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Trauma Town Dispatch
Suzann Kale
This darkly comic novel dabbles in philosophy, romance, friendship, and the nature of existence, all in the unlikely setting of a small-town hospital. Sabine is a middle-aged switchboard operator at Trummel Hospital; her working life is plagued by intensity, and she might just be falling in love with the disembodied voice from a police scanner. She strikes up a friendship with an emergency room patient, Juliet, her next-door neighbor and a Vietnam War veteran whose aloof personality and mysterious love life intrigue Sabine. When a woman shoots a teen hospital patient, Sabine feels a strange connection to the victim and is determined to understand what draws them together.

The budding friendship between Sabine and Juliet is where Kale’s writing really shines; Juliet’s worldliness and effortlessly cool demeanor are the perfect antidote to Sabine’s anxiety-fueled stream-of-consciousness narration. The novel is underpinned by a much deeper exploration of Sabine’s personal existential crisis, which includes such philosophical problems as the fluidity of existence and the nature of death. The narrative never gets too heavy; Kale balances out the morbidity with a wry sense of humor. Scenes at the hospital, where Sabine interacts with her workmates Glo and Aja, are especially amusing, playing out like a classic comedy of errors.

Some heavy-handed pop culture references and literary allusions can be a whimsical reminder of time and place, but often they drag or stall an otherwise enriching narrative. For instance, the description of a character’s voice as a “soft Uma Thurman Henry and June art film voice” feels uninspired. This stylistic choice distracts from Kale’s impressive ability to create likable, three-dimensional characters. This inquisitive look at personal connection in a disorienting setting perfectly captures the weirdness of hospitals and the importance of human vulnerability and authenticity.

Takeaway: Readers with a taste for philosophy and absurdity will enjoy this darkly comic tale of mishaps and friendship in a small-town hospital.

Great for fans of Richard Hooker’s MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

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

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Confidence Lost / Confidence Found
Kathleen McGuinness
Executive coach McGuinness’s engaging and inspiring guide is based on her own efforts to develop lasting confidence. After she was abruptly fired, got divorced, and suffered financial losses, McGuinness’s sense of self was shattered. Emerging from this desperate time in her life, McGuinness realized that lack of confidence is an all-too-common issue for women and became determined to help others develop and sustain belief in themselves. Her guide outlines ways for women to build resilience and self-acceptance, and to reframe their perceptions of themselves.

McGuinness makes some attempt to invoke neuropsychological and sociological underpinnings for low confidence and self-esteem in women, but readers are unlikely to be persuaded by unscientific-sounding statements such as the assertion that women have more neurons “in the region [of the brain] known as the worrywart center.” (The book’s endnotes give sources, but magazine articles and self-help books outnumber peer-reviewed scientific studies.) However, McGuinness’s exercises are sound. She recommends deliberately taking note of moments of personal success, such as using an achievement as small as fixing a printer’s paper jam to fight back against a critical inner voice that says “I’m bad at mechanical stuff,” and developing confident body language. She skillfully gives depth to commonplace tips on dealing with situations such as interviewing for jobs and speaking in public.

McGuinness’s advice and drills are practical, and she’s always mindful of the issues many women face in their efforts to overcome their own inner doubts. As useful as all the material is, readers might wish for less densely packed pages, as each one sometimes feels full to overflowing with information and suggestions. Readers who recognize their own struggles in these pages will find that many of McGuinness’s methods make upcoming challenges easier to face.

Takeaway: Women who struggle to believe in themselves will discover many useful tips in this practical guide to building and sustaining self-esteem.

Great for fans of Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass.

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

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With the Courage of a Mouse
Donna Sager Cowan
Sager Cowan’s twisty middle grade debut features unexpected friendships and a delightful mix of mystery and adventure. Simon Cheddar, a quick-thinking, resourceful mouse, is escaping from a hawk when he runs into Catt, a skittish cat who’s been abandoned by her humans. Impulsively, Simon invites Catt to join him on his first day at Superhero School, a class for young animals who want to be heroes. Catt and Simon quickly become best friends, and Simon cautiously introduces her to his friends and family in hidden Mouseville. Everything is going well until other cats attack Mouseville. The mice blame Catt and banish Simon, who sets out to prove his friend’s innocence.

