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Dance of the Deities
Patricia A. McBroom
McBroom (The Third Sex: The New Professional Woman) uses her own experiences as an anthropologist, a science writer, and a woman navigating modern society to fashion a memoir of her “search for equality and the sacred female.” She examines the influence of goddess worship on human culture, establishing that many societies that worshipped female deities gave men and women equal power. She combines her research with her personal experiences to clearly demonstrate her view that society would function better with a more egalitarian structure. Her approach is compassionate, not militant; while grieving the effects of patriarchy in her own life, she asserts that women don’t want to rule over men, only to share their power.

Drawing on her several decades of science writing and archaeological research work, McBroom provides well-informed historical examples of egalitarian cultures that paid a steep price when male-dominated colonizers took over, examining the effects of European patriarchal structures on the Iroquois and the Maori. Her passion for female deities is clear throughout the narrative, but she’s careful to reinforce her personal opinions with informed analysis of ancient objects and other archaeological findings.

McBroom comfortably invites readers into her life. As she discusses the importance of goddesses in Neolithic cultures, she transitions seamlessly to examples of how a respectful view of women either did help or could have helped her. Sharing painful stories such as being scapegoated at work because she was a woman, and joyful ones such as living for 19 years in a cohousing community where everyone governs together, McBroom effectively illustrates the significance of recovering “the cultural history of the sacred female.” This mix of memoir, theory, and research will interest any reader who’s passionate about building a more egalitarian world.

Takeaway: Feminists and history buffs will be drawn to this passionate, well-researched memoir that explores the past and possible future of gender-equal societies.

Great for fans of Marija Gimbutas and Joseph Campbell’s The Language of the Goddess.

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

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DEATH ON THE HIGH SEAS
Richard V Rupp
Rupp’s slow-burn thriller leads readers on a global adventure. Special Agent Dick Hartmann and fellow FBI agent Coleen Ryan embark on a relaxing getaway aboard the Pacific Wonder cruise ship, where the Bon Appétit Insurance Company plans to hold its annual meeting. The insurance company manages finances for various high-level criminals, including Juanita Ramirez, head of a Mexican drug cartel. With the help of her girlfriend, Emelia Björk, Juanita strives to keep the cartel’s shady financial dealings under the FBI’s radar at any cost. When Bon Appétit’s CPA Greg Lemons notices discrepancies in the company’s bookkeeping, he is murdered to keep that information from becoming public. Dick and his team must unravel the mystery of the man’s death and bring the killer to justice.

Readers must suspend disbelief to fully appreciate this thriller. Juanita too-readily divulges highly sensitive information, including the inner workings of her business, to Emelia. Dick also acts questionably. After he’s summoned to meet with the captain about Greg’s murder, he pauses to take a shower and change clothing, a shocking delay considering the situation. Exposition is often repeated, slowing the pace despite a whirlwind plot and large ensemble cast filled with FBI agents and criminals. The frequent objectification of women (including by other women, as when Emelia eyes the “boobies” of “circle of dykes” at a party) a missed opportunity, undermining the promise of strong heroines and multidimensional women villains.

Rupp’s extensive world travel shines on the page. The truly varied assortment of settings includes Berlin, Monaco, and North Carolina. As each new locale is described, readers will find it easy to picture the characters there. His background in the commercial insurance industry paves the way for a sophisticated insurance scheme that keeps the pages turning as layer after layer is uncovered. Armchair travelers will get the most from this cruise through bloody waters.

Takeaway: Fans of financial thrillers and literary vacations will enjoy this tale of crime and scheming on a cruise ship.

Great for fans of Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals.

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

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Amplify Your Job Search
Jeffrey S. Ton
Ton follows 2018’s Amplify Your Value with a welcome corrective to business advice books that overpromise and underdeliver. The guide makes it clear that readers hoping to land an ideal job will have to work at it, advocating a laser focus (“zeroed in on a specific role”) as opposed to a shotgun approach (“searching for a job, just about any job”). Ton challenges his audience to pursue intense self-reflection, secure the feedback of colleagues, and explore past accomplishments in narrative terms. The manual provides additional steps to “amplify” a personal brand, and the advice, while practical, demands serious self-investigation: as a laser is highly concentrated, so should be a candidate’s presentation of strengths, skills, and achievements.

