarah's vision, Sarah and her returning partner, the detective Jack Harden, must once again dive into the seedy underbelly of Baltimore in order to catch a killer.

Lefurgy's signal strength is his persuasive weaving in of historic details of technology, pop culture, and Baltimore lore without distracting from the story. The characters ride around in horse-drawn or motor cabs, checking out seedy bars that play ragtime while being heckled by prohibitionists. The story itself is a complex mystery with a wide cast of characters tied together through with an assassination plot and a blackmail attempt.That complexity is mitigated by the author pausing periodically to have the characters rehash the situation, which might prove repetitive for seasoned fans of the genre.

The protagonists form a classic duo of opposites—Jack is an emotional man of the streets, while Sarah is a logic-oriented member of high society—who complement each other well and have a spark of affection that leads to an unlikely but believable friendship. Sarah is particularly unique as a historical heroine on the autism spectrum. While her speech patterns are exaggeratedly stilted (“There is a high probability that all three deaths are attributable to a murderer, or perhaps a team of murderers”) in the manner of Vulcans or androids, overall she is a fully realized person with a passion for justice, one who also misses social cues. The book is a well-plotted mystery set against a vivid historical backdrop.

Takeaway: Great for readers of historical mysteries who love clever female detectives.

Great for fans of: Rhys Bowen, Victoria Thompson

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

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The Part That Burns: A memoir in fragments
Jeannine M Ouellette
Ouellette’s memoir is a mesmerizing narrative kaleidoscope centered on her struggle to come to terms with the abuse she endured as a child. When Ouellette was four years old, her mother’s second husband began to molest her, abuse that continued for years. Ouellette coped by searching for “doorways” that allowed her to escape into new worlds. Even after her mother’s relationship with the abuser ended, Ouellette’s rocky, unstable childhood eventually landed her in the foster care system. After she aged out, her own marriage and children inspired her to revisit her past, confront her trauma, and pen this remarkable book.

Ouellette eschews a traditional chronological approach, instead organizing the narrative into short vignettes, each related to a significant object or incident. This fragmented structure captures the complexity of Ouellette’s emotional journey by illuminating key events and themes from fresh angles and perspectives, the structure suggesting the actual workings of memory. Some readers may at first look for more sustained, synthesized reflection or more circumscribed resolutions, but Ouellette’s skillful arrangement of these vignettes allows the story to surge forward and backward in a way that both heightens anticipation and layers meaning onto her experiences, without disorienting attentive readers.

Within the vignettes, Ouellette tells her story with power, strength, and even surprises: She includes an autobiography she wrote in ninth grade, its youthful, polished sentences poignantly glossing over the darker truth of her life. A series of sections on “daughterhood,” co-written by her own daughter, puts both women’s perspectives in dialogue, intertwining their experiences while exploring their distinctions. These unique elements add further dimension to the rich themes of motherhood and memory, offering readers interpretive possibilities that are equally challenging and rewarding. Ouellette’s memoir inventively laces together her past, present, and future, resulting in an innovative yet deeply emotional reading experience.

Takeaway: This moving memoir will connect with thoughtful readers who are open to an unconventional exploration of living after abuse.

Great for fans of: Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Tara Westover’s Educated.

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

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To The Stars: A Novel
Shannon P Colleary
Two young women find friendship in each other just when they need it most in Bradley-Colleary’s heart-rending fiction debut, a novel that originated as a screenplay that became the 2019 Samuel Goldwyn film of the same title. Living in tiny WaKeeney, Kansas, where everyone knows everyone and everything, Iris has been an “Untouchable” her whole life. In high stress situations she wets herself, a byproduct of her mother’s verbal abuse and severe anxiety from a lifetime of bullying—the nickname “Stinky Drawers” follows her right into high school. So, she’s understandably leery when a stand-out city girl, Maggie, moves to town and wants to be her friend. Maggie has her own painful secrets, and she needs Iris just as much as Iris needs her.

Traveling back to 1961, a time when being different in any way was alienating and even dangerous in a small town, Bradley-Colleary expertly delves into the hearts and minds of young people of the era, inviting readers to experience their painful feelings and small victories. Making the story even more personal, the narrator is a woman who fought–and lost–her battle with depression and loved Iris as a daughter. Bradley-Colleary opens with that narrator’s captivating account of her own suicide (“This is not a ghost story. But it is a story told by a ghost”).

Bradley-Colleary brings the town and characters to full, engaging life in this moving narrative. The pond central to the story exudes sadness, as the location of the narrator’s suicide, but also the sanctity and solace Iris feels there. Minute character details—the flick of a cigarette, the way one’s “slick black hair” is “rolled into a stylish mound the Frogs call a ‘chingon’”—speak volumes both about individual personalities and mid-century Kansas. Sometimes uncomfortable in the best ways, To the Stars will draw readers in. Expect to fall in love with Iris and Maggie.

