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Raccoon Love: A Memoir
Stephen Akey
In this bittersweet memoir Akey (Culture Fever) shares the love story of meeting his years-long partner, Lucy Ha Kung, “at the sundial in front of Low Library on the campus of Columbia University in the spring of 1980” and then building in Brooklyn a love akin to that of raccoons: “creaturely, warm, furry, and clinging to each other for love and security.” Looking back at the 1980s and 1990’s, Akey recounts the couple’s meeting, dating, and building a life with a “fretful, colicky” baby, writing with insight and candor even when the difficulties of marriage take its toll. Akey paints Lucy as a singular person, someone intimate and substantive, while also showering her with adoration and dropping enough hints, early on, to make the ultimate painful end seem inevitable.

Akey’s story-telling is highly enjoyable. The minutiae of a romantic, loving relationship are keenly described, and with welcome candor addresses the experience of being a Playboy-ogling suburban white kid who goes on to marry a Chinese woman in an era when Caucasian-Asian relationships were rare. Together, the two faced the challenges of trying to make it in the arts, which Akey describes with incisive wit, noting that in “the literary/publishing world…you couldn’t get established unless you were already established.” He characterizes the choice faced by Lucy, an artist working in apartment-filling tapestries and then large abstract paintings, with empathy: “She could choose to be quietly satisfied or clamorously frustrated.”

“I remember every kiss, every caress,” Akey writes, and his account of being completely lovesick and then seeing passion give way to a working partnership and eventually a breakup is intense, precise, and alive with feeling. Even familiar feelings–”I still loved looking into Lucy’s limpid brown eyes. She, apparently, took no such pleasure in gazing into my muddy greenish ones”–have a freshness and power. Readers of memoir or late 20th century New York or American lifestyle history will enjoy this romantic, realistic narrative.

Takeaway: A touching account of an interracial romance in 1980s Brooklyn, alive with feeling and insight.

Great for fans of: Gabriel Cohen’s Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know.

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

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Bridges
Linda Griffin
This sweet and simple May-December romance novella, featuring a marriage of convenience blossoming into love, centers friendship, philosophy, and a fondness for classic literature. Mary Claire DeWinter, eighteen years old and blind, arrives at her grandfather’s deathbed at his Westfield Court estate. Mary Claire strikes up a quick friendship with house chauffeur Neil Vincent, in which they talk about books and religion. When the household is shocked by the will offering Mary Claire the house and entire fortune, provided she is married within the year, Neil offers to marry her without any conjugal rights so that the arrangement can be annulled when she finds a more appropriate match. But neither Mary Claire, nor Neil’s lover, Jane, are able to believe in the marriage as merely a facade.

Griffin’s lead characters are complex and fascinating, and the discussions between Mary Claire and Neil are deep, engaging, and intimate while not at all flirty or sexual, keeping the age difference from becoming too creepy up front. But some other key characters feel familiar, sometimes even stereotyped, and the 1960’s milieu can feel out of step with the story itself, as the household setup and plot feel much more like that of a Regency romance.

Griffin regularly celebrates the books his couple reads and discusses, which range from Nietzche to Jack London. Bridges movingly presents literature as a means of communication and connection between these thoughtful protagonists–in fact, it’s where their ardor seems most powerful, as the story’s resolution is surprisingly abrupt, with little buildup, tension, or heat before expressions of mutual, monogamous love, and then little exploration of the tenderness or awkwardness of the shift from friends to lovers. Still, this gentle, bookish romance will appeal to readers who relish Regency concerns of titles and inheritance and portrayals of companionable love.

Takeaway: A bookish romance of surprise inheritance, companionable love, and slowly discovering each other.

Great for fans of: Georgette Heyer, Alison Goodman.

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

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Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival
David H. Rothman
The horrors of war and resiliency of the human spirit are the dual themes of this harrowing novel set in a dystopian Democratic Republic of the Congo in the near future. Lemba reflects back as a 15-year-old growing up on a farm with his twin sister, Josiane. They leave home to seek their fortune in Kinshasa, and although they get good work in an Internet café, Lemba is forcibly conscripted into the Purifier army—a twisted, violent revolutionary group that uses his technology skills to weaponize drones. Meanwhile, Josiane faces her own mortal peril, and Lemba seeks to escape and find her.