Ton emphasizes the power of networking in chapters fully updated for the 2020 reality of virtual get-togethers. His suggestions range from the technical (digital Zoom backgrounds “will detract from your image, and if the lighting isn’t perfect, you will look like James T. Kirk transporting to the Enterprise during a power glitch”) to the interpersonal (“look at the camera... like you would look in someone’s eyes in a face-to-face meeting”). Ton proposes asking key questions at networking encounters and includes several examples of direct queries to utilize in both online and offline settings, teaching readers to take goal-oriented action.

This compact guide wastes no energy on filler and convinces readers of the urgency of more demanding self-investigation. Journaling is one of several instruments offered to help applicants obtain their dream jobs. Rather than selling readers a one-size-fits-some system, Ton’s guide stands out and accommodates individuality by instructing readers to sell themselves. Any white-collar job-seeker who’s willing to put some thought and effort into identifying their strengths, weaknesses, and ideal work situation will find this an invaluable aid.

Takeaway: This no-nonsense guide will help any white-collar job-seeker unlock their dream career through self-examination, networking, and staying focused.

Great for fans of Richard Nelson Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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Dead Ball
GP Hutchinson
Hutchinson’s engrossing second historical baseball thriller (after Over the Right Field Wall) begins in 1912 when St. Louis Cardinal Hal Gerecke throws a life-altering pitch at Boston Braves shortstop Rube Wannamaker. Rube doesn’t see the toss coming due to the ball’s dirtied state and is rendered comatose, later vegetative, by the impact. Gutted by his mistake, Hal abandons baseball for married life with spunky Gracie Matthews, but recruiters for the newly formed and supposedly safer Mutual League soon pull him out of retirement. However, certain folks—including mysterious baseball newcomer Johnny Wagner—believe Hal purposely maimed Rube and are out for blood, putting Hal’s life in serious danger.

Hal, Johnny, and Gracie are the most developed characters; the others can feel slightly flat. As Johnny and other players threaten violence, readers will admire how Hal maintains integrity by rarely picking a fight and always thinking of his wife’s safety first. Though this distinct moral compass can seem slightly exaggerated, it leaves readers reassured that Hal would never intentionally harm Rube. Hal is an honorable man whose chivalry is emphasized through his respectful treatment of Gracie and Hannah McGuire, a Boston nurse he befriends. His bashful awe of the two women’s beauty is a little reductive but sweetly innocent, and gives readers another reason to root for him.

Hutchinson echoes film noir and hard-boiled crime novels through ominous foreshadowing and chapter-ending cliff-hangers. Readers observe Johnny’s moves where Hal doesn’t, creating a larger sense of danger for the protagonist. It’s exhilarating to follow Hal and Gracie through the historic streets of Boston, New York, and St. Louis as they try to deduce who is truly after them and sort the good guys from the bad guys in the intense world of pre-regulation baseball. Crime fans and baseball fanatics alike will be enthralled by this retro tale of love and revenge.

Takeaway: Historically accurate details of pre-regulation baseball and nail-biting suspense will captivate crime and sports fans.

Great for fans of Eliot Asinof’s Eight Men Out, Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49, W.P. Kinsella.

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

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High Plains Redemption
GP Hutchinson
The action-packed standalone second Cimarron Jack Westerns novel (after 2018’s Cimarron’s Law) is an appealing window into a world of cowboys, liars, and tough-as-nails women. Bronco rider Quint Woodall, taking the train home to nurse a back injury, meets Cora, a young woman from a powerful family, who asks for help escaping Julius, her abusive fiancé-to-be. Despite Julius’s attempts to steal her back, Quint and Cora make it to his mother’s ranch, where their troubles only grow. As Quint faces legal trouble for helping Cora, he must also contend with Hew, a violent ranch hand with a powerful hold over Quint’s mother.

Hutchinson strives for historical accuracy in his setting and language but modernizes his characters’ politics. Though the narrative focuses on a damsel in distress, Cora is a fully fleshed-out and profound character. The chapters switch perspectives, so Cora never feels like an afterthought in her own story; she and Quint have fully separate reactions to (and feelings about) specific situations. Hutchinson hits on the important hallmarks of a traditional western, setting Quint and Cora firmly in a world of clear rights and wrongs, but he still manages to imbue the narrative with appealing sensitivity.

