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Who's There?: A Collection of Stories
Dimas Rio
This uneven first collection from Rio (Dinner with Saucer) brings together five short stories with a dark tinge. The title entry features a man who feels that he’s “forever a tourist on earth,” and whose fiancée’s whereabouts become a cause for concern. In “At Dusk,” a high school student conducts an unsettling interview with an author. The strongest story is the longest, “The Wandering,” whose protagonist is a security guard in desperate need of funds to support the baby he and his girlfriend are expecting. “The Voice Canal” features someone who may or may not be communicating with the dead. In “The Forest Protector,” a mother who self-harms works to protect her comics-obsessed son from the world’s harsh realities.

The translation from Rio’s original Indonesian into English unfortunately has some awkward phrasing and idiomatic missteps. In “Who’s There?”, pouring and drinking liquor is described as a “fluent act,” when it seems the author means “fluid.” Some metaphors are mixed: “But like bubbles that formed as water started to boil, a splinter of truth escaped from his mouth.” Readers might be tempted to stop with this first story and turn their attention elsewhere. The translation errors are less noticeable in other stories, though never completely absent.

The plot twists in the first two stories are illogical or predictable, and not very memorable. “The Wandering” is more enigmatic and surprising, and readers who reach it will be glad they stayed the course. Though not every story equally demonstrates Rio’s talent and imagination, horror fans will appreciate his willingness to strike out into new territory, away from the genre’s most common tropes.

Takeaway: Patient horror readers will be rewarded by the surprising and satisfying keystone tale in this collection of dark fiction.

Great for fans of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales.

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

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Bucking the Artworld Tide
Michelle Marder Kamhi
Kamhi, coeditor of the arts journal Aristos, follows Who Says That’s Art?: A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts with this pull-no-punches essay collection deriding abstract art and its postmodernist successors. She systematically and thoroughly beats down the idea that anything can be declared art, “from a pile of wrapped candies on the gallery floor [to] a dead shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde.” She makes a passionate and effective argument that such work is “incomprehensible to the poor viewer” and advocates for representational art to regain its primacy.

Readers who struggle to appreciate some forms of art will sympathize with Kamhi’s difficulty connecting to Pablo Picasso’s sculpture. More controversially, she warns that “a movement has for some time been afoot to hijack art education for purposes of often radical political indoctrination” and scorns abstract art as contrary to “the commonsense attitude that has been a prime virtue of American society.” “What’s wrong with today’s ‘protest art’?” she demands. “Mainly this: it’s long on protest and virtually devoid of art.” Her candid reflections on what she calls “pseudo art” give readers the confidence to make up their own minds about the merits of artwork.

Kamhi writes with vehemence and certainty, and though she may not win over devotees of modernism, readers who find abstract and conceptual art baffling will be thrilled to encounter a kindred spirit. Objectivist thinkers will devour her examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of art; however, pop-art lovers will take exception to her harsh views on Andy Warhol and his contemporaries. The book is not illustrated, but Kamhi’s website hosts a resource page with links to all the artwork she cites. This well-researched and thoughtfully written guide is likely too weighty for casual art lovers, but art historians, critics, and artists will enjoy arguing over it.

Takeaway: Artists, critics, and teachers who are troubled by non-representational art will be thrilled to have their opinions confirmed by this clearly argued critique.

Great for fans of E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, Fred Ross.

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

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Transference
B.T. Keaton
Keaton packs this sprawling SF thriller full of surprises and tense action. In the year 2102, the theocratic despot Jovian promises eternal life by transferring people’s souls among bodies. To maintain total control, the Church exiles criminals and undesirables (down to left-handed people) to the mines on the planet Eridania. Prisoner Barrabas Madzimure, about to be executed for killing a guard who was raping another prisoner, claims to be Thaniel Kilraven, one of the few who know the Church did not invent transference technology but discovered it on an alien world. Barrabas is brutally interrogated by Church investigator Corvus, who reveals that Kilraven’s family is alive and in Jovian’s custody. After Barrabas foments a prisoners’ rebellion, the chaos allows him to escape on a ship back to Earth, where he allies himself with a group on the margins of society with the dangerous mission of toppling Jovian.