Economic anxiety drives the story. Catt is traumatized by life as a starving alley cat, impoverished city mouse Ricky despises and envies the “soft” country mice of Mouseville, and meerkat butler Nigel longs to be his own boss. It’s not clear why this anthropomorphic paradise is so riddled with inequality and privation. No one questions the school’s peculiar policy barring orphans from attending, even when it puts Catt—who “refused to be property again”—in an impossible quandary: allow a cat she doesn't know to become her adoptive parent, or give up on school and live on the street. Homelessness is treated as a plot point, not a societal ill. Given the constant mentions of wealth and poverty, the lack of analysis beyond compassion being good and greed being bad feels like an oversight.

Sager Cowan makes the many characters distinct, aided by Reid’s sometimes clumsy but colorful illustrations. Superhero School classmates Patty Porter, a tech-savvy pig, and Freddy Flickerson, an agile frog, help Simon crack the case. Without pontificating, Sager Cowan clearly teaches readers about accepting and trusting others who come from different backgrounds. This series starter is filled with mystery and a lot of heart.

Takeaway: Tween readers will enjoy this warm-hearted mystery’s memorable animal characters and imaginative setting.

Great for fans of Gigi Priebe and Daniel Duncan’s Adventures of Henry Whiskers series.

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

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The Empress of the Clouds
Desiree Ultican
Ultican’s enjoyable American steampunk adventure features a sterling heroine. When Evaline Amstel’s husband, Heinz, is murdered in 1896 Joplin, Mo., she’s left in a dire situation. Heinz, an inventor, racked up significant debts, stole from her personal funds, and quietly paid for the upkeep of Bettina, his daughter from his secret first marriage—which never legally ended. Evaline decides to forge her own path forward, determined to care for Bettina and rescue Heinz’s failing airship company. After Evaline confirms that Heinz was involved in shady dealings, she’s stalked by spies, kidnapped, and forced to labor on the doomsday device her husband had unwittingly begun to build for megalomaniac Erasmus Marchand. Only once she escapes is she able to turn her focus toward stopping Erasmus’s plot to assassinate the president.

The cast is strong and diverse, and the white protagonists have an almost modern acceptance of and respect for the nonwhite characters. Unfortunately, that depiction is undermined by some questionable narrative choices, including eye dialect, period-accurate racist language, and characterization derived from caricature. People of color are used as props for white people’s characterization—a Chinese-American surprising a white man by speaking fluent English, an enslaved teen girl being sexually exploited by Erasmus—and vanish from the story as soon as the point is made.

The tale is ripe with drama and daring feats, but the telling is dry and matter-of-fact (“She brought the lever forward as smoothly as possible to abruptly halt the craft from diving into the landscape below”), reducing the tension in otherwise exciting events and making it hard to emotionally invest in the wellbeing of the characters or the relationships they form with one another. Nonetheless, the well-constructed plot creates a real sense of adventure. Evaline is an inspiring heroine for anyone who longs to see a bold and self-reliant woman stare down danger and do what’s right.

Takeaway: Steampunk fans will admire the bold and self-reliant heroine of this airship adventure.

Great for fans of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Gail Carriger.

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

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Desperately Seeking Novelty
Sandra Arnau-Dewar
Freelance editor Arnau-Dewar’s gritty and inspiring debut memoir chronicles the challenging experience of parenting children with ADHD—and eventually being diagnosed with it herself. After her children, Cindy and Eric, were diagnosed with ADHD in the 1990s, Arnau-Dewar became a fierce advocate for them. Finding upsides as well as downsides to their way of thinking and interacting with the world, she searched for a way to view ADHD as something other than a mental disorder, eventually coming to see the condition as a product of evolutionary biology.

After an introduction that feels more like a scientific paper, complete with nine footnotes, Arnau-Dewar shifts smoothly into memoir mode and expertly toggles back and forth between the 1950s and the 2010s, unflinchingly examining her nomadic childhood as the only child of a single mother. She also lays bare her family’s other mental health issues, including the suicides of both her parents. She pulls no punches about the difficulties of raising children with ADHD—her marriage was among the casualties—but painstakingly details the joys of “restless energy and exuberant curiosity,” “passion and optimism,” alongside the challenges of dealing with teachers, doctors, and sometimes self-destructive kids.