Rothman (The Solomon Scandals) does a brutally effective job of displaying the appalling conditions in this broken society, seen through the eyes of a man reflecting on his boyhood: for example, soldiers give a 13-year-old-boy a rifle and force him to kill—or face death himself. The warfare becomes almost surreal, as when Lemba must help hijack a freighter. The Purifiers negotiate a fee for the return of the ship while feasting on lamb chops and leaving armed children in charge of the prisoners. Some readers may find the level of brutality off-putting, and some plot turns strain credulity, but scenes of good people trying to survive in a sick society are deeply engaging.

Also memorable are some of the principal characters. Purifier general "Demon Killer" is an astonishingly effective portrait of a sociopath—a vicious man who has created a bizarre worship ceremony surrounding guns. We see through Lemba's eyes his fellow child soldier Mpasi, a dark reflection of what Lemba might have become: “You can be a victim and still be a bad person," he notes. And Lemba himself, whose chillingly emotionless recollections of his violent childhood highlight the extent of his damaged personality. Thanks to his ability to remember, we get a disturbing ringside view of the worst horrors of modern Africa.

Takeaway: A gripping, brutal account of a near-future African war, narrated by a young soldier.

Great for fans of: Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Patricia McCormick’s Sold.

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

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A Girl's Guide to Puberty and Periods
Marni Sommer
The authors break down the intimidating process of puberty for girls in this cheerful and educational guide. Developed to ease anxieties and explain natural processes, and paired with input from adolescent girls from across the United States, this inviting volume teaches girls the ins and outs of menstruation, what changes to expect during puberty, and how to appreciate their bodies. The authors address with welcome clarity topics that can often be difficult for young readers, and their supportive, gently humorous approach makes the material as engaging as it is informative.

Sommer, et al., dive right into the facts that every girl needs to know, including a breakdown of the menstrual cycle, the effects of hormones on the body and mood, and many more sensitive topics—like breast development and body odors—in a way that normalizes the experience for readers. The entertaining and diverse graphics inject warm humor in all the right places and helpfully break down complex matters, like the basics of finding the right-sized bra. In an effort to keep the tone lighthearted, the authors share fun facts throughout the text–such as different period nicknames from girls in the U.S. and an amusing illustration of the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies mood changes.

Despite the comforting approach, this guide packs a serious educational punch. Readers will walk away with how-to knowledge on just about every puberty-related issue for girls, including hands-on instructions for personal care and hygiene. An added bonus is a brief rundown on what boys experience during the same stage and a glossary of health terms at the end. The authors are careful to emphasize that every body is unique and develops on its own schedule, and the firsthand stories of what to expect from different girls will put readers at ease. This guide may look playful, but it's powerful.

Takeaway: A helpful, inviting breakdown of what puberty looks like for girls, with an emphasis on the uniqueness of every body.

Great for fans of: Valorie Schaefer’s The Care & Keeping of You, Sonya Renee Taylor’s Celebrate Your Body.

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

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A More Perfect Union (Briefs): Reimagining the United States as a European Union-style Federation
Alexander Moss
Moss leaps into the breach in this examination of the prospect, increasingly common in political rhetoric, of the United States breaking up into smaller independent nation states. Citing polling showing key constituencies on the left and right more amenable to the idea, and taking into account the depth and bitterness of U.S. political divisions, Moss plays what-if with the scenario, arguing that dissolution could be an alternative to civil war—but noting that his thought experiment is a “bit of science-fiction.” But, like all good SF, A More Perfect Union is attentive to both the causes of change of over time and their everyday impacts.

Rather than call for the nation’s crackup, Moss examines the fault lines that could lead to the breaking point, the constitutional and political steps it would take to bring it about, considerations that would ensure it’s done equitably, and—this is the fun part—a proposal of possible new nations, broken down in terms of population, GDP, and other factors. Pacifica runs from San Diego to British Columbia, represented by six senators and 68 congressional reps; the “fiercely independent” territories that make up Independence constitute Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Gwyneth Paltrow once faced comic scorn for referring to her divorce as a “conscious uncoupling.” That’s essentially what Moss presents, a road map to making a painful measure as painless as possible. He addresses and attempts to counterbalance his biases, and considers issues like minority rights, the impact on commerce, the fate of the nuclear arsenal, and the necessity of a “Ten Year Cooling Off Period,” during which the new nations would pledge to cooperate as the existing federal government would wind down. This brief volume outlines basic steps it would take to achieve this, but not in great detail; a concluding chapter calling upon interested parties to organize to achieve change belies the insistence that this is all a bit of play.