There are a few extraneous characters and side plots. One, involving Cora’s father and Julius abusing railroad workers, feels particularly sadistic and out of place, especially since it never factors into the end of the story. However, for the most part the narrative is lean, fast-moving, and well-structured. Though the bulk of the action takes place in a courthouse, the dialogue and setting feel distinctly western and the tension is as high as in a shootout. Hutchinson brings the western up to date without losing any of the genre’s historical charm in a gripping story with broad appeal.

Takeaway: This historical western with a thoughtful modern sensibility will enthrall both longtime genre fans and new readers.

Great for fans of Zane Grey’s The Lone Star Ranger, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove Series.

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

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Deja Vu: Here We Go Again...
Melody Saleh
Saleh follows Facade with further entertaining moments of struggle and glory in the lives of friends navigating life, love, and relationships in sunny South Florida. Widowed and pregnant, Debra Harris realizes she said “yes” to the wrong man. Dominque “Dom” Patterson is madly in love with her boyfriend, Tad Johnson; however, her debilitating illness threatens their relationship. Fashion designer Zya is a single mother of two, struggling to maintain a career and love life amid chaos and a custody battle. Esteemed journalist Amber Fiore finds herself at the center of a homicide investigation after her vengeful twin sister, Brandy, makes an unexpected return.

The large cast of characters is headlined by these four ladies, whose stories are drastically different but all center on love and romantic relationships. This installment resumes where the action stopped in the first book’s cliff-hanger ending, immediately thrusting readers into the fast-paced plot. New readers may initially struggle to understand the overlapping, complex plotlines and keep track of the numerous characters and their various motivations. The powerful bond among the friends, and their resilience, surpasses the cluttered plot to create a romantic drama that underscores the importance of maintaining supportive friendships and the healing power of love.

Saleh writes passionately about Dom and Tad’s difficulties, poignantly depicting the impact of terminal illnesses on relationships. Although the book includes murder, sexual assault, bullying, and elements of mystery, at its heart it’s a love story. Elegantly written sex scenes provide breaks in the story’s rapid pace while highlighting the romantic bonds between partners. This emotionally affecting page-turner is a must for any hopeless romantic who prefers a touch of angst with their happily ever after.

Takeaway: Fans of romance and women’s fiction will enjoy this dramatic, passionate story of love and redemption.

Great for fans of Robyn Carr, A.C. Arthur, Terry McMillan.

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

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Hidden Magic: The Eldritch of Hallows
Elana McDougall
A woman on the run from her abusive ex-fiancé grapples with secrets from her past and her attraction to a sexy sheriff in McDougall’s steamy debut. When Sasha’s car breaks down outside the small town of Hallows, N.C., she realizes that the lack of internet and cell phone reception make the charming town an ideal spot to disappear. But Sasha isn’t the only person hiding in Hallows. For centuries, the town has been a haven for mages, shapeshifters, trolls, and fae, many of whom see Sasha’s arrival as a threat to their safety. Jake Wulfrik, the local sheriff, won’t let anyone harm the woman he feels so drawn to, but when real danger comes to Hallows, Sasha may not be able to risk trusting Jake.

McDougall entices readers into a world where magical beings hide in the shadows, fearing persecution and exploitation by humans. Hallows is a complex society with political structures, social hierarchies, and a rich but bitter history. As Sasha settles in, vivid descriptions paint both the town and its inhabitants clearly in the imagination. A violent murder just outside city limits introduces an element of intrigue and keeps readers guessing as to the true nature of the threats to Hallows and Sasha.

Jake and Sasha share an intense physical attraction, but the reader’s impression of their compatibility suffers from a lack of depth in their personal interactions. In the context of Sasha’s traumatic previous relationships, the absence of a developed trust base sets off warning bells in the mild power play flavoring the sex scenes. However, there is a satisfying sense of growth in the bonds Sasha forms with her newfound friends and the way the magic of Hallows awakens secrets from her childhood. McDougall’s well-formed magical world will hold the reader’s interest as the mystery and romance unfold.

Takeaway: Paranormal romance readers who relish suspenseful plotting and alpha male heroes will enjoy this tale of self-discovery.

Great for fans of Carol Van Natta’s Shifter Mate Magic, Sedona Venez’s Taming the Beast.