Woven into the recollections are a variety of references to scientific studies on ADHD. “Remember that natural selection occurs when a change (mutation) in the genetic code favors survival,” Arnau-Dewar writes, theorizing that hyperactivity, impulsivity, and aggression allowed humans to avoid predators. She does a masterful job of compiling studies to back up this hypothesis and suggests that the condition be called “executive function adaptation” to reduce stigma and recognize the positive aspects of ADHD mental wiring. Meticulously researched and skillfully written, Arnau-Dewar’s memoir does double duty as a brutally frank instructional guide for parents of children with ADHD.

Takeaway: Readers raising children with ADHD will greatly benefit from Arnau-Dewar’s blend of memoir and science.

Great for fans of Thom Hartmann’s Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception, Blake E.S. Taylor’s ADHD and Me.

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

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Ballast Point Breakdown
Corey Lynn Fayman
Musician and author Fayman’s fourth Rolly Waters mystery (after Desert City Diva) takes private investigator Rolly on a quest to find Butch Fleetwood, a former Navy diver who’s been missing for over two decades. Environmental activist Janis Withers crashes her boat into the Admiral’s Club ballroom in San Diego, pours gasoline everywhere, and dies in the subsequent fire. Her fellow activist Melody Flowers asks Rolly for help finding Butch, whom Janis claimed was Arion, the dolphin king, and the inspiration for the Lemurian Temple that Melody and Janis founded for dolphin worship, which Janis’s parents plan to sell. As Janis once ran the fan club of Rolly’s former band, he agrees to help Melody. Soon he’s mired in a mystery involving a water park, a wealthy painter, a secretive government contractor, and the elusive Harmonica Dan. As people linked to the investigation die mysteriously, Rolly forges ahead to solve the puzzle of Butch’s disappearance while eluding a cunning killer.

Fayman quickly draws the reader in with the boat crash scene, which couples dry humor with fiery drama. The story is fast-paced and intensified by the myriad of twists and turns, each establishing another character who had a reason to want Butch dead. Fayman craftily ties together the mystery behind Butch’s disappearance and the present-day deaths. Though Fayman clearly outlines the characters’ motives and how they connect to one another, readers must pay close attention to the details to have a thorough understanding of the intricately woven web.

Fayman expertly underscores the ups and downs of a musical career, and his use of the San Diego area and the influence of the naval base there adds elements of realism and authenticity. Mystery fans will quickly warm to the affable Rolly, a genuine man who, though scarred by events of his past, has embraced the present to live one day at a time. This standalone installment will satisfy both newcomers and series fans with a fascinating mystery and colorful cast.

Takeaway: This music-themed murder mystery will draw fans of old-fashioned gumshoes, vivid characters, and twisty, layered stories.

Great for fans of Robert B. Parker’s Crimson Joy, James Patterson and James O. Born’s The River Murders.

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

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Nikolai Delov
James Dante
Dante (The Tiger’s Wedding) provides a slice-of-life peek into the complicated mind and life of wealthy businessman Nikolai Delov as he navigates the complexities of life in post-Soviet Russia. Nikolai, who owns a large trucking company, is driven, occasionally ruthless, and determined to make his mark in the newly privatized nation. As a father, he struggles somewhat—especially with his grown son, Valentin, whose love of art and hatred of capitalism are at odds with Nikolai’s approach to life. As a lover, he’s drawn to charismatic and idealistic Inessa Zorina, a social worker who helps young woman escape the horrors of human trafficking. When all of these elements intersect, he’s forced to examine himself and his choices even as he faces treachery in business and his personal life.

The descriptive and flowing narrative style conveys a deep understanding of all things Russian, including glimpses of life from before the fall of the Soviet Union through the rise of the Russian Federation. The characters are vibrant, though inconsistencies in dialogue and scene transitions occasionally muffle their voices, as does a heavy reliance on narrative exposition throughout the first several chapters. Esoteric word choices and the many forms of address for one person may be jarring for those unfamiliar with Russian culture. At several points, the plot seems like little more than a very loosely connected series of vignettes (some of which tend to meander), though the purpose of each one is eventually revealed.