Takeaway: A dispassionate consideration of what it would take to break up the United States into independent nations.

Great for fans of: F.H. Buckley’s America Secession, Richard Kreitner’s Break it Up.

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

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The ForestGirls: A Journal, A Journey
Sissel Waage
Inspired by the strength and science of trees, Waage (Ignition What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark A Movement) and illustrator Ivana Josipovic have created a thoughtful and beautifully guided journal for younger teen girls. Waage’s text is knowledgeable and approachable, presenting trees as a metaphor for heightening self-understanding and sparking ideas for future goals. Combined with Josipovic’s minimalist yet richly inviting illustrations, this journal delivers a perfect canvas of stimulating prompts while leaving room for readers to find their own voice and cultivate their inner artist.

Though nature journals are not a new concept, Waage’s readers are in expert hands here. Tree facts precede each journaling prompt—such as details about Mycorrhizae, a fungal root network that grows around trees and is used to illustrate the importance of support networks—and showcase Waage’s insight as an environmental scientist and skill as a writer. Josipovic’s choice to use a limited color palette of black, white, and green allows the text more impact and leaves room for younger readers to add in their own handiwork–and thought-provoking moments like examining the heartwood of a tree and likening it to personal convictions will spark intense reflection for readers.

This journal is permeated by a reverence for nature and mutual respect for readers. Dr. Waage writes, “Perhaps a sense of wonder is\ The same\ That every living being feels,” and the text is not only visually gorgeous, but also rife with emotional resonance. Readers will find dreamy inspiration on every page, and the journal concludes with the hope of “A vibrant future\ Where all living beings,\ Everywhere,\ Can breath, and\ Thrive.” Ultimately a visionary journal for introspective, nature-loving teen girls, or readers looking to incorporate more of nature’s wisdom into their own lives, The ForestGirls distinguishes itself as a standout.

Takeaway: A journal rich with environmental inspiration and scientific facts that will appeal to nature lovers and young writers.

Great for fans of: Katie Daisy’s How to Be a Wildflower, Nina Chakrabarti’s Hello Nature.

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

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If Only
Matthew Tree
A riveting and unsettling novel about one man’s experience with mental illness, If Only begins when the unnamed protagonist is caught by the police while wandering around Saint James’s Park with a bag full of explosives and ten letters written by British novelist Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano). In the prologue, we see a young Lowry “exiled” from his country by his father. As the psychiatrist and the policeman question the protagonist, he remains obstinate and silent but every question triggers off thoughts in his mind, which reveal his story to readers.

The daring narrative is interspersed with letters that Malcolm Lowry sent to the protagonist’s grandfather at different times in Lowry’s life, and from different places. They detail his angst-ridden life, his descent into alcoholism, the separation from his wife and finally his brief success as a writer. The clever use of these letters to draw attention to the similarities to the protagonist's life—his fondness for drink, his dislike of the society of wealth and privilege he was born into and his mental health issues— is effective. In his work as a cameraman for adult movies, the protagonist visits the places that Lowry mentions in the letters. Tree’s language is exceptional and expresses the agony, the isolation, and the anger felt by the protagonist and portrays his fantasies of imagined violence in graphic detail. However in this English translation of a novel originally published in Catalan and Spanish, the voice of the Lowry letters sounds similar to the protagonist’s, which undermines the device.

If Only is an immersive read with a memorable sense of play, danger, and humanity. It will leave the reader with a better understanding of mental illness, as the book takes us into the deep crevices of an obsessed mind.

Takeaway: This accomplished novel in translation plunges readers into the depths of a mind that is not quite in control of itself.

Great for fans of: Richard Yates’ Disturbing the Peace, John Williams’s Nothing but the Night.