Keaton’s worldbuilding is expansive and effective. The plot provides natural moments of partially explaining the situation on Earth and its history, including Barrabas’s interrogation and his confusion upon returning after decades on a distant planet. Other narrators extend the scope without too much disorientation, though some have few enough chapters to raise questions about the choice. Fans of epic, constantly evolving arcs will be pleased with the multiplying trajectories whose resolutions always propel future events.

The narrative has some unfortunate blips. Having constructed a setting where any body might be inhabited by any person, Keaton twice makes shocking revelations of certain characters’ inner identities, which are hard to reconcile with their behavior. The explication of Jovian’s true motives in a chapter-long “self-righteous soliloquy” is also confounding. Readers who can follow the three-body monte will enjoy the futuristic tough-guy dialogue (“You got some nerve, flarkwad!”), action scenes, and melodrama.

Takeaway: This mix of theology, technology, action, and melodrama gives fans of intricate thrillers much to chew on.

Great for fans of Dan Simmons, James Gunn.

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

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With Dark Understandings
Fazle Chowdhury
Chowdhury’s dense, tense novel follows a man’s desperate attempt to gain power in an unnamed, fictional Latin American country. Plagued by nightmares and memories of his abusive father, Andres Orce defies all odds to outmaneuver his enemies. Fighting against a fascist party in power, a brutal military, and outside interference from global superpowers, Orce pays a heavy price for his activism. An assassination attempt prompts his wife to leave him, taking the 13-year-old twin daughters he adores, but also spurs him into action. Through a series of secret and dirty deals and other skullduggery done “with dark understandings,” Orce pursues a victory for his country and his own healing.

The book is immediately gripping as it focuses on Orce’s horrible nightmares and his relationships with his family and friends. The transition into pure political theater is a jarring one as characters and schemes blur into one another. Chowdhury crafts a startling sense of realism in the parts of the story that deal with policy and politics. However, when he strays away from Orce’s feelings and experiences, the novel becomes dry and didactic. The details of revolution may be irreducibly complex, but when Chowdhury focuses on the fine details of negotiation for chapters at a time, it can be hard to follow.

Some interesting characters, such as an amoral financier named Snell, appear and then disappear. Others receive little development. However, when the book comes back around to Orce and his tragic story, it finishes strongly. The revelation that Orce’s motives are as personal as they are political lends additional depth to his character. The book is stuffed with fascinating economic and political ideas and has a great protagonist, but the extraneous details detract from the drama of its plot as well as the plight of its hero.

Takeaway: Readers interested in the gritty details of revolution will appreciate this story of a rabble-rouser’s personal and political tragedies.

Great for fans of Erico Verissimo’s O Senhor Embaixador.

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

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Searching for Spenser
Margaret Kramar
In this exceptional debut memoir, journalist and editor Kramar invites readers fully into her experiences of raising a disabled child, grieving his death, and gradually moving on. In early 1991, Kramar and her aggressive, immature husband, Stan, were expecting a robust, healthy newborn. Instead, little Spenser had a large head perched on a thin body. He was soon diagnosed with Sotos syndrome, a genetic disorder causing physical and cognitive disabilities. While Kramar cared for him and precocious toddler Brendan, Stan withdrew, eventually moving out when Spenser was five. As Spenser grew, he flourished, exceeding doctors’ expectations (but not his mother’s) until his sudden death from undetected lymphoma at age 10, just after Kramar remarried.

Kramar’s initial optimistic outlook on life, including in her work as a civil rights investigator, contrasts with her insecurities and frustrations about raising two boys as a suddenly single working mother. (Her account of Stan’s calculated plan for a divorce—emptying the bank accounts and moving out furniture before presenting his stunned wife with a prepared document to sign—is shocking.) She’s bluntly honest about her mingled feelings of love and despair as she adjusts to raising a disabled child with little support, and later adjusts again to life without him. When a medium tells her Spenser’s spirit wants her to be happy, she resists, writing, “Grief is quiet and peaceful; living is noisy, complicated, and tiring.” But her new husband, her stepchildren, and Brendan help her find a path forward.