The subject matter, particularly human trafficking, is handled with sensitivity and respect and never feels exploitative. The way Nikolai’s various identities intersect, even as he tries to keep them compartmentalized, will strike a chord with readers. This richly developed story, in which one man’s inner journey is mirrored in the sociopolitical changes surrounding him, thoughtfully entertains.

Takeaway: This richly developed story of a man’s quest for identity in post-Soviet Russia will entertain and enthrall readers of slice-of-life literary fiction.

Great for fans of Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov.

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

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The Meaning of Life
Nathanael Garrett Novosel
This inviting mix of philosophy, science, and self-help dives into a question that thinkers and teachers have pondered for thousands of years: What is the meaning of life? While considering how this complex question can be viewed through the lenses of growth, experience, desire, belief, emotions, ethics, support, and choice, Novosel encourages each reader to independently develop a sense of purpose and direction. He grounds the quest in research into human psychology and the microbiological origins of life, asserting that the scientific “how” of life and the philosophical “why” of life are entangled rather than distinct and making analogies between the growth of living organisms and the personal growth that gives life value.

A brief introductory quiz asks readers to rate statements such as “I appreciate what I have in life” and “I live my life with a sense of purpose.” After each chapter’s introduction, there is a lengthy explanation of each core concept. These sections can read like scholarly articles (“With more time, effort, and attention, humans maximize their abilities”), but they’ll appeal to readers who are moved by scientific analysis. Pragmatic tools at the end of each chapter help the reader make more personal connections to each of the eight concepts. At the end of the book, the reader returns to the initial questions to see how their understanding of the meaning of life has changed.

Thoroughly and consistently covering every aspect of the quest for the meaning of life, Novosel helps readers to walk away with a concrete sense of personal discovery. He neither leans on nor tries to refute religion, making the work accessible to readers from the staunchly atheist to the deeply devout. Whether readers are struggling in difficult times, experiencing uncertainty, or living their best lives, this book will help them find their footing and develop unique individual concepts of direction, purpose, and meaning.

Takeaway: Anyone curious about the history of the quest for meaning or in need of a personal sense of purpose will benefit from this thorough guide.

Great for fans of Maxie McCoy’s You’re Not Lost, Misty Edwards’s What Is the Point?, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life.

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

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Does It Hurt?
Burton Moomaw
Moomaw, a licensed acupuncturist, effectively demystifies acupuncture in this beautifully presented and informative debut. He gives detailed responses to eight common questions about acupuncture, including “Does it hurt?”, “Does it work?”, and “What health problems does it treat?”, and explains how hair-thin needles, inserted into the skin and muscles, manipulate the body’s chi (energy) flow. For those still intimidated by acupuncture, Moomaw briefly introduces other common Chinese medical treatments. He also discusses how imbalances in the body can affect health, and analyzes some of the contrasts between Chinese medicine’s qualitative science and whole-body-approach and Western medicine’s quantitative science and treatments based mainly on pharmacology and surgery.

Moomaw’s organized and succinct writing make this a comprehensive look at the practice of acupuncture as well as Chinese medicine’s other energy-focused treatments. He fairly portrays the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese and Western medical systems, encouraging readers to make informed judgments on their options for medical treatments. Straightforward language and the use of highway metaphors to describe the interconnectedness of the body’s energy meridians make it easier to understand and visualize the flow of the chi.

The crisp photographs clarify the descriptions in the text, showing how fine an acupuncture needle is, how it’s inserted, and where the energy channels are located in the body. The images in the book are monochrome, but Moomaw helpfully provides a link to view the same images in full color. Diagrams and charts such as the map of the tongue and how the five elements relate to various organs help readers understand the body’s relationship to chi and how acupuncture can affect it. Successfully educating readers about acupuncture and Chinese energetic medicine, this book will also stimulate discussion of medical treatment options and is an excellent starting point for further research.

Takeaway: This is a perfect introduction to acupuncture and Chinese medicine for the curious newcomer.

Great for fans of Andrew Weil’s Spontaneous Healing, Steven Cordoza’s Chinese Holistic Medicine in Your Daily Life.