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

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Calypso : Rhyme of the Modern Mariner
Dennis McGuire
The story in prose and verse of an epic real-life adventure, McGuire’s travelogoue recounts the trip of a lifetime, a sea voyage that in 1979 found Dennis and Pat McGuire (who illustrates this volume) departing Portsmouth, Rhode Island, heading south to the Panama Canal, then west across the Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands, and then at last northeast to Neah Bay in Washington State, arriving in 1981. The vessel: The Calypso—“well balanced, handy at the helm and exceptionally sea kindly”—a 26-foot sailboat the McGuires picked up for just under six grand. Inspired by the likes of Jack London, and accompanied by a boat cat they named Woody, they set off in what fortunately turns out to be a “forgiving” vessel, they face the danger and majesty of the open ocean and many fascinating ports of call.

Writing in clear, direct prose that emphasizes the engaging essentials, McGuire invites readers to imagine encountering wonders like the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (where they encounter a friend’s wrecked boat, and Woody comes face to face with a dying egret), or the power of a hurricane near the Bay Islands (the “crew” “[hollers] to carry on a conversation” in the downpour, despite being just a couple feet apart), or freighters and sea life as they drift for most of a month in the “doldrums” off the coast of Guatemala: “Absolutely nothin’ can be done/Calypso just sits frozen in the sun,” McGuire writes, in one of the bursts of rhyming couplets the stud most pages.

Despite such travails, good humor abounds, as McGuire praises “Calypso’s patience with the ineptitudes of her crew” and recounts, in playful—sometimes comically strained, like dad jokes—light verse, their day-to-day habits: eating fish they’ve caught, tuning in NPR news on the shortwave. Like the poetry, the illustrations have a charmingly unpolished quality, sketches in ink and colors capturing high spirits, occasional terrors, and moments of comedy, like the time boobies took over the sailboat.

Takeaway: A joyous memoir, in verse and sketch, of two years below the mast, sailing to Hawaii and back.

Great for fans of: Stuart Woods’s Blue Water, Green Skipper, Erik Orton and Emily Orton’s Seven at Sea.

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

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Love's Journey Home: A memoir
Gabi Coatsworth
In this affecting memoir, Coatsworth shares how, after a years-long long-distance romance, she and her lover Jay finally settled down into a life together with their children. Once married, together at last after being an ocean apart for so long, Coatsworth faces the challenges of parenting and being a spouse to an alcoholic. Written with frank and vivid detail, Coatsworth’s decades-spanning love story travels peaks of pure bliss and the valleys of living with and depending on someone with an addiction–she writes “Neither of us noticed the cracks in our relationship insidiously turning into fissures”–and then, tragically, one of the most wrenching of life’s passages. Once Jay is diagnosed and ultimately dies from cancer, Coatsworth must keep the family system going while reconciling with him and her pain.

As a storyteller, Coatsworth presents her main characters, herself and Jay, with the clarity and insight to create deep compassion for their relationship, while other key players, such as their kids and friends, are not the focus. Coatsworth’s attention to detail places the reader right in her shoes. The memoir is long, but the accumulation of events and feelings stirs deep empathy for Coatsworth and her family, especially as the book teases out the complexities of a unique and loving relationship, and builds with some emotional force to the family’s current state of affairs.

Coatsworth’s tone is boldly cheerful in the opening pages, as she establishes her love for Jay and excitement about the relationship. As the story turns darker and the days difficult, she appropriately shifts to a somber tone but keeps the material engaging. Many readers will connect with Coatsworth’s story of building a family and navigating single motherhood, remarriage, divorce, and the unthinkable. She shares her story with candor, wisdom, and heart, and lays bare her feelings about facing those challenges with rare vulnerability.

Takeaway: A beautifully told true-life love story, facing addiction and death with candor and wisdom.

Great for fans of: Fenton Johnson’s Geography of the Heart, Shannon Leone Fowler’s Traveling with Ghosts.

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

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Love, Lust & WTF?!!: Daisy's Dating Adventures
Nikki Sitch
Sitch’s refreshingly grown-up romance follows Daisy, a recently widowed mother-of-two, as she tries to navigate middle-aged online dating during a pandemic. As she dives back into the dating pool, Daisy goes on a series of dates, some bad, some good, always supported by her best friends as she tries to find connection, just as Covid-19 hits and everyone starts to isolate. When her co-worker introduces her to Brad, she feels hopeful and excited, but relationships later in life are complicated, and Brad comes with his own set of baggage.