Everyone, including Kramar, is shown warts and all. Kramar conducted extensive interviews with Stan, Brendan, and others who knew Spenser, an unusual approach that creates a nuanced portrait. Spenser is never oversimplified into an object of pity or inspirational legend. Readers will close the book feeling fortunate to have gotten to know a gregarious, theater-loving boy who “simply did things his way” and a mother who did the very best she could for a child she deeply loved.

Takeaway: This heartbreaking yet uplifting memoir of parental love and loss will touch the heart of any reader.

Great for fans of Marie Killilea’s Karen: A True Story Told by Her Mother, Paul Daugherty’s An Uncomplicated Life.

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

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It's Just the Way It Was: Inside the War on the New England Mob and other stories
Joe Broadmeadow
Doherty, a retired Rhode Island state trooper, recounts his life and career fighting New England’s old-school mobsters in this low-key collection of anecdotes anchored by short historical interludes. Doherty started his career in 1980, but his familiarity with the state’s notorious mobs began far earlier. He had family members on both sides of the law and grew up with an intimate understanding of how men in the mob operate. His career investigating organized crime and public corruption coincided with a sea change in organized crime: the end of old-school, omertà-style loyalty along ethnic and family lines and a new generation of tech-infused criminal entrepreneurship.

Mentioning but not analyzing this cultural evolution, Doherty, aided by author Broadmeadow (Silenced Justice), focuses closely on the colorful characters he encountered over his storied career. Some of these, such as Raymond Patriarca Sr., will be familiar to anyone with an interest in New England’s Mafia families. Doherty expertly depicts the psychology of men steeped in organized crime from their childhood, demonstrating insight and sympathy. The pages are populated with men of inner duality, brutal killers who donated monthly to their churches and cried during their mothers’ funerals, who flagrantly broke the law but respected the troopers who enforced it.

The authors briefly mention big events such as the Rhode Island credit union crisis but don’t discuss them in depth. Without this context, the anecdotes don’t offer much for readers of history. Doherty is a delightful storyteller, but his tales sometimes wander and feel repetitive, and his personal experiences can’t carry 400 pages alone. This memoir is a beach read for true crime fans, less intense than a thriller but with plenty of humor and character to keep the reader entertained.

Takeaway: These loosely organized reminiscences of a Rhode Island state trooper who took on the mob will entertain New England Mafia history buffs.

Great for fans of Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill’s Whitey, Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier’s Crimetown podcast.

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

Burning Justice
Marti Green
An attorney’s quest to overturn a woman’s death penalty conviction leads to an uphill battle in Green’s gripping sixth Innocent Prisoners Project legal thriller (after Justice Delayed). Dani Trumball moves from Bronxville, N.Y., to Stanford, Calif., with her husband, Doug, and children, Ruth and Jonah, after Doug gets a job as dean of Stanford Law School. Dani, an attorney for the Help Innocent Prisoners Project (HIPP), takes the case of Becky Whitlaw, a woman on death row in Texas. After Becky’s three young children died in a suspicious fire, she was convicted of murder. Dani files multiple appeals and searches for evidence that the fire was accidental, but the courts continue to rule against Becky, sometimes with apparent political motivation. When Doug becomes ill, Dani has to juggle her work with guiding her family through a harrowing time.

Readers will appreciate Green’s sympathetic portrayal of Dani as a wife, mother, attorney, and advocate who’s trying to devote sufficient time and energy to every aspect of her life. Even when Dani’s feelings and struggles are highlighted, the depths of her personality remain hidden. Her stoic persona is essential to her functioning both at work and at home, but the reader is never allowed to see all the way behind the mask. However, the characterization is sufficient to carry the narrative, and series readers may gain more of an understanding of Dani’s psyche over time.

Green, an attorney, goes into the details of the difficult appellate process but doesn’t let the story get bogged down, always keeping the human element front and center. Every step of Dani’s work is easily understandable, and the twists and setbacks will keep readers wondering how Dani and Becky can prevail against a harsh and biased system. Fans of legal thrillers that lean hard on compassion for the most vulnerable will be drawn to this novel’s admirable protagonist and fast-paced plot.

Takeaway: This gripping legal thriller about saving an innocent woman from execution will draw fans of capable, compassionate heroines.

Great for fans of Scott Turow’s Innocent, John Grisham’s The Guardians.