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

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The Midnight Hour
Bud Harris, PhD
In this “message-driven memoir,” Harris (Students Under Siege: The Real Reasons Behind America’s Ongoing Mass Shootings and How to Stop Them), a Jungian psychoanalyst, asserts that an American addiction to “positive thinking” has resulted in not being able to acknowledge a fear of personal or financial misfortune, leading to a decline of empathy for those who experience such misfortune. His own devastating losses in the 2008 financial crash put him on the receiving end of this empathy gap and shocked him into political awareness. He encourages readers to view this time of sociopolitical change as an opportunity to employ creative citizenship, develop empathy and understanding, and move beyond division in order to reclaim the essence of American democracy.

Blending the psychoanalytical and the political, Harris segues between transformational experiences in his personal life and relevant observations regarding the American body politic, scolding politicians regardless of party. He employs the recurring motif of “shadow,” an element of Jungian psychoanalytic theory, to explore the concept of a crisis of empathy within a fractured and factionalized America. Harris also includes literary and social science perspectives that bolster his case for the need to recreate a nexus of citizenship and shared humanity.

Some readers might benefit from a few introductory paragraphs on the basics of Jungian analysis, but the text is mostly accessible to a general readership. Harris’s considerations are timely, relevant, and incisive. He describes himself as “full of rage and pain and heartbreak” while maintaining compassion for others, and he clearly renders some potentially complex concepts, such as the individual responsibility to create a better collective society. This memoir provides a graceful yet challenging vehicle for the positing of some pointed observations and difficult questions regarding the meaning and responsibilities of American citizenship and membership in the human race.

Takeaway: Readers craving meaningful civic engagement and a well-functioning American democracy will value this insightful and challenging call for empathy.

Great for fans of Sahar Ghumkhor’s The Political Psychology of the Veil: The Impossible Body, James Hollis.

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

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What I Tell Myself FIRST
Michael A. Brown
Brown, a former police officer, college professor, and anger management specialist, combines his empowerment training with his love for children in these powerful lessons in self-esteem. The text opens with the declaration, “I am alive, alert, and able.” It continues with a reminder to breathe, room for journaling, and various affirmations (“Not everyone will like me. That is okay! I like me!”) and imperatives (“I must always tell myself the truth”). This inspiring text is accompanied by Ranucci’s gorgeous digital artwork.

While the text is minimal and simple, the ideas are complex and important. Statements such as “I am beautiful/handsome TO ME” and “How I speak can earn respect” will prompt caregivers to talk to kids about their bodies, their relationships, and their feelings. Some adults may disagree with a child stating “It is NO ONE’s job to ‘Protect Me’ from anything. That is my job,” but the general message of independence and self-care is valuable. A toddler may practice saying “I like me!” while older kids can start learning about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from the diagram in the back of the book.

Some of Brown’s affirmations are too fragmented to be clear or are insufficiently explored. A statement such as “In my work, I am worth” is very vague standing on its own. Fortunately, Ranucci’s illustrations carry the text. She beautifully portrays children of various ethnicities and body shapes and sizes, including a boy in a wheelchair and a girl wearing a hijab. The statement regarding work and worth is accompanied by kids walking dogs and mowing the lawn, giving readers smiling examples of odd jobs and ways to help their neighbors. The colors are vibrant, the cartoonish style is warm, and the pictures are varied. This positive and heartwarming text is one that educators, caregivers, and children can learn from again and again.

Takeaway: This beautifully illustrated picture book will enhance both homes and classrooms with its positive affirmations and gentle lessons in self-worth.

Great for fans of Grace Byers’s I Am Enough, Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be... You and Me.

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

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Arnold Falls
Charlie Suisman
Suisman’s debut is by turns hilarious and poignant as a mayoral election, a fight to prevent the construction of a tire factory, and efforts to save a charismatic turkey from becoming Thanksgiving dinner coincide. Arnold Falls, N.Y., is a small town rich in eccentric residents and odd traditions, and Jeebie has lived there long enough to become accustomed to both. When his friend Jenny Jagoda prepares to run in the upcoming mayoral election, Jeebie is eager to help her with canvassing, pranking the competition, and saving Arnold Falls from ruthless businessmen and bloodthirsty chefs.