Fans of comic yet wise romance will delight in a story that celebrates sex and love in middle age. Daisy is a spunky, strong-willed woman with high standards and a lot of self-respect. Sitch’s sex scenes are frank and adult while still serving the overall narrative. While a light read, Love, Lust, & WTF skilfully uses Daisy’s dating experience to touch on pressing issues of the day, including unsolicited pornographic images, consent, and respect for women. The pandemic is also interwoven well into the narrative without overwhelming it.

The novel is light on plot and skips over some beats that romance fans might expect. Daisy goes on a string of fairly disappointing dates, and while we are rooting for her, there’s no one promising prospect that readers will root for her to be with. The result is that the novel, like actual online dating, can feel a little repetitive, with Daisy being let down again and again. Some of these relationships proceed quite quickly–one man tells her he loves her, she seriously considers co-parenting another date’s child–only to end abruptly, and fans of more traditional romances may wish for fewer relationships more deeply explored, especially as her last paramour, Brad, is introduced quite late in the novel. Still, this story is a fun, sexy, often insightful look at dating in middle age.

Takeaway: A fun, sexy novel about online dating in the pandemic that, like its protagonist, is in want of a male lead.

Great for fans of: Andrew Shawn Greer’s Less, Jane More’s Love @ First Site.

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

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The Magus and The Fool
Akiva Hersh
Hersh (Boy in the Hole) spins a queer retelling of The Great Gatsby in this riveting novel. Twenty-four year old Ohioan Carry Iverson moves to Austin, Texas, to work at a watchdog organization. The only person he knows is his cousin, Donovan Macandeior, and his imperious, unfaithful, wealthy wife, Fallon. They introduce Carry to Levi Safran, a trans Krav Maga star, and Carry gets drawn in by the allure of his next door neighbor, Oskar Jacobi, and his extravagant parties. Rumors about Jacobi’s shadowy backstory pile up and he convinces Carry to help him reconnect with Donovan, whom he dated five years prior. When Jacobi demands Donovan choose, jealousy and recklessness have disastrous consequences.

The plot is faithful to Fitzgerald’s original, and the prose, like Fitzgerald’s, is touched with colloquial grace. But the delight comes from contemporary updates and insights but also from the original story’s enduring resonance. Fallon’s white supremacy is now cloaked in references to a “Viking” past. The extravagant shirt scene leads Donovan not to tears but to being “so happy [he] could gag.” Jacobi’s wealth is rumored to be from human trafficking rather than prohibition, though the truth involves an inheritance and a working relationship with organized crime. Each of these changes sounds compelling echoes between the Roaring Twenties and contemporary America.

Relatively minor additions add satisfying complexity. Hersh retains Fitzgerald’s primly formal descriptions while updating the dialogue—Jacobi gets called “a simp” by Carry and “sus” by Levi—and includes some sex scenes, which adds to Carry’s confused feelings about dating a trans man and his own frustrated desire for Jacobi. Donovan’s bisexuality could have been a bit more fully explored, but it does provide a useful contemporary rationale for their failed romance. While Great Gatsby fans will be particularly delighted, any reader fond of complicated queer love stories will enjoy witnessing these messy characters.

Takeaway: This audacious retelling updates a Roaring Twenties classic with aplomb and contemporary resonance.

Great for fans of: Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight, the anthology His Hideous Heart.

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

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The Stress Book: Forty-Plus Ways to Manage Stress & Enjoy Your Life
D. TERRENCE FOSTER, MD.
Inspired by the experiences of patients and others facing the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, Foster (The Opioid Epidemic), a medical doctor, shares in this accessible, practical guide dozens of techniques for the relief, management, and even prevention of stress. The approaches—divided between physical, mental, and community actions—range widely and are up-to-date for the American moment. Noting the aggravating tendencies of political rancor, he advises, “It is wise never to be so inflexible to hold on to any religious or political view that is so strong that it completely engulfs your mind.” Other chapters concern the importance of learning to accept yourself, how to protect your assets and lessen fears of financial travails, the benefits of good diet, exercise, and making time for loved ones, and even the risks of bold investment: “The trading of cryptocurrencies is clearly not for those unable to tolerate extreme levels of stress,” he notes.

It's clear throughout that Foster is drawing on common stress factors faced by actual patients in recent years, and he prevents his advice with the encouraging, understanding tone one would hope for from a physician. “You are the CEO of your life,” he writes in a chapter that makes the case that setting daily goals relieves stress by inculcating a sense of accomplishment and also makes large projects achievable.