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

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The Sleepwalker: The Nosferatu Conspiracy, Book 1
Brian J Gage
Gage’s wonderfully gruesome supernatural suspense debut combines Russian history with vampire lore. In December 1916, Alexandra, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, has “become sickness”—her hemophilia is, in truth, vampirism. Her son, Alexei, is only a half-vampire, but Grigori Rasputin, a disciple of Vlad Drăculea’s teachings, plans to turn him the rest of the way, believing Alexei is destined to lead vampires to global domination. As the serial killer known as the Sleepwalker starts terrorizing Saint Petersburg, the coroner, Rurik Kozlov, knows by the mutilation of the bodies that Russia is facing a supernatural threat. When Prince Felix Yusupov is framed for murdering his girlfriend and goes to Rurik to see her body, he learns of the existence of vampires and Rasputin’s plan to rule the world. Terrified but determined, Rurik and Felix unite to stop the vampires.

In prose designed to be read aloud with lurid glee—“The river that slithers below the Carpathian peaks sucks all life and hope into its sinuous network of vessels”—Gage makes a welcome return to vampires that are heartless, cold, and deadly, designed for readers to hate and fear. He adds in giant vampire bats that turn into horrifying Nosferatu, “savage, manlike vampire gods,” on the ground. Readers are immersed in a well researched and turbulent Russia, with instability and looming revolution building tension, and will feel the dangers of walking the darkened streets with a vicious serial killer lurking around the corner. Every train ride, shadow, and moment of eerie quiet perfectly creates a feeling of foreboding.

As the heinous vampires deliver death and destruction, the few characters willing to fight stay strong. The battle never feels entirely lost, and readers will hold out hope for at least a somewhat happy ending. On every page, this supernatural historical delivers abundant thrills and chills.

Takeaway: This wonderfully terrifying blend of bloody history and vicious vampires will hold supernatural suspense fans in thrall.

Great for fans of Sarah Pinborough’s Mayhem, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

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

Blowback '94
Brian Meehl
Meehl concludes his Blowback time-travel trilogy (after Blowback ’63) with this well-constructed tale about twins Iris and Arky Jongler-Jinks. Their father, Howard Jinks, tries to find his wife, Octavia Jongler, in the past; instead he sends his children to 1894 Paris. There the American teens locate their mother, an astrophysicist who disappeared 18 months earlier while investigating lore surrounding their family’s heirloom English horn, known as the Horn of Angels. Iris’s previous efforts to play the instrument (related in the first two books) accidentally transported Arky’s friend Matt to 1907; then she sent Arky and another pal into the Civil War. Now she, Arky, and Octavia live, work and wait in Paris for the reason they time traveled to be revealed so they can go home. Arky’s skeptical friends, whose memories were wiped, regain them in time to take part in the adventure.

Meehl skillfully depicts Iris’s encounters with 19th-century chauvinism and Octavia’s angst as she struggles with the implications of her experiments and plans involving the instrument. Less believable is the romance between Arky and Chloe, a young ballerina whose mother hopes she will become a courtesan. Arky’s shy thoughts about Chloe, especially when she is posing naked for Edgar Degas, feel a little too coy for a modern teenager, and the villainy of Chloe’s wealthy protector, the ironically named Sansfaute, too loudly foreshadows that subplot’s conclusion.

Paris comes alive as the twins interact with historical figures such as Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and one of the Moulin Rouge’s most unique talents: the famous flatulist Le Pétomane. There’s plenty of excitement as hidden agendas are revealed. Fans of the series will love this final installment, in which adventure is the spoonful of sugar that makes history and science go down easily.

Takeaway: Teens with a yen for historical adventures will delight in this tale of 21st-century American twins visiting 1894 Paris.

Great for fans of Lisa Tawn Bergren’s River of Time series, Julie Cross’s Tempest series.

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

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Exploring Chán
Chuan Zhi
American-born Chán Buddhist monk Zhi combines rich cultural history and practical advice in this in-depth analysis of the religious and mystical traditions of Chinese Chán Buddhism. Zhi was a college senior studying physics when he first learned about Chán, and he has since devoted nearly 30 years of his life to its study and practice. He charts the complicated evolution and delineation of Chán as a path toward self-knowledge, following Buddhism’s spread from India throughout Asia and the West. He considers how different countries influenced Buddhism, clearly showing how factors such as religious persecution, imperialist expansion, and war led to both the religion’s expansion and divisions between sects.