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

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Bladeseeker
Roy Blackstone
Blackstone’s crisply written young adult fantasy debut follows a motley crew of characters in the kingdom of Nemea, where ancient artifacts known as soulblades have been mysteriously appearing. These powerful swords bestow dark magic on their finders, so people race to recover them. Meanwhile, various forces clash in a takeover bid for the king’s throne, and 14-year-old treasure hunter Tyr, an unnamed girl warrior, royal guards, and seraphs—isolated creatures living in a floating city—are just some of the interesting characters caught up in epic battles for power.

Blackstone weaves the characters’ complex journeys into a broad view of the hunt for soulblades and the consequences that arise when they are found. The novel is ostensibly titled after Tyr, who opens the story with his quest to find a soulblade and be knighted, but all the central characters wind up as bladeseekers in a way, and the interlocking effects of their actions strengthen the overall narrative. Most compelling is the unnamed character whose backstory and character development unfold slowly, and the many unanswered questions about her will leave readers craving the next installment.

The story is dark at times, especially with some of the battle deaths. The setting is vividly rendered with crisp depictions of bold landscapes and dangerous weather. Readers will glimpse each character’s motivation and loyalties through the articulation of their internal thoughts and conflicts, with unexpected players generating the biggest impact in the end. Blackstone succeeds in fully fleshing out characters and building a sinister world of magic with dire consequences. Full of combat, quests, and soul-searching, this thoughtful fantasy asks readers to question both history and destiny.

Takeaway: This action-packed and thoughtful fantasy quest story will enchant readers with its charming characters and surprising revelations.

Great for fans of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, Rick Riordan.

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

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The Ancestor
Lee Matthew Goldberg
Goldberg’s meticulously constructed thriller entwines a touching examination of family with deeply disturbing horror and taut suspense. Wyatt, a prospector, was frozen solid during the Alaska gold rush of 1898. He thaws out in 2020 and immediately meets his great-great grandson, Travis, an out-of-work father and husband who looks identical to Wyatt. Wyatt befriends Travis, but the relationship quickly turns sinister as Wyatt decides to replace his long-dead family with Travis’s wife, Callie, and son, Eli. The tension between the past and present slowly builds as Callie and Travis’s marriage falters and Wyatt works himself deeper into their life, coming to a crescendo deep in the Alaskan wilderness.

It’s unfortunate that the female and non-white characters, particularly Aylen, a Native American sex worker, are often treated like objects by the white male protagonists or by the narrative. For example, Wyatt’s obsession with Callie hinges only upon her resemblance to his dead wife, and has nothing to do with her personally. Many of Travis’s 21st-century problems are reflected in Wyatt’s past, which is laid out in unevenly distributed, exposition-heavy flashbacks, stuttering the plot’s pace. Otherwise, Goldberg (The Desire Card) is an efficient writer, drawing complex, sympathetic portraits of Callie, Wyatt, and Travis, all of whom are flawed and compelling in their own ways.

Small-town Alaska is brought to vivid life with tight prose and clear descriptions (“Morning brings out the fishermen along the docks. Pungent smells lining the air. Bristly beards and heavy gear to stave off the sleet”), creating a perfect quotidien backdrop to Wyatt and Travis’s eerie rivalry. The bloody opening scene, in which a newly revived Wyatt strangles and eats a wolf, is an outlier; the bulk of the novel is light on physical violence and will please fans of more psychological suspense. This richly imagined story of ancestors and descendants is written in a confident voice and well suited to anyone interested in the complexities of identity and legacy.

Takeaway: This compulsively readable thriller will disturb and delight anyone who has ever contemplated what it means to be an ancestor or a descendant.

Great for fans of Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, Laura Sims’s Looker.

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

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Lost Secret of the Ancient Ones
Chris Reynolds
The first Manna Chronicles thriller, spun off from Reynolds’s The Lion’s Gate, sends 20-something adventurer Maya Harrington on a mind-bending trip all over the world and into the depths of her own mind in a mystic quest to uncover long-forgotten truths and find her explorer father while battling shadowy enemies. Working for a secretive and powerful international company, Maya gleans hidden knowledge from a shaman in the Amazon rainforest and a Ukrainian priest who belongs to an ancient sect. She also learns an out-of-body technique called remote viewing as she and her friends, history expert Johnny “JW” White Feather and computer genius Layla, use all their wits to decipher her father’s diary and beat their enemies to dangerous revelations.