Polished and written with welcome clarity, The Stress Book offers anecdotes, worksheets, and much actionable advice, both generally applicable (don’t let it get to you if some people don’t like you) and also tailored to the pandemic era: Foster calls refusals to mask up “destructive behaviors that create significant stress levels for countless families and numerous others in our society.” Each chapter offers clear-eyed analysis and guidance, closing with numbered lists of generally applicable truths, though readers expecting, from the subtitle, a countdown of 40 key techniques will find, instead, cogent, helpful essays of mental, physical, and social health rather than a pop-science ranking.

Takeaway: A doctor’s helpful guide to managing and preventing stress, updated for the pandemic era.

Great for fans of: Eva Selhub’s The Stress Management Handbook, Jay Warner’s Take the Stress Out of Your Life.

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

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Sexual Fascism: Essays
Isham Cook
Lamenting the “sexual dystopia” of a United States he deems a “global innovator in sexual repression,” China-based essayist and novelist Cook (The Mustachioed Woman of Shanghai) calls for “sexual equality and freedom,” arguing that in the U.S. freedom of sexual choice has in recent decadessimultaneously expanded and retracted, with the new limits often imposed under the guise of fighting “trafficking.” Cook commits to pinning down his provocative title by digging into the roots, aims, and techniques of fascism, though the bulk of the polemic is dedicated to attacking the impact and impetus of “draconian” sex laws and recounting in detail his experiences in massage parlors in Asia.

Cook writes with outrage about “the criminalization of relatively minor infractions of sexual norms” and the fate of sex offenders in the U.S. who, following a conviction, face severe restrictions on where they can live for the rest of their lives. To his credit, he doesn’t just focus on potentially sympathetic examples, like teens whose consensual sex gets categorized as statutory rape. But while he’s persuasive that life on the sex offender registry can prove worse than prison, asking “Was [this] crime so heinous as to deserve such punishment?” about a physician convicted of the sexual assault of a medicated patient isn’t just unpersuasive–it will provoke even many sympathetic readers to abandon the book. Elsewhere, he notes that he applauds “the outing of harassment and assault,” but he avoids thorough consideration of issues of power and consent, and downplays that physician’s crime as a man “allowing his hormones to get the better of him.”

Other chapters contrasting the culture and techniques of massage work in the U.S. and Asian countries, or denouncing “privacy fetishization” in public restrooms and the American propensity to crack down on public urination, prove more thought-provoking. A scattershot chapter outlining a “modest proposal” about acknowledging that all sex is transactional scores satiric points, and Cook lambastes some true hypocrisies.

Takeaway: A provocative treatise targeting American sex laws and mores, sure to enrage.

Great for fans of: Alison Brown’s Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, Chester Brown’s Paying for It.

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

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Harriet: A Jane Austen Variation
Alice McVeigh
McVeigh follows up the charming Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel with a second retelling of Jane Austen’s stories, this time from the perspectives of Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, both familiar from Austen’s beloved Emma. McVeigh reimagines Austen’s naïve and somewhat insipid Harriet as a perceptive young woman, “quick, clever and beautiful,” who, though “intimidated by her boldness, her house, her clothes,” sees an opportunity to better her station by attaching herself to Emma Woodhouse as a protégé. Emma is oblivious to Harriet’s intentions and enthusiastically takes on the role of tutor and matchmaker, especially as it proves a welcome distraction from her rivalry with Jane Fairfax.

McVeigh offers plenty of wry insight, sparkling chatter, and domestic intrigue that will please readers, particularly loyal Austen fans. Jane faces a precarious situation involving her closest friend, Caroline, and her husband, Mr. Dixon. An escape comes when she meets Frank Churchill and the two fall for each other, but Churchill’s attempts to hide his feelings from his mother may sabotage the possibility of a future together, between his pursuit of Emma and his biting remarks about Jane’s “most deplorable want of complexion.”

McVeigh draws inspiration from her love of Jane Fairfax, and she certainly paints a fuller, more complete picture that gives welcome complexity to the musically talented and fragile young woman with an uncertain future. Harriet, though, is the character who shines brightest in this reimagining. In Austen’s original, Harriet is almost thoughtless and willing to do anything to please Emma, but here she is a character of great depth, hiding facets of her personality and skills, often catching what those around her miss, and ultimately facing a compelling romantic decision. McVeigh again is on point with both the writing style, language, and consistency in Austen’s characters, making this a treat for anyone who loves the original stories.