Zhi successfully tackles the complexity of Chán’s relationship with traditional Buddhism through a systematic, organized approach. Each country’s location, culture, indigenous traditions, and politics historically shaped Chán, which had long struggled to define itself as a purely Chinese expression of Buddhism, distinguished by Confucian overtones and ancestor veneration. Zhi pairs his discussion of Buddhism’s religious institutions with a deep knowledge of individual spiritual practice. His practical advice and well-researched, well-cited cultural histories are equally accessible to readers.

Zhi’s tone is nonjudgemental even as he cautions against distortions of Buddhism, particularly in the market-driven and consumerist West, which often seeks to separate mindfulness from its cultural roots. Readers will be inspired by his encouraging reminders about the objectives of Chán and straightforward guidance on practicing meditation. His succinct explanations for Buddhism-related terms and concepts, extensive footnotes, helpful illustrations, index, and bibliography make this an invaluable resource, highly impressive in both its scope and its complexity. This comprehensive, illuminating guide will benefit both spiritual practitioners and students of world history and religions.

Takeaway: This comprehensive, illuminating book is an essential read for new and seasoned Chán Buddhists and anyone interested in Buddhism, mindfulness practices, or Asian history.

Great for fans of Guo Jun’s Essential Chan Buddhism, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche’s Sadness, Love, Openness.

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

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The Arena (The Shadow Epics Book 1)
R.B. Ellis
In this blood-soaked fantasy, a professional gladiator seeks fame and glory in the arena, only to be drawn into the deadly machinations of the most powerful people in the city. After achieving the prestigious rank of champion, Cael has finally realized his dream, but he’s also come to the attention of the sadistic Chancellor Rovert Orik, who sees him as a target to be broken and destroyed. Meanwhile, Orik’s wife, Valeina, pursues her own agenda, seeking long-hidden knowledge regarding the uncharted lands beyond the city of Yddinas, and her schemes soon draw in Cael’s disgruntled younger brother, Breilyn. Cael and everyone he loves are caught in the crossfire and must decide where the path of righteousness lies.

Right from the start, Ellis grabs his audience with visceral descriptions of gory combat, depicting Cael as an experienced, merciless warrior who subscribes to a rigorous code of conduct and honor. Unfortunately, Ellis never fully explores the underpinnings of this society or the larger world, leaving the reader with many questions. The existence of a non-human race actively influencing Yddinas through religion is left somewhat nebulous, clearly setting up plotlines for future installments.

Despite the epic scope of this story, it suffers from slow pacing and a lack of a clear plot in the early chapters as scenes from multiple perspectives set numerous elements into motion. Orik is so over the top with his sadism and brutality that he’s almost a caricature: he routinely beats his wife, indulges in cannibalism, and forces others to commit sexual assault. Ellis skillfully draws Cael into a morass of hard choices and hopeless situations, but Orik’s ludicrous excesses make it hard for readers to be fully immersed in the story. Though uneven, this grimdark tale will engage readers looking for a reluctant hero and plenty of splashy violence.

Takeaway: This adventure will appeal to readers seeking a mixture of bloody violence and courtly intrigue.

Great for fans of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Matthew Woodring Stover’s Acts of Caine series.

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

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Will's Adventure to the Candy Mountain
Dr.Gerry Haller
This lengthy but often delightful picture book follows a young boy’s uncomplicated adventure in a magical candy-themed land. After Will listens to his grandmother’s stories about Candy Mountain, he’s woken in the middle of the night by a train conductor who whisks him off to that very place. He befriends another boy named Quinn, and together they tour Candy Mountain, stuffing their baskets and bellies with different types of candies and treats. Eventually they catch the train home, and Will is astonished to awaken with a candy basket by his bed.