Half the charm in Suisman’s debut comes from the town itself, a place inexplicably named after Benedict Arnold by the miscreants who founded it. Suisman’s attention to detail and the quirky details in particular—such as the abnormal climatic conditions that cause “Old Testament-style barrages of idiopathic hail several times a month, irrespective of cloud cover, temperature, or best-laid plans”—make Arnold Falls come to life. The characters add to the general air of comedy and chaos, including a talented pickpocket who’s also a talent agent and the dear old lady whose mother ran one of the town’s most popular bordellos during its red-light heyday.

The residents of Arnold Falls face very human problems—struggles with depression, caring for a friend with leukemia, and affections that arise from a disastrous first date—and Suisman paints a picture of a community where people care deeply for one another. Their schemes to save Chaplin the turkey are hilariously grand, while efforts to prevent construction of the tire factory take a more bittersweet turn. Suisman’s comedic novel will charm readers with its endearingly eccentric characters and its slice-of-life portrait of a disreputable corner of New York State.

Takeaway: This charming, funny novel is ideal for those who love small towns and eccentric local characters.

Great for fans of Jonathan Dunne’s Balloon Animals, Tom Sharpe.

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

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Just the Way He Walked
Kathleen Pooler
Pooler (Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey away from Emotional Abuse) chronicles her son Brian’s tumultuous 23-year struggle with substance abuse and addiction in this emotional memoir. Beginning in his mid-teens, Brian’s life devolves into a cycle of episodic drug use and alcohol bingeing, periods of sobriety, new beginnings, lost opportunities, encounters with law enforcement, and a revolving door in and out of rehabilitation programs. Pooler, a single mother, tries to support Brian and his sister, Leigh Ann; pursue a career in nursing; and tentatively start dating again. When she’s diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her identity as a caregiver is disrupted, and she gradually realizes that she needs to let Brian find his own path to wellness.

The narrative doesn’t shy away from exploring Brian’s father’s history of alcoholism as well as Pooler’s codependency with her son: “I needed to let go of my need to fix what he could and should do for himself,” she writes. “I continued to enable him, which robbed him of his ability to experience self-empowerment.” The book is primarily narrated by Pooler, but the inclusion of other relatives’ perspectives (filtered through Pooler’s recollections and voice) reminds the reader that addiction affects an entire family. The experiences, behaviors, and feelings of Pooler, Brian, and their loved ones are always at the forefront.

The short chapters and interludes mark the passage of time, introduce new characters, and delve deeper into connections and contrasts in Pooler and Brian’s intertwining stories. These elements are not always in chronological order, which can be disorienting but allows the reader to experience Pooler’s emotional roller coaster. Pooler refers often to her Catholic faith but doesn’t evangelize. An appendix includes concise lessons Pooler has learned, as well as resources for parents. Through telling her own story, Pooler provides a touchstone and plenty of hope for those facing similar challenges.

Takeaway: Anyone who’s seen a loved one wrestle with addiction will appreciate this gripping account of despair, hope, and redemption.

Great for fans of Great for fans of Robin Barnett and Darren Kavinoky’s Addict in the House, Lisa Hillman’s Secret No More.

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

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The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told
Mark Paul
Paul’s narrative nonfiction debut explores what went on behind the scenes of a young filly’s surprising win at the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Paul gives Winning Colors’s colorful history, from her purchase by billionaire Eugene Klein to the day she won the Derby. Meanwhile, three gamblers—Miami (the author himself), Dino, and Big Bernie—carefully watch her climb to fame, betting early that she’ll win the big race. They risk their lives making the bet in Mexico, where the odds are 50-1 and their payout could financially ruin the cartel-owned track. After they win, the three gamblers must find a way to retrieve their winnings and safely return to the U.S.

Both readers new to horse racing and longtime fans will learn much from this account. Paul explains how Winning Colors’s team prepared her to become a winner, introducing the people involved and toting up the incredible costs of her care and training. He shows how she compared to other horses and why he and his fellow gamblers knew from the beginning she would win. Conversations among Winning Colors’s owners, trainers, and carers (presumably reconstructed or imagined by Paul) bring these characters to life, making readers root for their hard work to pay off.