Takeaway: A beautiful story of an unlikely small-town teen friendship that empowers when it’s needed most.

Great for fans of: Fiona Valpy’s The Dressmaker’s Gift, Mary Ellen Taylor’s Honeysuckle Season.

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

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Creatrix Rising: Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women
Stephanie Raffelock
Inspired by the upheaval of American life during the Trump years, Raffelock (A Delightful Little Book on Aging) charts a course to embracing the title of Creatrix—her renaming of the archetypal feminine models of maiden, mother, and most especially crone—to empower other women. At the age of 68, Raffelock found herself among an oft-ignored group that has been slowly gaining a voice in society: midlife women. Through brief vignettes accompanied by prompts for journaling and reflection, Raffelock inspires midlife women to consider their own journeys in life and tap into their creative power.

Raffelock is a product of and poster child of her generation, and she devotes considerable energy to examining the development of her feminist identity and recounting her struggles with drug addiction. Rather than glamorize her past drug use, she illustrates her self-destructive tendencies and how easy it was to indulge them in Laurel Canyon in the 1970s. Her feminism, too, is very much situated in that era: Her heartfelt description of the 2017 Women’s March emphasizes a sense of hope, uplift, and cross-generational connection: “Older women like me had the experience of an earlier feminism,” she notes. “Younger women carried the torch of new inspiration and vision. We’d been walking side by side for longer than any of us realized.”

Raffelock’s voice is gentle but probing, of herself and her audience, which shines through in her journal prompts: Neither gimmick nor afterthought, they’re a continual highlight, functioning as an introspective, reflective tool for readers seeking a new perspective or an opportunity to work through the complexities of feminism. Full of heart and impassioned insight (“There is no diagnostic code for grief, and there are no medications for sorrow”), Creatrix Rising empowers and inspires midlife women with the author’s hard-earned wisdom, providing a framework for readers to come into their own revolutionary power as a Creatrix.

Takeaway: Midlife women who want to reclaim their power will find inspiration and tools for reflection in this moving memoir.

Great for fans of: Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s Women Who Run with the Wolves, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

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

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Swimming with the Angels
Colin Kersey
Kersey follows his exciting debut (Soul Catcher) with this immersive thriller about how a man reinvents himself when members of a drug cartel kill his wife. Grayson Reynolds is the name that a man adopts to evade pursuit when the Sinaloa cartel takes revenge against his wife, Heide, after discovering that she had engineered the theft of some of its money through a hedge fund. Bereft and in danger, this “Grayson” leaves California to work in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains, north of Seattle. Though the pay is minimal, Grayson hopes that his job at a farm will at least keep him safe. But complications arise when the farmer’s younger daughter, Valerie, a kind, blind woman, becomes attracted to Grayson—and her married sister Vonda starts flirting with him, too. Once he realizes his presence puts the family in danger, he must decide on his next move.

Kersey’s expert pacing and attention to detail surrounding the life-changing events in Grayson’s life breathes life into the story, quickly immersing the reader. An early attack on a boat at Newport Harbor captures the combination of momentum and convincing color: “Bits of vinyl seats, fiberglass,and bloody body parts peppered me as we blasted past the paddleboarders, swamping them in our wake.” Elsewhere, that lyricism highlights Grayson’s introspective nature, offering greater insight into a man forced to leave his life behind and start over.

While highlighting the beauty near the North Cascade Mountains, Kersey deftly depicts the family dynamic between Vonda and Valerie. He reveals the complexity behind Vonda’s jealousy of Valerie; though she’s initially portrayed as somewhat naïve, her depth gets revealed as Grayson comes to know her, discovering her conviction that he is the man her deceased mother believed would one day come to see her. This thriller offers the on-the-run action that fans of the genre crave but also character and heart.

Takeaway: One man must take on a new identity if he wants a chance at survival in this fleet on-the-run thriller.

Great for fans of: Nora Roberts’s The Witness, Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead.

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

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Jacob's Ladder: Book 3 of The Croy Cycle
Louis Flint Ceci
The third novel in Ceci’s Croy Cycle sees outsider teen Mally Jacobs return to his small hometown after experiencing life and love in the turbulent Big Apple of the late 1960s. After finding his first boyfriend and witnessing the Stonewall riots firsthand, Mally has changed—he’s even adopted a new moniker, calling himself “Jake.” But how can readjust to small-town life when Croy, Oklahoma, is just as conservative as it always has been? As he holds onto the secret of his sexuality, Jake will find what it means to be himself, even in less-than-forgiving Croy.

At its core, Jacob’s Ladder is an elegant meditation on the power of friendship, even in the most uncertain times. The story is strong enough to be presented as a standalone novel; even new readers will be drawn in this late in the series, and they’ll find ample reasons to seek out Ceci’s earlier books. Jake, his boyfriend Vince, and the various inhabitants of Croy are colorful, engaging, and complex. Jake’s struggle to come to terms with the close-mindedness of his schoolmates and his desire to help another long-suffering classmate, Beau, are touching. Charming line illustrations by Jennifer Rain Crosby give extra life to the story and a face to the characters.