Haller’s gentle tale is inspired by stories she told to her grandson. Her vivid descriptions of Candy Mountain―“gumdrops of many colors, candy canes, gingerbread men and women all over the branches of the tree”―will charm young readers, though there are some awkward phrases and repetitions. (By a sign that says “Root Beer Lake,” the boys dip cups in a brown lake. “It was root beer,” the narration explains. “This is root beer,” adds Will.) Cho’s colorful, dreamy paintings of giant lollipop trees and ice cream–coated mountaintops are complex and visually pleasing, but her human and humanoid figures can look stiff, and the small text is sometimes hard to read against the busy illustrations.

Adults will appreciate that the book celebrates and rewards polite behavior; “only good children” can pass through Candy Mountain’s entrance, and when it’s time to leave, Will and Quinn promptly return to the train without complaint, happy to share their loot with each other. Full of wonder but lacking tension, the narrative may not hold young children’s attention for 60 pages, but it’s a pleasant read-aloud if stretched out over several bedtimes. Placid and relaxing, Will’s ramble through Candy Mountain is sure to inspire sweet dreams.

Takeaway: This relaxing journey through a land of treats is a pleasant low-key bedtime story for young children.

Great for fans of Elsa Beskow’s Peter in Blueberry Land, Tomie dePaola’s When Everyone Was Fast Asleep.

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

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The Luckiest Man
Gerard Germain
This rambling memoir is by turns hilarious, sentimental, philosophical, and outraged. Writing the book for his children, Germain details growing up in poverty in his native Haiti, his unlikely trek to Mexico for medical school, and his even more unlikely success as a doctor in New York City. Germain veers among lengthy and loving digressions about his family, Haiti’s historic economic oppression, and random memories of his friends. Anecdotes about voodoo ceremonies and slaves’ ghosts haunting his childhood house are sprinkled in with matter-of-fact frankness. A pugnacious yet upbeat tone keeps the free-flowing anecdotes fascinating.

The narrative structure of this book is loose, at times circular. Germain’s stories fragment, repeat themselves, and often follow no particular order or organization. English is the author’s fourth language, and he sometimes plays fast and loose with its grammar, but his voice is clear and authoritative as he calls out the virulent nature of colonialism throughout the world. Germain spells out his experiences with prejudice, discussing colorism and ideas of “good hair” in Haiti and America. He also includes a long, unsparing, and powerful rant on how France engineered Haiti’s poverty after a slave revolt and independence, illustrating his denunciations with graphs and financial breakdowns.

While decrying racism and colonialism, Germain never fails to express gratitude for his long, lucky, and successful life. He recounts several fortuitous events, such as the time that buying cupcakes for his daughter’s class prevented him from being killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He cheerily notes that “Haitians have already paid for their sins being in Haiti and being Haitian,” which grants them “a pass straight to heaven.” Germain’s combination of hard-won wisdom, resigned cynicism, and infectious optimism makes his memoir unpredictable and exciting.

Takeaway: Readers interested in Haiti’s cultural and economic history will find laughs and inspiration in this memoir of survival and success.

Great for fans of Flore Zéphir’s The Haitian Americans, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying.

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

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we of the forsaken world...
Kiran Bhat
Bhat (Early Stories) weaves together four poignant tales of lives on the precipice of disaster in this complex collection. A journalist travels to his mother’s hometown to investigate the long-term effects of a disastrous chemical spill. An uncontacted Amazonian tribe faces a succession dilemma as loggers invade their lands. A woman in an impoverished metropolis hunts sexual predators and misogynists in the alleys around the plaza. In a village where technology only recently gained a foothold, an orphaned milkmaid is abandoned by her fiancé after vicious rumors ruin her reputation. Geographically disparate, these stories connect to one another along intriguing thematic threads.

Bhat takes an unusual approach to this nuanced, imaginative journey. The central characters remain nameless and somewhat voiceless throughout the narrative, never directly divulging their points of view. Their personalities and plights are instead revealed through a series of vignettes from 16 secondary characters who come into contact with them. Introductions and maps aid readers in navigating the intersections, keeping the collection grounded. The result is compelling; each vignette dips into characters’ inner lives and personal conflicts, revealing crucial information to give readers a larger story that’s both broad and intimate.