Takeaway: A reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma from new perspectives offers a fresh, engaging take on the world of Highbury.

Great for fans of: Molly Greeley’s The Clergyman’s Wife, and Susan Kaye’s Frederick Wentworth, Captain series.

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

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The Nosferatu Conspiracy: Book Two, The Sommelier
Brian James Gage
This epic gothic alt-history nail-biter continues the paranormal saga kicked off in The Sleepwalker, which purported to tell the true, uncensored story of the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1916: turns out, Rasputin, influential advisor to Emperor Nicholas II, was a vampire who unleashed Nosferatu upon St. Petersburg. Now, with Rasputin apparently defeated, Prince Felix Yusupov vampire hunter Rurik head out to Bucharest to confront the growing vampire threat, while Gage’s attention turns to the first World War and the secret supernatural ambitions of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and his ancient demonic allies, among them the aptly named and vividly rendered “Death Witch,” shrouded—like Gage’s Europe itself—in a mesmeric fog of decay.

Gage again combines engaging, detailed accounts of inventively corrupted history with ersatz documents (redacted reports and letters, especially) and vigorous horror-adventure storytelling—the plot turns on a demon blade and the hunt for a bottle of “Drăculea”’s blood. His zeal for research and what-if? Gamesmanship is matched by a talent for shiver-inducing portents (“a harrowing ustrel howl echoed through the country quiet”) and Grand Guignol blood feasts, disintegrations, werewolf-vs.-vampire action that at times, despite the cosmic and historic stakes, proves downright playful. “Werewolves,” one character muses. “Why’d it have to be werewolves?”

This highly particular blend of flavors will thrill readers whose tastes line up with Gage’s, whose outsize ambitions make it inevitable that this series tends toward density and sprawl, with a daunting number of characters, intrigues, machinations, and sets of supernatural rules to track over many hundreds of pages. While this volume tells its own compelling story, with style and exciting pulp flourishes, full appreciation of its nuances and emotional impact demands reading its predecessor, which for readers inclined toward this material will prove a bloody pleasure.

Takeaway: A vigorously imagined vampire epic telling the secret supernatural history of the first World War.

Great for fans of: Kim Newman, F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep.

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

Blind Date : A Hunter and Tate Mystery
Brenda Chapman
In this taut, accomplished thriller, Canadian author and former teacher Chapman (Tumbled Graves) opens with a wrenching mystery: did Josie Wheatley, the woman who moved into Ella Tate’s old apartment die by suicide after her rape, or was she murdered? Ella, a true crime reporter turned popular podcaster, is determined to find out, with the help of a mysterious online contact called Felix. As Ella investigates Josie’s death, the body count rises—with victims including Ella’s drug-addicted brother Danny, who was sexually assaulted by a neighbor as a child, and others close to her.

Ella and Detective Liam Hunter try to uncover a link between the killings and keep the body count from multiplying—before someone comes after them. Readers will warm to Ella’s sincere interest in the fight against good and evil, her dogged determination to find justice for her longtime friend and her brother, and Chapman’s expert handling of the material, which never loses sight of the human stakes in favor of thrills. Detective Hunter, meanwhile, is a bit more mysterious than his unexpected partner, especially as he enters Ella’s life, though readers will soon expect that he’s one of the good guys. As well, Chapman’s cast of supporting characters—especially Ella’s flamboyant neighbor Tony, who ultimately plays a key role in the outcome—shine.

Lively pacing, a plausible plot, and crisp, forward-moving prose will attract a wide variety of thriller lovers. Mystery fans will be engrossed in trying to work out the identity of the bad guy (or is there more than one?) from a well-developed cast of likely characters, but Chapman’s skillful plotting— complete with numerous tantalizing red herrings—power the narrative, keeping readers guessing until the final page is turned. Ella and Hunter make a memorable pair, and readers will look forward to future installments of their adventures.

Takeaway: This taut and well-written mystery/thriller will keep even the savviest amateur sleuths guessing up until the tale’s end.

Great for fans of: Mary Higgins Clark, Karen Rose, Kay Hooper.

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

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