Reynolds, who describes himself as an explorer and adventurer, has an assured hand as he portrays the fascinating details of myths and rituals from a wide range of cultures. Especially effective are the forays into the paranormal and spiritual. For example, Maya’s trip with a psychoactive brew under the guidance of a Navajo elder is suffused with striking imagery and language, "her consciousness freed from the shackles of her mind and the human prison of matter." Occasionally, the plot strains credulity, as when it gives supernatural explanations for historical events. However, the ancient settings and the book’s mythos never fail to engage.

As grand themes abound, Maya’s relations with her stalwart friends lend a welcome lightening touch. JW accompanies Maya on most of her odyssey and is protective and helpful. The more flamboyant Layla provides an effective contrast. A searing event from Maya’s childhood fleshes out her character and nicely sets the stage for Maya’s further interactions with her mysterious employer. The appealing new adult protagonists and the colorful locales will keep readers invested in the richly detailed myth-laden plot of this vibrant voyage into the unknown.

Takeaway: Fans of global adventure mysteries will be entranced by this thriller’s nonstop supernatural action and winning characters.

Great for fans of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Michael Crichton’s Congo.

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

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Space Throne
Brian Corley
This entertaining space opera starts fast and doesn’t let up. Years ago, Prince Parrtec, heir to an interstellar empire, faked his death to escape his duties and take up the life of a trader and smuggler. When he learns of his parents’ sudden death, he’s ready, though reluctant, to return home and take up the throne. All he must do is find a way to pass through the shield protecting his homeworld without revealing his identity too soon—a plan that proves more difficult than he imagined when a relentless bounty hunter picks up his trail. Now Parr must rely on his old friend Manc Yelray, a shady pirate, and his new friend Ren, who’s the charming and opportunistic, to outsmart, outfight, and outfly enemies at every turn.

With its ragtag crew of unlikely allies poised to double-cross each other, this space opera wastes no time in leaping right into the action, pitting its prince-in-hiding against a galaxy of potential enemies. Corley (Ghost Bully) brilliantly constructs a universe populated by rogues, miscreants, and plausibly weird aliens. However, the constant barrage of unfamiliar names, terms, and slang may overwhelm a reader expected to decipher them through context. More familiar are the thrill-seeking Parr’s fondness for his ship, Aurora, and his contentious relationship with Manc, which may remind readers of a certain scruffy nerf-herder.

Corley’s protagonists rarely have time to catch their breath, plunging from one mess to the next, yet they still manage to grow as individuals, although Parr’s continuing obliviousness concerning his sister’s potentially sinister plans is a little hard to swallow. A trace of humor runs through the story, edged with self-awareness. As Parr and his allies fight for their lives, he’s forced to consider the privileges of his upbringing, though this theme doesn’t get as much examination as it deserves. This character-driven starfaring adventure hits the spot, while leaving a few loose threads for future installments.

Takeaway: This fast-paced interstellar romp will satisfy readers looking for action, double-crosses, and a touch of wacky hijinks.

Great for fans of Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Mike Brooks’s Dark Run, R.E. Stearns’s Barbary Station, James Lovegrove’s Firefly series.

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

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Cooper B.
Michael Shane Leighton
Leighton’s first Cooper B. middle grade fantasy-mystery brims with adventure and charms with its simplicity. Cooper B., age 11, has been in the foster system his entire life. The only constant has been Ms. Pedigree, his social worker. Upon placement at Saint Mary’s Academy for Exceptional Youth, Cooper quickly befriends two of Ms. Pedigree’s other charges, Miles and Aria. The trio discover their fourth, Serra, who comes from a parallel world called Alyssum. Strangest of all is that Cooper B. is apparently known in Alyssum as a boy with a cryptic history.

Leighton easily sweeps readers into the world of Alyssum, which is familiar enough to be comforting but distinctive in a beguiling way. Though readers may detect echoes of other stories about orphans thrust into magical places full of friends and foes, the wide-eyed wonder Cooper feels in Alyssum is original and beautifully described. The smoothly written prose flows effortlessly, liberally dotted with enticing details and vivid characterizations. The novel allows children to be children, giving them room to grow, develop, and explore freely. There’s plenty of adult supervision, but it’s clear that the quartet have autonomy to discover new opportunities and initiate fresh experiences.