With careful depictions of differences, Bhat shows characters struggling in both obvious and subtle ways to express themselves across language, generational, and cultural barriers. A thorough exploration of inner turmoil builds a sense of intimacy with the characters. Bhat’s dextrous prose shifts to bring the distinct voices of the characters to life, from the slang of teenagers in a rural village to the flowing, elegant language of a poet. Some parts beg to be read aloud. Bhat’s bittersweet plots, surprising narrative style, and graceful prose make reading this collection an immersive experience.

Takeaway: This collection’s thought-provoking plots, fluid prose, and innovative narrative style will charm readers of literary fiction.

Great for fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

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

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RNWY: A Novel
P.A. Lopez
Lopez’s clever first RNWY Universe social satire is science fiction for the social media age. In 2399, celebrity can be created or destroyed in a flash, thanks to cancel culture, superficiality, and short attention spans. Social indexes such as Super-Ping display how many billions saw and reacted to a pithy phrase or photo, with instant effects on an influencer’s popularity. At Fashion Week, which is now interplanetary, reality TV star Samantha is trying to boost her falling numbers, while fashion icon Pablo, the 336-year-old father of sentient artificial intelligence, is making a rare appearance. Both of them also happen to be brilliant scientists, and when they discover a scheme involving the leader of a death cult, an AI with a grudge, and an alien race, they team up to save the day.

Thorough worldbuilding, brisk storytelling, plenty of visual details (and a handful of glossy but static digital illustrations), and an expansive plot make this splashy adventure perfectly geared to a miniseries adaptation. There’s a fine line between a fast-paced story and one that is frenetic, and Lopez sometimes has a few too many plot lines going at once, but readers who identify with the stimulus-hungry dopamine fiends of the RNWY universe will have no trouble keeping up.

The protagonists are the story’s beating heart. Samantha is a genius who developed technology that can turn a lipstick into a space-age motorbike, but other scientists assume she’s vapid and ignore her inventions. Pablo, a romantic and idealist, has been searching the galaxy for his lost love for a century. AIs DIVA, Sartoria, and DOS contribute strong personalities and humor. Though the story can feel overstuffed, it has a core of sincerity that shines through and keeps the satire from ever feeling mean-spirited. This witty send-up of contemporary celebrity culture will earn plenty of wry laughs.

Takeaway: Anyone immersed in pop culture and social media will enjoy this witty send-up of contemporary celebrity trends.

Great for fans of Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera.

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

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The Will to Die
Joe Pulizzi
A man’s quest to uncover the secrets behind his father’s death leads to the discovery of a sinister conspiracy in small-town Ohio in Pulizzi’s debut thriller. Will Pollitt runs a marketing company in Cleveland with his friend Robby Thompson and is deep in debt due to a gambling addiction. If he can’t pay tuition for his daughter, Jess, she’ll be kicked out of college. When his father, Abe, bequeaths Will the Pollitt Funeral Home in Sandusky, Ohio, Will is stuck supervising his ex-wife, Sam, who works there as an embalmer. Will becomes suspicious about inconsistencies with Abe’s death and the autopsy report, and Abe’s journals lead him to a number of life insurance sales followed by deaths, all targeting marginalized people. Will’s life and the lives of his loved ones are threatened as he races against time to prevent further crimes.

The character development focuses on Will’s emotions and challenges as he navigates personal relationships, including his sincere fondness for Jess, his lingering love for Sam, his partnership and friendship with Robby, and his crush on his high school classmate Xena. Unfortunately, Will is a casual racist and misogynist, and unrepentant when Sam bluntly calls him out. This choice, perhaps intended to depict him as a relatable everyman, instead paints him as out of touch and unsympathetic and makes him a less than ideal hero for this story about protecting marginalized people from predatory white supremacists.

Pulizzi (Epic Content Marketing), a longtime marketing professional, realistically develops Will and Robby’s work challenges and successes alongside the suspense plot. The pace is fast, and the conspiracy is multidimensional with intricate connections that extend throughout Sandusky. Concise writing and zippy dialogue propel the story swiftly to a solid conclusion. Only the flaws in the hero’s characterization undermine this otherwise strong contemporary thriller.

Takeaway: Fans of strong but flawed protagonists will be drawn to this contemporary thriller about suspicious deaths in small-town Ohio.

Great for fans of Harlan Coben’s The Stranger, Chris Bohjalian’s The Guest Room.

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

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