Ceci’s atmospheric prose captures the ethos of the era as church and school clash, the war rages on, and the Beatles give way toThe Brady Bunch. Ceci’s skillful, empathetic examination of sexuality, youth culture, and religion is not just welcome but necessary, in any time of upheaval. Young readers who may be coming to grips with their own sexuality will be drawn to the openness and honesty of this depiction and the likeability of the cast. Ceci’s honest, realistic depiction of teenage life in the 1960s and 1970s will resonate with young and older audiences alike.

Takeaway: A moving novel of going home and coming of age while gay as the 1960s end.

Great for fans of: Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy, Fenton Johnson’s Scissors, Paper, Rock.

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

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Hall Of Skulls
Jamie Eubanks
Eubanks (Hidden Doors, Secret Rooms) weaves an impressive sci-fi love story that crosses time and space. Kai, a member of the Mokuteki civilization, sits at the precipice of earning the prestigious rank and title of Captain Da’o Churi Koa Kai. First, he must complete a grueling, four-stage testing phase, but when it’s discovered that his soul mate Asher has been captured by the Mokuteki’s sworn alien enemies, the Thrakens, he realizes the most important test has begun—and it’s deeply personal. He must risk everything to travel through a portal to Bastian Thraken to rescue his beloved before she’s lost forever.

The heart of this epic is one man’s quest to rescue his soulmate, but Eubanks threads the tale with intricate worldbuilding and fascinating themes, such as concerns about humanity’s dependence on technology, how personal perception can alter history, and the conflict between the desire to remain civilized and the necessity to defend oneself against enemies. Kai’s physical and mental prowess are equally matched by Asher’s strength and pose; when his loyalty toward her gets tested, Kai’s rational personality is pitted against the hopeless romantic he is at his core, creating significant tension.

Eubanks presents the spacefaring technology and tricky time-travel adventures of her complex universe with inviting clarity while showcasing her ability to craft visceral images: “The intense swirl of cloud started to drain of its many colors, becoming pure white as it began to dissipate, eventually leaving just a wispy veil of fog behind.” She sprinkles inventive elements throughout, such as a Tutor—a device that syncs with the wearer’s genetic material and plays educational material—or kips, the whiskers on Kai's ears that help detect movement. While some points of plot or tech get repeated in dialogue, the narrative moves at a pleasant pace, waxing and waning between action and reflection. Readers looking for a sci-fi romance filled with adventure and a likeable protagonist will enjoy Halls of Skulls.

Takeaway: An SF epic packed with action, romance, and a quest across space-time to rescue a soulmate.

Great for fans of: Lois McMaster Bujold, Carol Van Natta.

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

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All the Tommys in the World: a zombie thriller
Javier Gombinsky
Gombinsky’s debut follows Lilith and Nate, middle-aged YouTubers who love horror movies and scaring each other––even during a zombie apocalypse. This zombie thriller begins at the end of that apocalypse––at least, that’s what the media is saying. That claim inspires Lilith and Nate decide to go for a “zombie run” outside, their last chance to experience the adrenaline of being chased by walking dead. They get separated while escaping from the still quite prevalent undead––leaving Frankie, a kid in a hospital gown, behind. Separately, they start to realize that the “slayers” who reportedly had been eliminating the threat are actually nowhere to be found, and now the fight for humanity is up to them.

From zombies to ghosts to ancient orders to psychic visions and prophecies, this genre-bending mystery keeps its audience and characters guessing, keeping the suspense alive throughout, though at times the storytelling falters. The narrative begins strong and clear, gets muddled and repetitive in the middle, and regains its strength by the end. There are so many twists that the story becomes disorienting––and important plot points are easy to miss, as key moments pass too quickly and the passage of time in the story is not always clear.

Gombinsky’s use of dramatic irony creates a lot of tension: Lilith and Nate’s separation adds to the suspense because they each learn different clues to solve the mystery of the zombies, but they aren’t able to communicate. In a meta-fictional twist, the characters note “It’s trope after trope out there” of their zombie encounters; once Lilith and Nate start to do “the unexpected,” outsmarting the zombies, the story flowers into a potent exploration of rebellion and genre. A final twist that turns all those zombie apocalypse tropes on their heads makes up for the slow-moving middle. Fans of meta-horror and gory body horror will be satisfied: between green blood, severed body parts, and creepy old cemeteries, this thriller never forgets its bloody roots, even as it upends them.

Takeaway: This bloody, clever zombie thriller takes off when its heroes start challenging the rules of the genre.

Great for fans of: David Wellington’s Monster Island, Mira Grant’s Feed.

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

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