Paul’s own story adds a wild twist. He emphasizes how complicated race betting can be, digging into minutiae of gambling that rarely get discussed in popular stories. Readers with only a passing interest in these topics will likely feel daunted, but passionate fans of horse racing and gambling will appreciate the author’s deep knowledge of the subject and enjoy the excitement of his Mexico adventure.

Takeaway: Devotees of horse racing and gambling will be entertained by this detail-heavy tale of a daring bet on a long-shot horse.

Great for fans of John Perrotta’s Racetracker: Life with Grifters and Gamblers, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend.

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

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Albert Down A Wormhole
Allan Havis
In this wonderfully subversive sequel to Havis’s 1979 middle grade novel Albert the Astronomer, science-minded 12-year-old Albert Bloom wrestles with the responsibilities of approaching teenhood. Albert has always been drawn to the logic and order of astronomy; navigating seventh grade proves to be more difficult than understanding the laws of the universe. In addition to preparing for his upcoming bar mitzvah, Albert is also juggling his relationship with his astrology fanatic girlfriend, Lenora (whose full name is “Lenora Conte who knows everything”), and learning how to stand up to the school bullies with the help of his new friend Raymond. Just as things begin to look up, his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, and Albert has to grow up much more abruptly than he expects.

Havis reintroduces readers to Albert in a personal and relatable way that doesn’t feel at all dated, giving a sympathetic view of the struggles of adolescence. As Albert studies for his bar mitzvah, he integrates the theology that baffles him into the science he understands, asking his bemused rabbi, “The laws of physics don’t apply to black holes, and maybe it’s the same about the miracles in the Torah?” He takes a similar approach to emotion as he copes with his father’s illness and death: “Hurt can last as long as time and as far as the universe can be measured.” These analogies are so deeply sincere that they never feel facile or jokey.

Through the more tense moments of the story, Albert’s relationships flourish on the page and give each character depth. Havis never falters as he puts real emotional and practical weight on coming of age. Pre-teen readers grappling with the challenges of adolescence, and especially those trying to find a way through grief, will find comfort in the busy yet reassuring thoughts of Albert Bloom.

Takeaway: Older children trying to understand life’s mysteries will love this sympathetic, complex take on coming of age.

Great for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish, Michelle Cuevas’s The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole.

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

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Matamoros
James M Kahn
This atmospheric debut novel draws readers into the Mexican port city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Texas’s southern tip. It’s 1863 and Matamoros has gained sudden strategic importance for the Confederates, since the Union has blockaded all the Southern ports. Clayton Wilkes, a gambling den owner, con artist, smuggler, and scoundrel, is a plantation owner’s son and apparent Confederate sympathizer, though actually he’s a Union spy. His long-ago love is fellow swindler Allie Stoneman, a Confederate widow who comes to Matamoros to sell her cotton crop. Old feelings resurface between Allie and Clay, but she realizes he’s helping the Yankees and stealthily counters his efforts. A substantial cast engages in double-crosses and side scams against the backdrop of the battle for Texas.

Kahn’s descriptions create urgency and ambiance. Clay’s bar smelled like “tobacco smoke, chorizos grilled in the kitchen by Milagra, his ancient Mexican cook; the sweet perfumed women at the bar, warm beer, burning kerosene and oiled boot-leather.” This poetry only falters during Clay and Allie’s love scenes, which are weighed down by clunkers such as “their mouths met like hungry animals.” The romantic subplot feels hollow in a book full of tragedy, but all the con artistry and the tensions of wartime more than make up for it.

History aficionados will appreciate how well Kahn weaves facts into fiction. Thespian John Wilkes Booth, Clay’s relative “by marriage—or at least by adultery,” is well integrated into the plot, as are various pivotal events. Kahn never romanticizes the war, painting sympathetic portraits of deserters while taking jabs at profiteers. Readers looking for a strong sense of time and place, most particularly Texas history lovers, will find this hits the spot.

Takeaway: Texas history aficionados will love this dramatic tale of love, double-crosses, and sorrow toward the end of the Civil War.

Great for fans of Tina Juarez’s South Wind Come, Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill.

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

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