Cooper’s perspective isn’t always consistent; there are several instances where his voice and word choice suggest an adult, or someone with more maturity than one would expect from an 11-year-old. The tale intermittently reads as if Cooper is an adult reminiscing about his past rather than a child experiencing these events for the first time. Young readers who find those passages confusing will still enjoy the rest of the story and de Souza Sinclair’s elegant digital chapter-head illustrations. Conveying a sense of awe and delight, Leighton delivers an absorbing and entertaining story that touches just enough on serious topics.

Takeaway: A sophisticatedly crafted world and vividly imagined characters will draw readers of all ages into this adventure filled with lessons and wonder.

Great for fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

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

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Before the Distance
Pasquale Trozzolo
Trozzolo’s charming and breezy collection of poems about life during the era of social distancing acknowledges the hardships of the pandemic while sounding a hopeful note. His sense of humor is cheeky and playful, as in “Heavy,” which uses a vertical stacking structure to indicate thinness as he suggests even writing a short poem can be beneficial. “Reputation” is similarly sarcastic, as Trozzolo notes how unusually nice he’s being to people, and how “If this virus doesn’t kill me/ It’s going to ruin my/ Respectability.” The verses are alternately reflective, mournful, fearful, wistful, and anxious. Trozzolo covers a lot of ground with a pithy style that gets straight to the point but never takes itself too seriously.

While Trozzolo is usually thoughtful in formulating his observations and ruminations, most of these poems have a spontaneous feel to them. They quickly and sketchily capture a mood, as in “Walls”: “Can you/ Climb walls/ while/ Sitting in a/ Chair?” These brief verses are more effective than some of the longer poems, such as the overly labored “Blue,” which loses its impact as Trozzolo works hard to create rhymes. Trozzolo’s humor also works best in small bursts, as opposed to poems like “It Is,” in which Trozzolo belabors references to the song “You’re So Vain” in order to craft a joke.

Most of Trozzolo’s poems don’t fall into the trap of being clever for their own sake. Even when he’s playing around, he focuses on communicating his ideas through vivid, spare imagery. He’s candidly direct and sincere in expressing his thoughts on how the pandemic has changed daily life, and communicates gratitude for the remnants of meaning he can still find. Trozzolo distinctively touches on the strangeness of pandemic life while embracing its absurdity, and his quirky poems offer laughter and genuine insight without being pretentious.

Takeaway: Readers looking for a poetic take on life sheltering at home during the pandemic will relish Trozzolo’s wit, empathy, and economy of words.

Great for fans of Kit Falbo’s Pandemic Poems, Christoffer Petersen’s Pandemic Poetry.

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

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Lassa the Viking and the Dragon's Inferno
Dean Yurke
Yurke’s fast-paced adventure captures the swashbuckling atmosphere of Northern Europe in the 11th century CE, though at times it struggles with a lack of historical accuracy. At age 13, Lassa Erikson knows he only wants to be a healer, but he’s conned by his twin brother, Sven, into joining the Viking army. When Lassa accidentally kills the Saxon military commander Modred, he is hailed as a hero. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Saxon princess Ann is determined to pick up a sword and fight alongside the men, but she ends up as Lassa’s prisoner, and he claims her as his wife to save her from his rough fellow Vikings. When Viking king Magnus is kidnapped, Ann and Lassa are thrust into a desperate battle while a mysterious dragon cult tries to eradicate all of Norse and Saxon culture. Lassa must prove himself as a confident warrior to win Ann’s heart and save the Vikings from the Dragon King.

A plethora of anachronisms pull readers out of the time period and interrupt the story’s flow. There are a number of glaring factual errors: Lassa describes a Viking tune as resembling the Christian hymn “Good King Wenceslas,” a 19th-century song with a 13th-century melody; Lassa’s mentor, Chinese alchemist Choy Yang, predates the documented arrival of Chinese immigrants to England and Norway by hundreds of years. Likewise, language choices for the characters, such as Lassa repeatedly saying things are “cool,” make it difficult to fully immerse oneself in the time period, though the creative liberties may appeal to an uncritical younger audience.

Lassa’s struggle to fit in with the older, tougher Vikings is peppered with boyish humour and palpable nervous tension. Both Lassa and Ann have engaging, distinctive voices, and as they both try to break free from the gender restrictions of their time, they make a very sympathetic couple. Young readers who care more about fun adventure than historical accuracy will enjoy Yurke’s rip-roaring storytelling.

Takeaway: Sweeping atmosphere and a zippy pace will draw adventure-minded middle grade readers to this tale of Viking and Saxon warfare and romance.

Great for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Terry Jones’s The Saga of Erik the Viking.

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

A LONG WAY HOME
Myra Hargrave McIlvain
In McIlvain’s lively but uneven novel, corporate executive Meredith Haggerty escapes her brutal husband, Harvey, by hiding in the chaos following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. She flees her office with only her ever-present satchel as the building collapses, faking her death. She’s suffused with guilt over driving drunk and getting in a crash that left Harvey partially paralyzed, but she feels she’s paid her dues by enduring his abuse in the decade since. As she rides a bus to Mexico, fellow passenger Father Jacques “Rich” Richelieu, a priest and medical doctor, recognizes a woman in need of help. Rich invites her to stay at his community center in Brownsville, Tex. Once she’s settled, her stash of cash is stolen and she must rely on meager earnings and the kindness of her new community, all while living in fear of exposure.

McIlvain (Stein House) vividly depicts Meredith’s escape against the backdrop of the traumatic events of 9/11, and the scenes of Rich and other knowledgeable people recognizing the clear signs of domestic abuse are well-written and sensitively approached. As Meredith navigates a new life in a place filled with poverty, violence, and sorrow, McIlvain keeps the book’s tone from descending too far into the dark, adding a touch of romance as well as some melodrama in a subplot involving a young Mexican boy.

The writing falters in the last quarter as the author winds up to the denouement, tying up loose ends in brisk fashion. Life-altering decisions for Father Rich and Meredith seem too convenient and neat. Even with these missteps, this novel is powerful and compelling. The mutual misery of Meredith and Harvey’s marriage is capably portrayed, and Meredith is a complicated and appealing heroine. Readers will breathlessly turn pages to the end.

Takeaway: Readers intrigued by heroines on the run and possibly in need of redemption will love this vivid novel of a woman using the events of 9/11 to escape her abusive husband.

Great for fans of Don Winslow’s The Border, Barbara O’Neal.

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

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Third-Person Possessed
Mike Klaassen
Klaassen’s manual for novice fiction writers suggests that the key to a successful novel depends on its style. Klaassen focuses on creating a sense of intimacy in writing that keeps readers engaged. He calls this style “third-person possessed,” a technique for “writing third person in a way that allows the reader to consistently experience the story as if he is inside the character’s mind and body,” and in this eminently readable work, he explains his strategy for maintaining it throughout a novel.

Klaassen argues that most current bestselling authors made their mark toward the end of the 20th century, and though their prose was cutting-edge for its time, new writers won’t be able to achieve similar heights by imitating that older style. He advocates for “third-person possessed” as the path forward in the 21st century. However, when discussing “some of the greatest stories ever told,” Klaassen lists Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Gone with the Wind. Often uncritical of earlier authors’ prose, Klaassen’s attempt to connect their style to his own technique often undercuts the book’s claim that 21st-century literature needs a new stylistic approach. Works by women and people of color receive fewer mentions. Klaassen recommends against physically describing characters, as a reader who doesn’t share their traits might be jarred out of identifying with them; authors of work that hinges on gender, race, ability, or size may prefer his advice to “give the reader credit for being intelligent.”

Over 13 short chapters, Klaassen discusses how to cultivate a compelling narrative, fleshed-out characters, consistent prose, and a fully revised book manuscript. Many tips are sourced from Wikipedia or older writing manuals. Though purportedly aimed at novelists of all levels, the book is primarily for novice authors who lack access to a professional editor. This overview of intimate prose style techniques is most useful as a crash course in grammatical and literary devices that create an intimate reading experience.

Takeaway: Klaassen’s persuasive guide to writing intimate third-person narratives provides useful tips to authors working on their first manuscripts.

Great for fans of Stephen King’s On Writing, Karen S. Weisner, John Truby.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A-
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Editing: A-
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